For you were refugees…

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Do not mistreat or oppress a refugee, for you were refugees in Egypt.
— Exodus 22

Yeah, I know. In your Bible, it says “foreigner,” not “refugee.”

That won’t get you off the hook.

The Bible is the story of refugees. It’s the story of those who were displaced. It’s the story of a family who sought shelter in Egypt when famine decimated their land.

They weren’t just “foreigners” or “migrants.”

They were refugees.

When the crisis was over, when they were settled comfortably in their homes, they were told to remember what it was like—and to extend their hospitality to other refugees.

Centuries later, the children of Abraham became refugees again when their homes were razed and their loves ones cut down by war. Exiled to a faraway land, they were the ones to whom God said, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

God wants to prosper refugees.

God wants to give refugees hope and a future.

If you’re a Christian, you don’t have the luxury of not caring about the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.

You don’t have the luxury of looking away when drowned children’s bodies wash up on a beach.

You don’t get to treat refugees like an invading force. You don’t get to call them a “swarm.” You don’t get to call them “migrants,” either—as if they casually decided one day it’d be fun to live in your country for a change. Euphemisms won’t shield us from our responsibility to act.

It’s been too convenient to misname it as a migrant crisis, because it suggests these people are voluntarily fleeing, whereas in fact, if you’ve been barrel-bombed out of your home three times, life and limb demand that you flee.
—David Milliband, IRC

If you’re a Christian, you don’t get to prioritize your own comfort and security over compassion for someone else.

You just don’t.

—//—

I get that throwing the doors open might not have been enough to save Aylan Kurdi and his brother Galip. The present crisis requires countries do more than just liberalize their asylum policies.

But some of us have been using the need for “long-term solutions” as an excuse for doing nothing—or not doing enough.

My own country, the United States, has taken in maybe 1,500 Syrian refugees.

Britain has granted asylum to 5,000 or so.

Canada has welcomed about 1,000. Aylan and Galip were not among them.

We have to do better.

—//—

The sad thing is, some of us care more about a clerk in Kentucky going to jail because she defied a court order than we care about children washing up dead on a beach.

Some of us are so worked up about imaginary persecution that we don’t even notice the real thing when it terrorizes, uproots, and kills the innocent.

My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

—//—

Almost four decades ago, three million fled Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Many took to the sea in flimsy boats, hoping to find refuge somewhere, anywhere. One of them was my friend Cat-Dan. She was three months old when her parents decided they had to get out. You can read her story here.

Thousands of refugees died at sea—perhaps as many as 400,000. The world tried to ignore their plight, just as we’ve tried to ignore those fleeing Syria.

Countries tried shutting their borders. They tried cutting their asylum quotas. Back then, refugees were left to drift at sea; today they’re left to suffocate in the back of a lorry.

Eventually the world saw what was happening, thanks in part to efforts like World Vision’s Operation Seasweep.

There was an outcry, and world leaders were shamed into action. The United States wound up taking 1.4 million refugees. And you know what? They made our country better.

It’s time we were shamed into action again.

—//—

There are many ways you can help Syrian refugees. You can support NGOs like World Vision and the International Rescue Committee who are working directly with displaced Syrian families.

You can support the Migrant Offshore Aid Station as they work to save refugees at sea.

You can demand more from your government. You can sign a White House petition calling on the U.S. to resettle 65,000 Syrian refugees. (That’s the number proposed by the International Rescue Committee.)

We can do 65,000. We might even become a better country for it.

—//—

As Christians, our story is a refugee story. Never forget that. Never look away. Never fail to show compassion to the refugees in our world.

Photo by Freedom House on Flickr

Even the dogs (guest post)

This week in churches all over the world, we’ll hear Jesus call someone of a different race a dog. The Syrophonecian woman appears in the Lectionary this Sunday for the second time in just over a year.

She came to us last year in a reading from Matthew, just as tensions in Ferguson were boiling over. Now she comes to us again, this time from Mark. Still confronting us. Still challenging us. Still laying bare our prejudices.

She has the audacity to keep shouting when the disciples tell her to be quiet. She will not protest on their terms. She will not submit to their notion of respectability. She resists their attempts to control and dismiss her.

The Syrophonecian woman forces us to think about how we treat the “outsiders” in our world today. As we reject the dignity of others in the name of God, as we close our borders and our hearts to refugees from the same part of the world this woman called home, as we try to silence the voices of those who dare to tell us that “black lives matter”— she is there. Still watching. Still waiting. Still exposing our prejudice.

Below is a homily that one of my friends, the Rev. Daniel Brereton, shared on his blog last year. Daniel is an Anglican priest in Toronto and, frankly, he’s one of the best reasons to be on Twitter. His sermon has stayed with me over the past year, so I asked him if I could share it here. May it challenge us to think about who we’ve silenced—through our actions or mere apathy—who we dismiss as “outsiders,” and whether we’re willing to make room for them at the table, just as God made room for us…

—//—

Who was she, I wonder? This annoyingly tenacious, desperate woman, with such quick wit and—as Jesus himself points out—such great faith? 

She has no name. She’s not an individual—at least, the disciples aren’t looking at her that way.  She’s just a label, a representative of an outside and despised group.  Easily ignored and easily dismissed… until she refuses to be.

And that’s when this woman becomes a problem. It’s always a problem for the dominant culture when people who differ refuse to stay quietly on the margins, especially when what they say—what they are—offends, challenges, or chastens our prized sense of superiority.

This woman, whoever she was, not only appears in different gospels, but she appears in every age, in every culture, in different guises. You can still see her today: a hand outstretched, trembling with fear at being reviled, or with anger at being mocked, or weariness at being continually silenced. She still seeks a blessing, and she is still told to go away. She is no longer a Canaanite, but she is a Christian being persecuted in Iraq, a Palestinian killed in Gaza, a gay person beaten and arrested in Russia, a black person in Ferguson apparently so threatening to the authorities that the police brought out tanks and tear gas.

All because she still won’t shut up and go away.  

Demanding to be heard and seen causes problems, for those doing the shouting and for those who just want them to be quiet and go away. But according to today’s gospel, this steadfast refusal to be silenced also opens the door to healing, not only for the woman’s daughter, nor even just for the woman herself but perhaps most for the disciples, whose vision of God’s kingdom is suddenly expanded, however tightly closed they’ve closed their eyes.

That’s the blessing. But first, the problem: 

The woman is a Gentile, so she is automatically “unclean” according to all the religious rules. She is also unaccompanied—no husband, no father, no brother. Any woman who approached a man without a male escort could only be judged as one kind of woman.

Yet driven by concern for her daughter, she strides right up to a man from a people who have despised her and condemned her all her life and implores his help. And then Jesus—our Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Prince of Peace—calls this woman a “dog.” 

Now that shocks us. But it wouldn’t have shocked anyone else standing within ear shot. “Dog” was a term commonly used as a label for anyone not Jewish. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Encouraged by the Pharisees, most believed this identity obligated them to honour that status with laws and customs that rigidly set them apart. Jesus fully accepted this. Israel is set apart by God.

Where Jesus differed from the Pharisees was not in the belief that Israel had been set apart, but in his idea of what Israel had been set apart for. For Jesus, Israel was set apart not to hold itself aloof from the world nor to condemn it but to show the world, through its own experience, that their God was a God who was more pleased with pure hearts than with pure sacrifices; their God was a God who remained loyally committed to his people, even when they betrayed him; their God was a God who provided for them out of loving concern, not simply as a reward for good behaviour.  Their God would send the Messiah to bring all nations under his just and loving rule. 

Yet the only person there who seems to really believe this is not a disciple, but a dog.

Jesus calls her a dog to show that from the perspective of his religion, she’s an outsider. From the perspective of his kingdom, though, she’s the only one there who is actually inside it. Which begs the question for us: are we in Jesus’ kingdom? Or just part of a religion?

It is no coincidence that Matthew places his version of the story immediately after the feeding of the 5,000. In that story, the disciples want Jesus to send the hungry people away to feed themselves and Jesus tells the disciples bluntly: No. YOU give them something to eat.  

So the disciples have seen the generosity of God with their own eyes—that there is plenty to go around, that all can be fed for the asking. And now, confronted with someone who is asking, their response is still, “Send her away.” How slow, how blind, how hard of heart the followers of Jesus could be! How slow, blind and hard of heart many of us still are!

Then again, Jesus himself comes across as rather hardhearted in this passage. After the woman calls him “Son of David”—a title that indicates her belief that Jesus is the Messiah—he reminds her that the Messiah has come only for the lost sheep of Israel.  At this point the woman could have slunk quietly away, or screamed in outrage at Jesus. She refuses to sacrifice her dignity in either way. She’s come this far. She isn’t going back now. So she kneels at his feet. Its not passive submission I see here, but faith—in Jesus and in herself.

I always thought she simply ignored Jesus’ words. “I don’t care if I’m not an Israelite sheep—help me anyway!” But I wonder. Perhaps what she was actually saying was, “Can’t you see that I AM a lost sheep? Maybe Israel is more than just a plot of land. maybe God’s chosen includes more than just a few tribes. Maybe the kingdom is less about the right genetic code and more about the right relationship with God. And if it is—and if you are the Messiah—then help me!”  

I wonder if at that moment, Jesus thought, “Finally! Someone gets it.” 

Which is why I don’t think that the harsh sounding question that follows is really meant for the woman at all. Many argue that Jesus is struggling with his own prejudices—that this is a moment of revelation for him, in which he realizes his ministry is in fact to more than just Israel. I don’t agree. I think that while Jesus, being human, must have grown in wisdom and understanding just like anyone, he was also God. So I don’t believe Jesus held the same prejudices. Prior to this he had already healed two Gentiles, so I don’t think he saw this woman as a dog. I do believe that his disciples did, however—and that’s the problem.  

Jesus is speaking to the woman, but he’s really asking the disciples: Is it fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs?  

I believe that when Jesus asks the question, the answer he wants—the answer he’s looking for—is, Lord, we’ve been with you long enough to know that in your kingdom, we are all God’s children. She is no ‘dog’ but our sister.”   

Sadly I think Jesus is still waiting for his followers to give him that answer.

This woman, who has finally found the courage to speak, is not about to wait for a bunch of men who have called her a dog her entire life to decide whether she’s worthy or not.  She knows she is, because she, unlike Jesus’ own disciples, seems to understand who it is she’s talking to. So she says: Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.

So much lies behind these words. It is not just a witty retort but a profound challenge:

You guys keep saying that your God is Lord of the world. Are you telling me that your God is any less generous than earthly masters? Is your God really deaf to the cry of a mother, because of her religion or blind to a child’s suffering because of its skin colour? Is your God really so prejudiced as to justify cruelty towards anyone because of who they are? 

Does your God really call human beings “dogs”? Or is that just you?   

It’s not just the woman’s quick wit that impresses Jesus—her ability to cleverly turn a phrase. It’s her understanding and acceptance of God’s great generosity, something the disciples themselves are still struggling with.

“Woman, great is your faith,” Jesus says. And her daughter was healed instantly. After all, that’s why she’s there, putting up with all this name calling and theological debating.

That’s often the way it works, isn’t it?  

When it’s only ourselves suffering, we can stay silent. We can justify keeping our heads down and our mouths shut. But when staying silent threatens someone or something we love, suddenly we find the courage to speak. To protest. To challenge even those who claim to speak for God. For the sake of our children and grandchildren and generations yet to be born. As many do today on behalf of all those still excluded by racism, sexism, homophobia, or economic injustice—the Canaanite women and men and teenagers and children that we, in our own fear and prejudices, still want to silence. 

Do we, the disciples of Jesus today, respond any differently from those in the gospel passage? How do we keep in mind that there is enough feast to go around? How do we expand the seating to allow for even more to sit at God’s table?   

Perhaps it begins with remembering that we—God’s people, the body of Christ, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church—are also Gentiles. And that, brothers and sisters, makes us dogs as well. Dogs to whom God has given far more than crumbs, but seats at the table. Dogs who get to partake in the whole meal. Dogs who are loved, and welcomed and nourished by God because, as it turns out, we aren’t dogs at all, but God’s children.  

And if God has made space at his table for dogs like us, who wouldn’t God make room for?

—//—

CFETheNUEAEkaTK.jpg-largeThe Rev. Daniel Brereton is an Anglican priest in Toronto. This sermon originally appeared on his blog. Follow him (no, really—do it now) on Twitter at @RevDaniel.

How to talk to your kids about hell

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If you’re a parent and you’re not following Cindy Brandt’s series on raising kids un-fundamentalist, you should. Cindy explains her motivation for the series in her first post:

I am in desperate need of a robust discussion regarding how in the hell to talk to my kids about hell. In other, less eternally-damning words, how do those of us who have grown up evangelical and yet suffer some damaging effects of fundamentalist theology, do the delicate parenting dance of communicating the love of God to our children without transferring some of the harmful teachings we have internalized? 

As the parent of two young kids, one of whom is just starting to learn about God, I need that conversation too. I want to be able to nurture their faith without manipulation or coercion.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have an idea for how to talk to your kids about hell:

Don’t.*

Not just because the biblical doctrine of judgment is more complicated than most of us realize. (Though it is.)

Not because it’s hard to know what we’re even talking about when we use the word “hell.” (Though it is hard, since most Bibles use the same word for three different terms in the New Testament, each of which had a distinct meaning and origin.)

Not just because “eternal conscious torment,” the prevailing view among evangelicals, is hardly the only orthodox view and probably owes more to medieval literature than the Bible. (Though it isn’t and it does.)

You shouldn’t talk to your kids about hell because, as Cindy writes in her second post, kids don’t have “the emotional maturity and logical capability to process a belief in eternal punishment.”

Put another way, their brains aren’t done cooking yet. The young brain is like “soft, impressionable Play-Doh.” What we tell kids about God when they’re young will stay with them for years—even if they grow up to believe something very different.

Pediatric neurologist Marcel Kinsbourne writes:

What we experience contributes mightily to what we are and what we become… what people experience indeed changes their brain, for better and for worse.

Teaching our kids to believe in an angry, vengeful God affects who they grow up to be. In my experience, it tends to yield one of two outcomes. Either they grow up to be angry, vengeful Christians; or they grow up terrified of an angry, vengeful God, convinced they’ll incur his wrath over the slightest infraction.

In my case, it was both. One minute I could be arrogant and dismissive of those who believed differently than I did, the next moment convinced I was destined for wrath myself—that God couldn’t possibly love me, that God might not be loving at all.

My relationship with God (if you can call it that) was based on fear. And make no mistake: I was terrified.

I don’t want my kids to be terrified of God. Have a healthy respect for God? Sure. Reverence and awe? Absolutely. But my impression of Jesus is that he didn’t go around inflicting terror in kids’ hearts.

Which leads me to another reason we shouldn’t talk to our kids about hell: it makes for a terrible gospel.

I can hear the objections already. You’ve probably heard them too.

Truth is hard. We shouldn’t soft-pedal the gospel just because it might scare our kids.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about hell. After all, Jesus talked about hell more than he talked about heaven. (He didn’t, actually.)

I’m a firm believer that we shouldn’t soft-pedal, dumb down, or otherwise misrepresent the gospel to our kids. But what if “pray this prayer so you don’t go to hell when you die” IS a misrepresentation of the gospel?

The core of Jesus’ proclamation was not, “Follow me so you don’t go to hell.” It was, “The kingdom of heaven has come.” This is what he told his disciples to proclaim.

Not “you might end up somewhere very hot and very far from God” but “God is near.”

When the children came to Jesus, he didn’t preach them a sermon about hell. He didn’t warn them about God’s impending wrath. He put his arms around them. He blessed them. He said the kingdom already belonged to them.

Instead of talking to our kids about hell, let’s talk to them about God’s kingdom.

Instead of talking to our kids about some terrible place to avoid, let’s talk about what they get to be part of.  

By the way, this doesn’t just apply to kids. This should be the rule whenever we’re talking about the gospel with someone. Look at the great evangelistic sermons in Acts. How many of them mention hell?

Zero.

If hell was so important, why did the apostles fail to mention it even once as they went from place to place, announcing the—what was it?—good news about Jesus?

If hell is such an indispensable part of our gospel, why was it so utterly absent from theirs?

So don’t talk to your kids about hell as you share the gospel with them. Don’t prey upon their fears just to get them to say a prayer. Instead, talk to them about the life God invites them to experience. Talk about the kingdom they get to be part of.

Who knows? If we do that instead, maybe they’ll stop fearing the world-to-come long enough to start changing this one.

* A few friends and commenters have observed that, given our cultural obsession with hell, it’s likely that many of us will have to talk about it with our kids—if nothing else, to answer their questions about what other people say. That’s true. The good news is, we have a choice how we talk about it. We don’t have to pass on fear-based religion to the next generation. We can seek to prevent unnecessary fear instead of cultivating it. 

Photo by Palo on Flickr

This is what the tortured, twisted logic of patriarchy looks like

The police as God intended, according to Piper—with one exception...

The police as God intended, according to Piper—with one exception

The other day, John Piper fielded a question about whether women should be police officers. His response highlights the tortured logic necessary to make patriarchy “work” in the real world.

Worth noting: the woman asking is a complementarian. She believes, like Piper, that men lead and women follow. Yet she feels drawn to police work and therefore conflicted—presumably because her job would require her to exercise authority over men on a regular basis. She even promised to quit if she gets married someday and her husband objects to her line of work.

Most complementarians don’t go so far as to prohibit women from working—though they often discourage married women from doing so, and some do indeed go farther. (I once had a pastor who said in a sermon he didn’t think women should ever work outside the home, even if they were single. We left that church shortly after.)

Piper himself accepts there are “thousands of possible roles” women can fill in society. But this creates a problem for patriarchy: what about the many roles which might require a woman to exercise authority over a man?

It’s not just police officers.

What about being a college professor? Or a guidance counselor? Or an author? Or a city planner? Or an HR specialist?

What about being a scientist who presents her research at a professional conference and therefore “teaches” men? What about being a financial advisor telling men how to invest their money?

This is where patriarchy ties itself in knots because, on the one hand, it wants us to believe the allegedly subordinate status of women is universally applicable and not limited to a certain sphere, like the church or home. As Piper says in his response to the aspiring cop:

At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way a husband will, but he will be a man.

Leading—exercising authority over women—is “at the heart” of what it means to be a man, according to Piper. Yet even he must sense the extreme nature of this, because he immediately tries to qualify it so he can allow women to serve in at least some roles outside the home.

Piper concedes the folly of making a list of “acceptable” roles for women—not that others haven’t tried. Instead, he resorts to some breathtaking mental gymnastics in order to explain how a woman can exercise authority without really exercising authority:

If a woman’s job involves a good deal of directives toward men, they will need to be non-personal in general, or men and women won’t flourish in the long run in that relationship without compromising profound biblical and psychological issues. And conversely, if a woman’s relationship to a man is very personal, then the way she offers guidance and influence will need to be more non-directive.

According to Piper, a woman can exercise authority so long as it’s “non-directive” or “non-personal.”

He sees no problem with a woman designing traffic patterns, “deciding which streets are one-way, and therefore… controlling, in one sense, all the male drivers all day long,” because this kind of influence isn’t personal.

But if that same woman were to be a police officer standing on a street corner making sure those traffic patterns are followed? Then she would be violating Piper’s notion of manhood.

Now it’s personal, according to Piper. Now she’s offending a man’s “God-given sense of responsibility and leadership.” Now she’s controverting “God’s created order.”

How does that even make sense? How is that not an artificial distinction designed solely to maintain an unworkable system?

It’s funny, because complementarians like to accuse egalitarians of doing mental gymnastics in order to explain 1 Timothy 2:12—“I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man.” (There happen to be very good and, I think, convincing ways to interpret this passage from an egalitarian perspective. See here and here, for example.)

But what about the mental gymnastics necessary to maintain patriarchy, albeit in a slightly less terrible form?

Paul doesn’t say, “I do not permit a woman to assume authority over a man unless it’s non-direct or non-personal.” Piper has introduced an unfounded caveat to a text he claims to interpret more straightforwardly than the rest of us.

Piper says this is about being “submissive to the Bible,” but he can’t even follow his own rubric for interpreting it. (He also wants us to believe his is the counter-cultural view, something I addressed in a recent guest post on Jory Micah’s blog.)

Speaking of the Bible, if it’s wrong for a woman to exercise authority over a man, how do you explain the prophet Deborah instructing Barak—who was afraid to go into battle without her?

How do you explain Huldah instructing the high priest of Israel?

How do you explain women being the first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection? (“He is has risen” is the foundation of all Christian teaching, after all.)

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How do you explain Priscilla instructing Apollos in the way of God?

Deborah and Huldah were nothing if not directive. Mary Magdalene and Priscilla were nothing if not personal.

Authority is authority, whether it’s directive or not, whether it’s personal or not. And when it comes to the biblical narrative, steeped though it is in a patriarchal world, we see women exercising bold, prophetic authority—in accord with God’s created order, not against it.

Photo by Dave Conner on Flickr

If you think patriarchy is countercultural…

 

This week I’m thrilled to be guest blogging for my friend Jory Micah. Jory is a Christian feminist committed to finding godly ways to challenge patriarchy. She was recently named one of the top 10 Christian female bloggers.

You can connect with Jory’s ministry on Facebook, or check out her blog.  

—//—

Judging by the reaction of some complementarians, you’d think Target just set off the apocalypse.

For proponents of patriarchy, removing gender-based labeling from toys is a Very Big Deal. According to the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), the news is proof we live in a world gone mad, where “the very concept of gender is being neutralized.” It’s a sign that parents “are trying to outrun their gender identities” and, worse, are “dragging their children into their own dark labyrinths.”

And on it goes.

All because Target decided to stop telling girls and boys which toys they’re allowed to like.

Continue reading on Jory’s blog.

Two things to remember as you share your faith with your kids

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If I could change just two things about the way we share our faith with our kids, I would reject more coercive methods in favor of those that cultivate their curiosity, and I would worry less about answering every question and focus more on simply telling the story well.

Less heavy-handed sales pitch, more invitation to explore. Less apologetics, more narrative. I’m increasingly convinced this is the way to engage ours kids’ hearts and imaginations with the gospel.

Recently, my publisher filmed a couple videos for my book, The Story of King Jesus, in which I talk more about these two points and how they can shape the way we pass on our faith…

1. Nurture their spiritual curiosity instead of force-feeding them answers.

2. Your job is not to have all the answers; it’s to tell them the story.

Learn more about The Story of King Jesus here.

Why you may want to check your beliefs

"For centuries, gay people  were thrown out of their families, thrown out of their churches. We were jailed. We had hormones inflicted on us. We went through unbelievable trauma in the 80s and 90s, in which 300,000 young people died. Where was the church?" –Andrew Sullivan

Evangelicals are starting to acknowledge the harm they’ve done to the LGBT community.

For example, at this year’s Q conference in Boston, Gabe Lyons told those gathered that the church ought to repent for how it’s treated gays and lesbians. Then he went a step further, offering a public apology to Andrew Sullivan (in response to the above quote).

Megachurch pastor David Whiting began a recent sermon on homosexuality apologizing for the “hatred, anger, dislike, and disdain” churches have shown to gay people. With visible remorse, he acknowledged that “Christians have gotten a reputation for being homophobic because many Christians are homophobic.”

Reflecting on the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, Christianity Today editor Mark Galli called on evangelicals to repent of homophobia, fear, and prejudice.

Atlanta pastor Dewey Smith took heat for a recent sermon in which he compared the dehumanization of gays to the experience of blacks at the height of the slave trade. “We have done what the slave master did to us,” he told his parishioners.

—//—

What we’re seeing is more than just a “few bad apples” in the church. People are starting to realize this is more than just the sin of those who wave homophobic signs at funerals. The church’s woeful track record belongs to otherwise respectable evangelicals, not just the fundamentalist fringe.

Each person mentioned above maintains a traditional view of marriage. Each believes Scripture unequivocally prohibits same-sex intimacy.

With each apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing, they went on to reaffirm their traditional beliefs, almost as if to say, “Please don’t judge our theology by our actions.”

Which should lead us to ask…

At what point does a widely acknowledged pattern of unloving behavior indicate something more than just the faulty application of your beliefs?

At what point is it no longer possible to separate a particular set of beliefs from its fruit?

What if our catastrophically misguided treatment of gays points to a deeper issue?

If your theology leads to behavior that is unloving or unkind, chances are there’s a problem with your theology.

Belief informs behavior. Your actions are shaped in part by your theology.

In which case, the ultimate test of any rule or doctrine is not, “Does it cohere intellectually?” but, “Does it encourage me to be more loving to others?”

If “love is the fulfillment of the law,” then any law which does not lead us to be more loving is not worth fulfilling.

For ages, Christians argued slavery was OK. They had Scripture on their side. They had history on their side. The inhumane treatment of blacks was proof enough they were wrong.

For ages, Christians argued women were inferior. They had Scripture on their side. They had history on their side. The degrading, humiliating treatment of women was proof enough they were wrong.

In both cases, a lack of love exposed a faulty belief system.

In the present debate over sexual ethics, it might matter less which side can line up the most proof texts or which side can make the best appeal to history. It might matter more which side proves itself to be the most loving, the most compassionate, and the most hospitable.

As Peter Enns wrote recently:

The best apologetic isn’t having a better intellectual system. The best apologetic is… how Christians live positively toward others. What difference this “belief system” makes in our global community.

We are the apologetic.

If you affirm the traditional view but lament the church’s treatment of gays and lesbians, you can resolve to be more loving. That in itself would be a good and holy thing.

But maybe we should go one step further and ask if there’s a connection between our convictions and the way we treat others—and then resolve to bring both into alignment with the Great Commandment.

Photo by Sancho McCann on Flickr

Why I would rather err on the side of life

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I’ve seen the Planned Parenthood video. I’ve also watched some of the raw footage. So I know the more widely viewed version was selectively and misleadingly edited. I know it doesn’t say what its producers want you to think it does—namely, that Planned Parenthood “uses partial birth abortions to sell baby parts.”

I know Planned Parenthood does a lot more than provide access to abortion—97% more, to be precise. They offer many genuinely pro-life services to women—cancer screenings, disease prevention, access to contraception—services that some self-described “pro-lifers” seem decidedly uninterested in providing.

I know the video is being seized upon by those who care more about advancing an agenda than being “ambassadors for life,” as Matthew Paul Turner put it so well. We’ve known about fetal tissue collected from abortion for decades. So why are some just now getting worked up about it? Because they have a politically charged video they can exploit?

I also know that many of the vaccines I received as a child—and many of the vaccines my children and yours receive—were made in cells that were cultured from fetal tissue obtained through abortion. And I’m not going to stop giving these vaccines to my children.

I know all this, and yet the video still troubles me.

If you believe there’s nothing wrong with abortion, and yet the sight of someone casually discussing the particulars over a glass of wine bothers you too, then maybe it’s worth asking why.

Perhaps, as one person suggested, it’s simply because we find “a lot of surgical and medical procedures… icky.”

Maybe that’s all it is.

I would certainly be grossed out by the sight of an open-heart surgery or an autopsy. But my response to the Planned Parenthood video was something different. It wasn’t the “ick factor” that troubled me. It wasn’t even the knowledge that human tissue is being collected for scientific research. (As others have pointed out, we do this all the time with organ donors—the difference being, there’s usually a distinction between the act that terminates life and the collection of tissue.)

It’s what precedes the collection of tissue that troubles me—the targeted “crushing.” It was the thought of something like this happening to my son around the time we were having an ultrasound to discover his biological sex.

I know personhood is not exactly synonymous with biological life. I know some pro-lifers engage in a misleading and misguided attempt to conflate the two—for reasons that have more to do with politics than principle.

I know that personhood, unlike biological life, is an ethical and moral concept—one that’s a lot more difficult to pin down, one around which there’s no consensus and, let’s face it, a lot of speculation.

I’m not sure we should attribute personhood to a zygote. But neither do I think we should wait until birth, as if personhood is something the baby grabs hold of on their way down the birth canal. The answer is probably somewhere in between—and a heck of a lot more mysterious.

Yet regardless of how we view personhood and its origins—regardless of whether we ground our concept of personhood in a religious presupposition like the “image of God” (as I do) or in something else—we all agree that personhood matters. People have value. Life is something to be cherished, nurtured, and protected.

And hopefully, we still agree that people have value regardless of their ability to “contribute,” regardless of the extent to which they live up to society’s definition of what it means to be a “healthy, normal” person.

Those of us labeled “progressive” speak out against racism, homophobia, and the oppression of the poor precisely because we believe that personhood matters. Those who are conservative resist what they perceive to be an intrusive government because they believe in the individual liberty of each person.

Personhood matters. Yet none of us really know when or how it begins.

At what point do we ascribe the intangible value of personhood to a member of society? Can it be taken away? If so, by whom and under what authority?

Most of all, if personhood is so intangible yet important, shouldn’t we err on the side of caution when it comes to anything that might harm or destroy it?

The reason I want churches to embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is not because I’m 100% convinced I’m right in my interpretation of the Scriptures. I could be wrong on this or any number of issues. It’s because if I’m going to err, I’d rather err on the side that I believe to be more loving, more compassionate, more life-affirming.

The same is true for abortion. I could be wrong about when life begins, or when the threshold from “biological life” to “personhood” is crossed. The fact is, I have no idea. But I would rather err on the side that protects, nurtures, and celebrates life.

Of course, some will point out—and rightly so—that it’s not always that simple to choose which path is the most “life-affirming.” It’s not that simple when the life or health of the mother is at stake. It’s not that simple when a women is raped and becomes pregnant by her attacker.

The fact that some of these scenarios might be relatively rare does not give us the right to ignore them. To do so is demeaning to the personhood of the very real women affected by them. Besides, some of these scenarios—namely, pregnancy due to rape—might not be as rare as you think.

Like Matthew Paul Turner said, if my wife were in any of these situations, “I’d want her to have the power to make a choice.” And I’d want it to be a doctor, not a legislator, helping her make that choice.

But if we have reached a point where we can discuss the extraction of fetal body parts and remain untroubled, perhaps we don’t value life as much as we should.

I do not think there’s an easy answer for each scenario that leads a woman to have an abortion. I will not presume to lecture or pretend I know better than those who’ve had to make this immensely difficult choice. And I will not let the pro-life movement off the hook for failing to uphold a truly consistent ethic of life beyond the womb.

But I cannot be silent and pretend that a fetus has no value—or that we are the life-affirming culture we ought to be.

Better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian (Joey’s story)

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Today I’m featuring a guest post from my friend Jessy Briton Hamilton, about his friend Joey and his experience being shunned by the church for his sexual orientation. 

Shortly after reading Joey’s story, I saw Julie Rodgers’ post describing her experience of rejection. It astounds me that some traditionalists were not more supportive of Julie, if what they say about holding their convictions with love is really true. As a celibate gay Christian, she’s played by their rules. She’s done everything they ask. Yet her experience at the hands the church has forced her to ask some difficult questions:

The fire I’ve come under (publicly and privately) as I’ve sought to live into the traditional ethic causes me to question whether this is about genuinely held beliefs or straight up homophobia. I say this with nothing but sadness: the kind of discrimination my friends and I have experienced as celibate gays makes me lean toward the latter.

Neither Julie nor Joey deserve to be treated this way by the church. Their stories should be a wake-up call, prompting all of us—affirming or otherwise—to pause and reflect.

So to my non-affirming friends: Are you sure you’re not at all guilty of the “straight-up homophobia” that Joey, Julie, and others have experienced? In other words, are you as loving as you think you are?

And to my affirming friends: Is it good enough to declare our churches “open and affirming”? Or to feature a rainbow-themed avatar on our Facebook pages? What are we doing to actively serve LGBTQ members of our churches and communities?

With that, here is Joey’s story, as told by Jessy…

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Chillicothe is a small piece of 1955 trapped in Ohio’s forgotten Appalachian hills, at the place along the Scioto River where the rapids of poverty swell and begin to rage toward the Kentucky border. Typical of small Midwestern towns from Youngstown to Nowhere, Kansas, it’s the kind of place most people are proud to be from… but wouldn’t want to live.

Joey is an exception, embracing the raw experience of rural life, while most of his peers have already punched their tickets to Chicago, Columbus, or some other city that looks like every other city to a small-town boy. The 19-year-old college freshman studying agricultural science at the local branch campus of Ohio University has lived in these parts all the days of his life. He winces at the thought of severing his bond with the soil from which he came, but knows at the back of his pretty little head that economic factors may someday take him far from this sleepy Rust Belt ghost town.

Joey talks to me with dizzying excitement about any topic that comes to mind: cherry vanilla ice cream, his dream of someday buying back the family farm from the corporate agribusiness that pulled the deed out from under his grandfather, and his hope for a family of his own—a husband and 2.5 little Joeys, all working on the farm, of course. We talk about the president, fruity drinks with miniature umbrellas his friends want him to try, and his fear of being caught if he does. Joey talks and I mostly listen. Ultimately, I don’t care what we talk about—I’m just happy Joey is alive to wrestle with which pop star to rock out to on the way to class, or which teenage indiscretion he should or shouldn’t experience tonight.

Joey and I first met on a smartphone chat application that uses GPS technology to tell gay and bisexual men where other gay and bisexual men using the app are located. It was two weeks after his failed attempt to overdose on a cocktail of pink and yellow pills that his short profile statement caught my attention: “No longer Christian. HMU.”

One of the ministries I engage in involves the utilization of smartphone apps to find the Joeys of the world—younger LGBTs from Christian backgrounds at risk for suicide. My message to them is simple: God loves you, there is nothing wrong with you, so let’s chat. There are a sea of them, but only one of me.

My experience with Joey, and countless others has taught me that many LGBTs go through a series of stages in the evolution or disintegration of their faith. The church through spiritual violence has traditionally played the role of hastening the destruction of faith among LGBTs, as those who ultimately arrive at a crisis of faith are confronted with the reality that a fixed-facet of their being—their sexual orientation or gender identity—is said to be at odds with nature and contrary to God’s will. This crisis of faith is resolved by one of three methods:

1. LGBTs with the emotional ability, and a deep well of spiritual resources will initiate a life-long journey to unlearn the internalized homophobia inherited during their early spiritual formation.

Having undertaken the hard work of untangling God’s love from the cruel words and deeds of God’s people, they will arrive at mature spiritual conclusions, acknowledging their status as a child of God, made in his image. A personal theology that allows them to live both a life of faith and a life of integrity evolves over time. In my experience, this rarely happens the first go-round. Ideally though, this is the direction faith communities steer LGBTs. At best, however, many spiritual and lay leaders simply ignore the crisis of faith. Others unwittingly lead LGBTs to resolve the crisis via options 2 and 3.

2. LGBTs who cannot find it in their experience to separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but know that sexuality is a fixed facet, unchangeable and good—will reach the conclusion that the existence of a loving God and their own existence are mutually exclusive.  

God simply does not exist—or if he does, he is unworthy of worship. In my experience, most LGBTs initially resolve the crisis of faith this way.

3. Those who cannot separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but have bought the lie that their sexuality is sinful and changeable—will make several attempts at becoming that which they cannot.  

After several failures to conform to heteronormative expectations, they will either return to pursue options 1 or 2, remain in a state of perpetual spiritual torment, or having exhausted all known options, attempt to end their lives.

After a series of twisted events that began with reading an article on his denomination’s latest public rejection of LGBT’s, followed by a conversation with his fundamentalist pastor, Joey decided suicide was the only option that remained.  This was the latest episode in a never-ending nightmare of spiritual violence aimed at Joey from the people who claimed to love him.  He couldn’t see any other way—it was preferable to be dead than to be gay.

Fortunately, Joey’s attempt to take his life failed. His mother found him lying a pool of his own vomit (it’s common for the body of those who overdose to reject the attempt), and he was taken to the hospital, where he eventually became conscious.

Today, in an effort to save his very life, Joey has resolved his crisis of faith with option 2: “No longer Christian. HMU.” He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there may be other ways of approaching God that include living a life of integrity as an openly gay man. He asked this week what I thought of his choice to give up on Christianity as he understands it. While I hope that someday Joey will reconcile his sexuality with his faith, until he has the resources and support to do that, it’s better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian.

There are too many Joeys. And only one me.

What is your faith community doing to identify the Joeys in your midst, to help them to navigate their crises of faith and arrive at a place where they truly know the love of their Creator?

Jessy Briton Hamilton lives in Denver, Colorado, and does consulting work with faith communities through his firm, Solutions by J. Briton. He attends St. John’s Cathedral, Denver.

Photo: Chillicothe by Ohio Redevelopment Projects on Flickr

The only question worth asking

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Here is the full quote from Yale New Testament professor Dale Martin:

I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love.

To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion—as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love.

But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modernist historicism.

We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?”

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The context for this quote is a lengthy but illuminating piece on the meaning of two Greek words, arsenokoites and malakos, both of which occur in 1 Corinthians 6, a passage many read as condemning all same-sex intimacy.

Martin demonstrates convincingly (for me, anyway) that modern scholars read too much—or perhaps too little, depending on your perspective—into the meaning of these words. But at least in the case of malakos (unfortunately rendered “sodomites” in the NRSV), the correct meaning is no less troubling. It introduces just as many interpretive problems as it solves.

(Spoiler alert: Martin argues the correct translation of malakos is “effeminate,” adding weight to accusations of misogyny laid at the apostle Paul’s feet.)

In the end, Martin concludes that we can’t resolve every interpretive difficulty in Scripture—nor should we try. No matter what our view, conservative or progressive, and no matter what our approach to Scripture, fundamentalist or historicist, we all run into difficulties when reading and applying the Bible. It doesn’t always work to just “do what the Bible says.” It’s not that simple. Which is just as well, because sometimes the Bible says to “annihilate” people.

Nor do interpretation and application suddenly become easy once we cross from the Old Testament into the New. We are still 2,000 years removed from its context. We are still listening in on one side of conversations that took place in a much different world.

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The good news is, the apostle Paul (yes, the same Paul who rather unfortunately suggested that “effeminate” people will not inherit the kingdom of God) gave us the key to answering the age-old question, “How should we live?” And the answer is not, “Line up as many Bible verses as you can find on a given topic and try to make them all say the same thing.” Because sometimes that doesn’t work.

The answer, according to Paul, is to obey the one command that fulfills all the other, sometimes conflicting commands:

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  

He also says, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other,” proving that sometimes, the application of ancient Scripture to our context IS rather straightforward.)

Another way to put it is, as Dale Martin did, is to always ask one question, no matter the issue: What is the loving thing to do?

Original photo by Abhi on Flickr