Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Class Warfare

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Mark 10:21-22
In our current political discourse, there is no shortage of politicians who want to turn the Gospel upside down.

We used to have the "war on poverty," now we have a war on the poor.

Some politicians are concerned because 47% of Americans do not pay income tax. So am I. But not for the same reason. As Christians, we need to be concerned about the roots of that problem. The root problem is that the bottom half of the country has so little money. The gap between rich and poor has been growing for decades. Since the 1970’s we have been redistributing income from the bottom to the top.

The top 1% of the population has an average household income of over $1,000,000.
The top 10% has an average income of over $160,000.
The bottom 90% averages just over $30,000.
That’s per household, not per person.

The wealthiest 1% pays about 40% of all income taxes, which sounds like a lot until you realize that they also have about 40% of the wealth. So their tax burden is really about average.

Poor people do pay taxes, of course. They pay sales taxes, excise taxes, property taxes, and payroll taxes. On average, the lowest income group pays over 16% of their income in taxes.

But there are lots of politicians who want poor people to pay more in income taxes. Senator Dan Coats of Indiana has said that everyone should pay some income tax so that “everyone has some skin in the game.”

Some are upset with the earned income tax credit, introduced by President Reagan, which provides tax “refunds” to the working poor in excess of what they paid in taxes. But the earned income tax credit is one of the most effective antipoverty programs, because it provides an extra incentive for working, as well as thousands of dollars to poor families each year.

The earned income tax credit and the child tax credit lifted 7.2 million families out of poverty in 2009. And they provide an on-going economic stimulus because almost every dollar is immediately pumped back into the economy in the form of consumer spending.

When Jesus told the rich young man that he “lacked one thing,” the disciples were shocked. Mark reports that then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And again, the disciples were perplexed, so Jesus repeated himself, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

“To enter the kingdom of God” is to live into God’s presence, to live as God calls us to live, and to be part of making the kingdom of God come “on earth as it is in heaven.” That is the prayer that Jesus taught us and that is the work to which he calls us.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Natural and Unnatural

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:26-27
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. I Corinthians 6:9-10
This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching I Timothy 1:9-10
Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Jude 1:7
This is the third in a series of three commentaries on the seven biblical passages typically used to “prove” that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

As a Christian, I find the New Testament passages more troubling. We claim the whole Bible as our sacred story, but we also want to believe that Jesus brought a cosmic change in our thinking. Rightly or wrongly, I think we expect more enlightenment when we read the New Testament.

The passages from Hebrew scripture are more easily dismissed. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is clearly primitive. And no one takes Leviticus seriously.

Although Christians sometimes over-emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus’ teachings, he did bring a new perspective on many issues. He also deepened and expanded insights previously found in the Prophets. And he revealed great truths about human beings. But he did not change human nature.

Regardless of what we may believe about the inspiration of the biblical writers, we know that the actual words were written by human beings. The people who wrote the Bible (who put the letters and words on the page) were not perfect. And they were subject to the influences of the surrounding culture.

When Paul wrote his letters, he did not write them as sacred scripture. He was writing to specific people in specific places, offering advice and counsel intended for their situation. He did not know that two millennia later Christians would be studying those letters and reading them in worship as sacred texts. And the same is true for the unknown authors of the other New Testament epistles.

Of the four texts cited above, the last three can be dismissed rather easily. The last two, from the First letter to Timothy and from the Letter to Jude, were written fifty to one hundred years after Paul’s death, and do not carry the same authority as a letter from the Apostle. The Corinthians passage, like the passages from Timothy and Jude is written with ambiguous language which makes the meaning unclear. These texts are talking about some sort of inappropriate sexual behavior, but it is not clear what it is. What is certain, is that they are not talking about a loving, consensual, committed same sex relationship between two adults.

The Romans text is more difficult. We know with nearly one hundred percent certainty that it was written by Paul. That makes it hard to ignore if you believe as I do that Paul was the greatest Christian theologian, that all subsequent Christian theology is a footnote to Paul, and that his inspiration and brilliance were the driving force behind the spread of Christianity in the ancient world.

These two verses from Romans have probably done more to harm Christian attitudes toward homosexuality than anything else in the Bible. So what do we make of this?

First, Paul’s primary interest in this passage is not homosexuality, he is writing about what happens when we turn away from God. When we turn away from God, says Paul, we do “unnatural” things. The sexual relations which Paul describes are the result and not the cause or our turning away.

Second, his apparent reason for rejecting same sex relations is that they are “unnatural.” But our sense of what is “natural” is not fixed. In the nineteenth century, it was thought “unnatural” for blacks to be equal to whites. A hundred years ago it was “unnatural” for children with learning disabilities to be in public school. Fifty years ago a majority of Americans believed that marriage between blacks and whites was “unnatural.” Our sense of what is natural has changed. Is it unreasonable to believe that if Paul were alive now, he would see things differently?

Paul wrote about what he saw in the context of his own time and place. What may have been true in his time is not necessarily true in our time. One of the great biblical truths from Abraham and Sarah onward is that God always calls us into the future. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward for what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus.”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

An Abomination

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. Leviticus 20:13

Little Good Harbor sits on the southeastern coast of Georgetown Island. It is a charming place with an equally charming name. It is a small harbor, but contrary to what one might expect from the name, it is not very good. It is too shallow and has too many rocks. Though it looks inviting, it is almost useless. So it is of “Little Good.”

The Priestly Code of Leviticus is in many ways the Little Good Harbor of biblical wisdom. It is not as shallow as Little Good Harbor, but there are lots of rocks. In the storms of life it does not provide safe haven. The idea of a guide for living that sets God’s people apart, is a good one, but the actual code is deeply flawed.

This is the second in a series of three comments on the seven biblical passages typically cited to “prove” that the Bible condemns homosexuality. The first commentary was on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our focus now is on two almost identical passages in Leviticus. The first passage, verse 22 of chapter 18, says simply, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The second passage, printed above, adds the penalty of death, and notes that those who commit such acts are responsible for their fate; “their death is upon them.”

The condemnation is clear and unmistakable.

Here, as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see reflections of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. To lie “with a male as with a woman” was to treat the male as if he were female. This was the ultimate humiliation. Judaism and Christianity have moved toward gender equality, but the subjugation of women remains deeply imbedded in Middle Eastern culture. The condemnation of male homosexuality is a reflection of the patriarchal devaluation of women.

“Abomination” is a strong word. And it is not used often. In the Priestly Code of Leviticus, it is an abomination to eat an eagle, an osprey, or a vulture. It is an abomination to eat a burnt offering after the second day. And it is an abomination to eat anything unclean. Eating such things may be unappetizing, but it hardly seems “an abomination.”

The death penalty is serious. In Leviticus, it is mandated for murder, for adultery, for blasphemy, for cursing one’s mother or father, and for “wizards and mediums.” In Exodus and Deuteronomy, the death penalty is invoked for breaking Sabbath, as well as for outsiders who come near the Tabernacle. Looking back across the millennia, that seems a little harsh.

We know from historical research that the death penalty was seldom used for these crimes. At this point, the Torah uses the language of death, not literally as a legal sentence, but metaphorically, to indicate the seriousness of the offense. Just as in our less enlightened moments we might say, “anyone who does that ought to be shot!”

When we read that it is an abomination and that it calls for the death penalty, we read it as a very strong condemnation. But that reading is at least somewhat tempered by the recognition that many of the other offenses that are described with that same harsh language do not seem as “abominable” to twenty-first century readers.

Leviticus is tough going. More than one well-intentioned and sincere Christian setting out to read the whole Bible from cover to cover has struggled through the long narratives of Genesis and Exodus, only to come to a grinding halt when confronted with the strange list of arcane laws that make up the Priestly Code of Leviticus. In order to understand it, we need to avoid getting lost in the details.

If we set out to construct a sexual ethic on the foundation of the two condemning verses in Leviticus, then we need to explain why we are picking and choosing those verses and not also including the admonitions about the ritual purification of women after menstruation and many other similar laws. And we need to explain our use of a code which is patriarchal and misogynistic. Its purpose is to set the people apart from the surrounding pagan culture, yet in its attitudes toward women is generally reflects that culture.

The premise of the Holiness Code is that God’s people should be holy as God is holy; that in our daily living we should remind ourselves of who we and whose we are. When the rabbis read these laws, they read them with that end in mind. The details are flawed, the product of a primitive world view and a pre-scientific understanding. But if we can focus beyond that, on the vision behind the details, then we can find light for our journey.

Paul told the church in Corinth that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. When it comes to the study of Torah, Rabbi Paul echoes the ancient rabbinic insight that God is found in the white spaces. Leviticus is about a people set apart and called to be different. The details may confound us, but the greater vision is of a life shaped by the calling of God.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Sin of Sodom

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49
My guess is that when most people think about the sins of Sodom, they do not think about having “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” and an unwillingness to “aid the poor and needy.”

But there it is.

We go to the Bible, looking for self-righteous moralisms and end up with social justice. Again. When it comes to the question of how we should be living our lives, it’s always about social justice. Or as Jesus summarized it in the Great Commandment, it’s about loving God and neighbor. (Loving God means loving your neighbor. And loving your neighbor is loving God.)

My plan, before I was distracted by the Prophet Ezekiel, was to write a series of blog posts on the seven biblical passages usually referenced to “prove” that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

It is in many ways a flawed enterprise. The late Walter Muelder, who was Dean of the Boston University School of Theology for many years, and a pioneer in the discipline of Christian Social Ethics, was adamant that when we go to the Bible for ethical direction, we cannot pick and choose. Seven passages are not enough to construct an ethic. They are not irrelevant. But they cannot be determinative. On the other hand, if you believe in biblical inerrancy, and you believe that each verse is equally inspired and authoritative, then you cannot question the authority of even a single verse, let alone seven passages. But I think it is a useful exercise, just to be clear on what those passages actually say and mean, rather than to assume that we know.

The first, and certainly the best known passage, is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The story begins with a happy episode. Three strangers come to visit Abraham and Sarah, who are living in a tent by the oaks of Mamre. The men are messengers from God, angels, who have come to reaffirm the promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. They speak with Abraham outside of the tent. Inside the tent, Sarah laughs, because it seems preposterous that at her age she could have a child. And there is a wonderful interchange in which the men chastise her for laughing. She insists that she did not laugh and the episode ends with one of the men saying, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Then the men set out toward Sodom, and Abraham goes with them to show the way. God tells Abraham that the men are going to Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy the cities, because there has been such a great outcry over their sin. Abraham then begins to bargain with God. What about the righteous who live in those cities, will the LORD sweep them away with the guilty? Abraham drives a hard bargain, and God agrees that if they can find ten righteous, then the cities will be spared.

After the bargain is struck, “the LORD went his way,” and Abraham returned home, and “the two angels came to Sodom.”

At this point, things go downhill in a hurry. The strangers (angels) are met at the gate of the city by Lot, who insists that they spend the night with him. He makes them a feast, and they enjoy the meal together, but before they can lie down for the night, a crowd gathers outside. “The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.” The crowd demands that Lot send out the strangers, “so that we may know them.” In other words, so that we may have sexual relations with them.

Lot goes out to argue with the crowd and even offers to let them rape his two virgin daughters, rather than give up the men who have come “under the shelter of my roof.” But the crowd is undeterred and threatens to do even worse to Lot if he does not give up the strangers. At that point, the strangers reach out and pull Lot back into the house with them, and strike “with blindness” all those in the crowd, “so that they are unable to find the door.”

In the morning the strangers send Lot and his family away to safety, and fire rains down on the cities, and they are destroyed.

It is a dark tale. There are rays of light, but they are not easy to find. No one would count this among their favorite Bible stories. It is not the Sermon on the Mount, or the Good Samaritan. It isn’t the Twenty-third Psalm, or the Ten Commandments. It isn’t Micah or Amos or Hosea or Ruth. It isn’t even on a par with Esther.

The story is not just Patriarchal; it is deeply misogynistic. It’s good that Lot offers hospitality to strangers, and it’s good that he tries to protect his guests. But in his attempts to dissuade the men of Sodom from attacking the strangers, Lot offers to let them rape his daughters. And the story implies that the gang rape and humiliation of women is not as bad as the gang rape and humiliation of men.

It is difficult to claim ethical guidance from a story which is fundamentally immoral. One of the challenges in reading and interpreting the Bible is separating the timeless truths from the stories that simply reflect the prejudices and limited perspectives of a primitive people. The story of Sodom clearly falls into the latter category. We need to recognize it as such, and let it go.

Alternatively, we can focus, as Ezekiel did, on the guilt of Sodom that (apparently) first led to God’s judgment: “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” That is a biblical truth which stands the test of time.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Science, Social Justice, and Bible Study

Oh how I love your Word!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser, for it is always with me.
I have more understanding, for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more by following your way.
How sweet are your words to my taste,

sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;

therefore I hate every false way.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalm 119:97-105

For secularists, as well as for many Christians, the stereotype is that people who engage in frequent Bible study tend to be judgmental, rigid, narrow, and anti-intellectual.

Those of us who interpret the biblical message as a promise of grace and a call to social justice sometimes feel like we are in the minority.

Turns out, the stereotype may be wrong. My colleague Cheryl Meachen posted a link to an article in the Huffington Post about a study by Baylor University researcher Aaron Franzen, which contains some results that may surprise you.

True to expectations, people who read the Bible frequently are more likely to be against gay marriage and against abortion.

But other findings run against the tide of stereotypes.

Those who read the Bible regularly are more concerned about social and economic justice, and generally more concerned about poor people and the issues of poverty. Within that group, liberals and conservatives differ on what needs to be done, and they differ on how they understand the role of government in eliminating poverty, but they agree that we need to help poor people and we need to reduce poverty.

Frequent Bible readers are also more likely to be against the death penalty and concerned with more humane treatment of prisoners.

Perhaps most surprising, those who read and study the Bible regularly are less likely to see a conflict between faith and science. They come to see all truth as God’s truth and they value scientific understanding.

Even biblical literalists, who tend to be the most rigid, find their thinking expands as their Bible study increases.

We know that Bible study ought to be transformative. It ought to open us to the world and to one another. It ought to make us more concerned about our fellow human beings. It should open us to a vision of the Kingdom of God and make us committed to economic and social justice.

The amazing thing is that this apparently tends to happen whether we want it to or not.

This brings us back to an old truth. There are lots of people who will tell you that they believe every word in the Bible. And they will not be shy about telling you what it all means. But a great many of those people don’t actually read the book they claim to believe with such fervor.

There are plenty of rigid and narrow-minded Christians in the world, but they are that way in spite of the Bible, not because of it.

The Word really is alive. If we are willing to listen, it will speak to us. And if we pay attention, it will change us.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It's the Values, Stupid!

“Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, work for the Kingdom of God, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the poor. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Luke 12:29-34
When it comes to Presidential elections, James Carville was right, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Sometimes elections are about war and peace, but most of the time they are about the economy.

But the economy is about values.

We often talk about the economy as if it had a life of its own, as if it were an independent being. But the economy is a human construct. We designed it and built it, over the centuries. And we have modified it many times. Some times the changes have been intentional and other times the changes have been the unintended consequences of other decisions. Some changes have been good and others have not.

When Jesus says that your heart will be where your treasure is, he sets forth a fundamental economic truth: the economy is a reflection of our values. Our individual spending is a reflection of our individual values, family spending reflects our family values, and national spending reflects our national values.

Last night I heard Dave Ramsey, who presents himself as a Christian financial adviser, commenting on the debt ceiling compromise. He said that although we all get things from the government that we like, the math tells us that our growing debt is unsustainable. We can’t afford it, he said. We can’t afford Social Security (in its present state) or health care, or a host of other programs. I often find myself agreeing with Dave Ramsey, but his pronouncement left me wondering.

It is true, of course, that we cannot indefinitely spend more than we take in.

But why is it that the democracies of Western Europe can afford guaranteed pensions and universal health care, and we can’t? Why do they have lower unemployment, longer vacations, and paid maternity/paternity leave? Why can Germany maintain and grow manufacturing jobs and we can’t? Why do they have a lesser gap between rich and poor?

And maybe the biggest question of all: why aren’t we asking these questions on a broad scale? Thomas Friedman has written extensively on these issues, but he remains a solo voice.

The issues are complex. There are no easy answers. One reason that Western Europe prospers is that they do not spend even a significant fraction of what we do on national defense. And one reason they can do that is that we provide defenses for them.

The mathematics of our economy are critical. And the calculations are complex. One of the fears expressed by many economists is that when we cut government spending we will slow down the economy and actually increase the deficit.

But our values are also important.

Jesus argues that if we get our values right, then everything else follow.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Wrestling with Scripture

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Genesis 32:22-31

Sunday’s sermon was about wrestling with God.

Leading up to the passage above, Jacob is fearful of what will happen when he reunites with his brother Esau (whom he cheated out of his inheritance, and who consequently threatened to kill him). After sending servants and his family to bring gifts to his brother, Jacob spent the night in solitude. And he wrestled with God. In that struggle there was both pain and blessing.

After the sermon, I received a friendly email asking a question:

“I wondered if you would mind briefly explaining the difference between the "traditional" view of Jacob's all-night struggle with God or an angel... and your not unreasonable proposition that his struggle was, perhaps, a dream (This may require some consideration of Jacob's hip-injury and resultant limp).”

The question assumes that the “traditional” view would be that Jacob encountered a supernatural being. Actually, the traditional view is that it is a mystery. Maybe it was a dream and maybe it was something else. Certainly, the idea that Jacob was literally wrestling with God would be impossible in any traditional Christian or Jewish theology.

Jacob could have wrestled with a pagan god. He could not have wrestled with the mysterious “I Am” who encounters Moses, or the One whom Jesus describes as a Spirit. You can’t literally wrestle with the Infinite and the Eternal.

But still, it could be a literal description of a supernatural encounter, couldn’t it?

Again, apart from the theological problems, the answer is: it could be, if you believe it could be.

But the supernatural interpretation presents an unnecessary barrier to understanding the truth of the story.

The struggle is real.
The pain is real.
The blessing is real.
And the transformation of Jacob is real. In the struggle, Jacob the deceiver becomes Israel, the one who wrestles with God.

The truth of the story does not in any way depend on a supernatural explanation of the encounter. And if we interpret it supernaturally, then we imply that believing the supernatural explanation is necessary in order for the story to be “true.”

So what about Jacob “limping because of his hip”?

One narrowly rational explanation would be sciatica. (As one who has suffered with sciatica, I can sympathize.)

But the problem with a narrow rationalism is that it denies the mystery of what Jacob experienced. In the narrative, the limp is important because it reminds us that something really happened. When we speak of it as a dream, that cannot mean that it was only imaginary. The limp reminds us that what happened was real. The struggle, the pain, the blessing, and the transformation of Jacob, were all real.