But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
II Corinthians 3:5-6; 4:7
Monday night, while I was waiting for the start of the Patriots game, I watched part of the debate among the candidates for Governor of Massachusetts, and I found myself meditating on those verses from Paul’s letter.
When I first encountered those verses it was in the old Revised Standard Version. In that translation, it says that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” To me that sounded rather elegant. I did not know what an “earthen vessel” was, but it sounded ancient and sacred. The New Revised Standard Version put my reverie to rest with the more accurate, “clay jars.” Nothing special. Completely ordinary. Maybe less than ordinary. Like tin cans, or plastic bottles.
Paul’s insight was that Christian faith grew not because of the competence of its proponents, but in spite of them. In an earlier letter, he pushed the Christians in Corinth to think about this in terms of their own lives. “Consider your own call,” he wrote. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (I Corinthians 1:26-28)
As a pastor and a church leader, I have always found Paul’s insight comforting. And obviously true. I am sometimes amazed by the church’s ability to survive inept leadership.
But as I listened to the gubernatorial debate, I found myself wondering how far Paul’s insight might stretch. We can (and have) survived incompetence. But can we survive mean?
I tuned in as independent candidate Scott Lively was answering a question about the state’s spending to repair its decaying infrastructure.
It took me a few seconds to remember why his name was familiar to me. He is a pastor. And a well-known activist against gay rights. He played a role in helping Uganda to frame its now infamous anti-gay legislation. And he wrote a book called, “The Pink Swastika.” That fact alone tells you almost everything you need to know.
Pastor Lively turned the question about roads and bridges into a question of what he called the declining “moral infrastructure” in the state and went on to speak of the state’s commitment to teaching tolerance as part of children’s education as the promotion of “sexual perversion to children in the public schools.”
The next speaker, Republican Charlie Baker, quickly affirmed the need to repair the state’s roadways and then said he wanted to use the remainder of his time to respond to Lively’s comments, which he called “a veiled reference” to gay people. "As the brother of a gay man who lives and is married in Massachusetts,” Baker declared, “I want you to know that I found that kind of offensive, and I would appreciate you not saying things like that from this point forward.”
Lively responded quickly, "I believe in the Bible, Charlie. I'm sorry that you don't.”
Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, seconded Baker’s comment and then cited her own record in support of gay rights before addressing the question of infrastructure.
No one addressed Lively’s invocation of the Bible in defense of his bigotry. And that was entirely appropriate. It wasn’t supposed to be a theological debate.
But it worries me that statements like Lively’s so often go unchallenged. This isn’t unchecked righteousness; it is, to use the biblical word, unrighteousness.
In previous generations, Lively’s retort has been employed by supporters of slavery and segregation, and opponents of women’s rights, among others. But in those previous generations, the other side of the debate had a larger proportion of biblically literate Christians who were motivated by the great biblical themes of justice and egalitarianism, rather than focusing on what Paul called “the letter” of the law.
The truth is that Scott Lively believes six biblical passages at the expense of almost everything else. Nobody said that. In fairness, it would not have been appropriate and it would have opened the door to even more outrageous statements from Scott Lively. But it left his statement unchallenged. And for many viewers that statement will sum up what they have heard about Christian faith.