Saturday, April 11, 2020

No. Jesus Was not Killed by the "Religious People"

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.
But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
John 5:15-18

I have seen many memes during Lent and Holy Week reminding us that Jesus was killed by the “religious people,” and I know that they are well intended.

It is not a bad thing especially at this time of the year for Christians to look critically at themselves. 

But there are two problems with the popular meme.

The first problem is that it is historically wrong. Jesus was not killed by the religious people; he was executed by the Roman Empire. His crime (or at least his supposed crime) was sedition rather than blasphemy. 

The second problem is that although the meme is well intended, what it is really doing is euphemizing the ancient falsehood that “the Jews killed Jesus.” It is another way to reinforce the anti-Semitism that is so often baked into our Holy Week observances.

Perhaps the most insidious thing about the anti-Semitism in the Gospels is that we Christians are simply oblivious to it. The scholar James Carroll, who is himself a devout Christian, points out in his book, “Christ Actually,” the obvious but generally unrecognized anti-Semitism implicit in our naming the two parts of the Bible the “Old” and “New” testaments.

“New” is always better than “Old.” One clearly supersedes the other.

Jesus was a champion of the poor and the marginalized, but we often portray his advocacy for the “least and the lost” as a contrast to the Jewish perspective. We do this in spite of the overwhelming evidence that Jesus stood in direct line with the Hebrew prophets. 

This anti-Semitism is an underlying theme in Holy Week. And that theme is most evident in the Gospel of John.

John frequently uses “the Jews” the same way that Matthew, Mark and Luke use “the Scribes and the Pharisees.” He is talking about the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. The reference to Pharisees as a synonym for self-righteous hypocrites is historically inaccurate and implicitly anti-Semitic.

(We pause briefly to note first that the Scribes and the Pharisees are the same people. Second, the Pharisees were reformers. Third, that Jesus was almost certainly a Pharisee. And Fourth, that the Pharisaic reform movement gave birth to Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.) 

John was writing at a time when the church and the synagogue were separating. Christianity began as a Jewish sect. The synoptic Gospels portray an internal conflict within the synagogue between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus. John characterizes the conflict as one between the followers of Jesus and “the Jews” who remain loyal to Judaism. Of course, the followers of Jesus were also Jewish. It was a sibling rivalry.

As a potential source of anti-Semitism, the verses from the fifth chapter are far from the worst passage in John’s Gospel, but they are bad enough. John says that “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him” for breaking the Sabbath and for blasphemy.

I was in college when I first met someone who had been called a “Christ killer,” by the (so called) “Christians” in his Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was appalled, but also perplexed. 

The very simple version of atonement theology I grew up with said that Jesus had died for my sins. He had also died for the sins of the world. But the personal part was where we put the emphasis. The historical roles of Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, and the crowds, were all incidental accidents. The only theologically valid answer to the question, “Who killed Jesus?” was, “I did.”

Over the years I have grown into a very different theological understanding. Jesus died because his absolute faithfulness collided with the sinful violence of the empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as a just and non-violent alternative to the Roman Empire and to every empire. The Romans didn’t crucify people for religious crimes.

In many ways, anti-Semitism is our original sin as Christians. It is long past time for confession and repentance. Until we move past that, we cannot really understand who Jesus is.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

*This is a revised version of a post first published on 4-16-14.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Rev. Lowery's Benediction

Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery Delivering the Benediction
at the Inauguration of President Barack Obama
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Amos 5:24

When I started writing “Thinking Faith” in January of 2009, the first post I wrote was about the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery’s benediction at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Rev. Lowery’s death yesterday at the age of 98 called to mind his benediction and the reaction to it.

Halford Luccock, who taught preaching at Yale Divinity School for many years once called the history of Methodist preachers an “Endless Line of Splendor.” That was more enthusiasm than critical analysis, but among that line few were more splendid than Rev. Lowery. He was a close friend and ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and served for many years as Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Council which King founded. And he was a great preacher.

I was deeply moved as I listened to Lowery’s benediction at the close of the inauguration and later in the week as I was writing the “Welcome” for our Sunday bulletin I wanted to reference it and I went online to find the text. Along with the text, I was shocked to discover thousands of comments labeling Dr. Lowery’s remarks as racist. I couldn’t imagine what they were talking about.

The prayer began with a quotation from James Weldon Johnson’s great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has become the Black National Anthem. He called on the nation to reject greed and violence, to embrace inclusion rather than exclusion, and love rather than hate. 

Moving toward his closing, he prayed, “As we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.”

“Bless President Barack,” he prayed. “First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.”

Then he referenced the Hebrew Prophets:
“Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
But what set the right wing blogosphere and the pundits into hysteria came in the final paragraph. This is a transcript of the audio recording:
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around -- (laughter) -- when yellow will be mellow -- (laughter) -- when the red man can get ahead, man -- (laughter) -- and when white will embrace what is right.Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.AUDIENCE: Amen!REV. LOWERY: Say amen --AUDIENCE: Amen!REV. LOWERY: -- and amen.AUDIENCE: Amen! (Cheers, applause.)END.
“when white will embrace what is right” was the incendiary line.

Of course, those lines were not original. They were meant to recall an earlier time, not that many decades ago when the rhyme told the story of race and color in America: 

"If you're white, you're right, 
if you're yellow, you're mellow,
if you're brown, stick around, 
but if you're black, get back." 

And in the 1970’s those words, just as Dr. Lowery spoke them, were used by Black preachers as a call to action. The laughter in the audience came from those who immediately recognized the reference.

Only those completely ignorant of both Dr. Lowery and the history of Civil Rights would think he was saying that white people had never embraced what was right, and he did not mean to divide. He did mean to raise up a vision of the future by remembering the past. And one could see by the angry responses that the past is not really past, in part at least, because too many people just don’t know their history.

But beyond the issue of historical literacy, the reaction to Dr. Lowery’s benediction was a precursor to the resurgence of racism that has plagued us over the past decade.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

The full transcript of Dr. Lowery’s benediction is printed below:

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand -- true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.

We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we've shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.

For we know that, Lord, you're able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed -- the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.

We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.

Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around -- (laughter) -- when yellow will be mellow -- (laughter) -- when the red man can get ahead, man -- (laughter) -- and when white will embrace what is right.
Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Greed Is Not Good: The Tragic Results of a FalseTheology

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
“No one can serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Matthew 6:24

One hundred and nine years ago yesterday, March 25, 1911, just a few minutes before closing time on a Saturday, a fire started, probably in a trash bin, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, located on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a Manhattan factory building.  

There were 146 victims in all, 129 of them women. Most were young immigrants.

In a famous scene in the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko, convincingly portrayed by Michael Douglas, gave his impassioned testimony to the shareholders of Teldar Paper Company:
"The point is, ladies and gentleman, is that greed – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind. And Greed – you mark my words – will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA."
It is important to recognize that Gordon Gekko's affirmation of greed is precisely that: it is an affirmation of faith. It is a theological statement.

It is about what we believe.

We don’t just tolerate greed. As a society we celebrate it because we believe it is essential to the economic system that has driven so much world progress, and no small amount of misery, over the last half millennium.

But greed isn’t good. Jesus was right. We cannot worship God and money.

Initiative is good. Enterprise is good. And effort should be rewarded. But greed is not good.

At the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory all but one of the exits had been locked to prevent the workers from taking unauthorized breaks.

Doors to the stairwells were locked. There was one internal fire escape but it collapsed quickly under the weight of so many bodies.

Louis Waldman, later a New York State Assemblyman, was reading in a nearby library when he heard the fire companies responding. He ran out to join the crowd in the street and remembered the scene this way:
"Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies."
In the New York Times the next day the story included this grim report: “The victims who are now lying at the Morgue waiting for some one to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age.” 

The Times suggested that the fire had been started by one of the machines, but an industry journal claimed that the more likely cause was smoking, which was forbidden in the factory. The industry report noted that the epidemic of factory fires was “fairly saturated with moral hazard.” 

In other words, the industry people were claiming that the deaths were attributable to the moral failings of the workers rather than the greed of the owners who blocked the exits.

The factory owners were tried for first and second degree manslaughter, but they were acquitted. The defense attorney asked a key witness, a worker who had escaped the fire, to repeat her testimony several times. After she repeated her answers almost word for word, he argued that this was evidence that she had been told what to say by the prosecutors and had memorized her testimony. 

Defense attorneys also claimed that the prosecution had not proved that the owners knew that the doors were locked at the specific time of the fire. Two years later, one of the owners was found guilty of illegally locking the doors on another factory and fined twenty dollars for the infraction.

When we look back, we are appalled. 

But it is only a few years ago that a factory fire in Bangladesh killed 112 workers. Again, because exits were blocked or inadequate.

And in Rhode Island especially, we remember the fire at the Station night club that claimed one hundred victims. Again, the cause of death was that exits were blocked, and they were not adequate. 

At the Station, they wanted to prevent patrons from entering without paying; at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and in the Bangladesh fire they wanted to prevent workers from leaving while they were being paid. 

But in each case the issue was greed

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

*Parts of this post were originally published on March 26, 2011.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

This Is What Exile Feels Like

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is an everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31

After a week of posting pictures that put a happy face on “Sheltering in Place,” a friend confessed that it had been hard and depressing. Although they looked cute in the pictures, the kids were restless and cranky. Working at homes wasn’t really working out and there were worries about their spouse’s job security.

Another friend told of calling the bank to take advantage of a plan to waive three months of mortgage payments after their spouse was laid off. And although the bank was agreeable and friendly, it took an hour and a half because the call volume was so high.

Lost jobs. Failing businesses. And, by the way, there’s that funky the stock market thing.

And as bad as all that is, it’s not as bad as the geometric increase in cases and deaths. The recorded numbers may not seem as scary as the projections, but they are scary enough.

Luckily, for most of us, we see only the abstract numbers. We have not seen the actual deaths. But we will.

It feels like Exile.

I have often said that Christianity begins in Exile. We could date it to the first time that “Followers of the Way” were called Christians, or to the formation of churches apart from the Synagogue. We could date it to Pentecost. Paul Tillich dated the beginning of Christian faith tot the moment when Peter responded to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” by answering, “You are the Christ.”

But for a long time I have believed that Christian faith begins in Exile.

This is the test.

I don’t mean that God sent COVID-19 to test our faith or that God sent the virus to teach us something. I don’t believe God sent it at all.

But it does test us.

When Jerusalem fell and the people of Israel were taken into captivity, the prophets and great religious thinkers asked themselves, “How could this happen? How can it be that the holiest city of the very people God has chosen to bring his message to the world has fallen? If this can happen, then how can we trust God?” This was the greatest challenge that Israel had ever faced.

Israel responded to this theological crisis with some of the most brilliant and beautiful literature that human beings have ever produced. The wisdom and depth of thought were amazing. Israel responded, in the words of Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann, “precisely against the data.”

It was out of this crisis, says Brueggemann, that Israel gave birth to the concept of hope. It was in these great reflections on the crisis of exile that the concept of hope was first introduced to the world. Hope was Israel’s gift to the world.

Hope is always “against the data.” It is not an analysis which says that things will get better. It is not the cheerful assertion that every cloud has a silver lining. Hope says we trust in God, regardless of the data; regardless of the presence or absence of a silver lining.

You and I are called to reaffirm our hope: our hope in our fellow human beings, our hope in our nation and in our world. And underneath it all, our hope in God.

This is the The Lord,
the One who created you, O Jacob,
the One who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name,
and you are mine.

Isaiah 43:1

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

United Methodist Schism and the Global Pandemic

God has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
II Corinthians 3:6

Sky McCracken has one of the best names ever. Obviously, he should have been an astronaut or an astronomer, but apparently he is a pastor.

He is not an in-person acquaintance nor is he a virtual “friend,” but he is an online acauaintance and a colleague. 

(Of course, I don’t really know that, but I believe it to be true.) 

My sense is that we have markedly different theological perspectives, but I very much appreciate his thoughtfulness and his willingness to dialog with others.

I don’t know him, except through his posts and comments in various United Methodist clergy groups.

Yesterday he posted this in the United Methodist Clergy group:
“It might just be me... but right now, a church/denominational schism seems the height of selfishness and hypocrisy. My hunch is, in the months to come it may even become irrelevant, and pushing such in the light of a much greater crisis will further expose our self-centeredness and false selves.”
It was, I thought, an invitation to soul-searching and reflection. A good place to start a reflection on Lent and the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of the United Methodist Church.

There were two short thoughtful reflections and then we were off into crazyland. 

I suppose I should be grateful that we didn’t immediately go to ALL CAPS. But we did get this:
“Irrelevant, selfish? Wow, neither really come to mind. Just because of the virus people are not going to all the sudden uphold the vows they took at ordination or when they became bishop! Nor begin to celebrate sin! Keep dreaming!”
Few things are more important to the world today than the fear that somewhere and somehow there are people who are celebrating sin!

And not just any sin.

This is about same sex marriage. And gay clergy.

Forget about COVID-19 and a global pandemic. We need to focus on what really matters. This is our “Bonhoeffer moment.”

I think as I write this there have been over 100 comments on the original post. Some thoughtful. Some pained. Many sincere.

But there are way too many that seem to come from some strange pseudo-Calvinist belief that the core of biblical faith is found in the total depravity of humanity and the wrath of God, which is mitigated only by right belief in Jesus and absolute conformity to the rules of the Bible as understood by the one writing the comments.

And, needless to say, the folks who write this stuff are certain (absolutely) that they are not mis-interpreting the text because the text does not need to be interpreted. They are just stating the facts.

In this view, the Bible is not a living Word. It is a dead letter. But if the Bible is a dead letter about judgment rather than grace, then we have lost everything matters in Christian faith.

I want to give the last word to Janet Gollery McKeithen:
“I agree with you Sky, but these comments really make me nauseated. Unbelievable that people believe in some kind of God that creates people who will go to eternal damnation. And they act self-righteous about it. They have pride in condemning others and causing suicides and splitting families. I am really sick again. Let's deal with the fact that the most vulnerable among us are going to suffer more that anyone else during this crisis. Let's see how we can help them and then change the oppressive system that brought us to this place. That's enough to do. The UMC is imploding on it own.”
Janet agrees with Sky and I agree with Janet.

I am especially pleased that she used “nauseated” rather than the technically incorrect though commonly used “nauseous” in that sentence.

Like Janet, I was nauseated by the nauseous comments.

(I think I used that correctly, but if I didn't then there are friends who will correct me.)

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

Cancelling Church

Make a joyful noise to the Lord,
all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.

Psalm 100:1-2

We have decided to cancel our worship services for the next two Sundays, March 15 and March 22. We will decide later what happens after that.

Public health leaders are telling us that we are on the cusp of a dramatic increase in the spread of COVID-19. Although the virus is new, we do know several things about it:

  • It is easily transmitted. 
  • The number of cases has been growing exponentially.
  • People can have the virus and be contagious long before they show symptoms.
  • Although most cases will be mild and most people will recover without hospitalization, COVID-19 is many times more deadly than the flu.
I hate cancelling church.

And I hate making that decision. (I am grateful to have been able to share the decision-making with Pastor Carol, but I still hate it.)

Sometimes there is a huge snowfall or a hurricane and there really is no choice, but most of the time you have to make the decision before you actually know what will happen. If you cancel and the predicted six to ten inches turns out to be two inches of slush, you feel pretty silly. On the other hand, if the predicted two inches of slush turns into two inches of ice . . .

Cancelling for COVID-19 is like cancelling for a snowstorm with the exception that the virus is deadly. A fender-bender in the snow is not likely to cause a death.

Epidemiologists tell us that although we cannot stop the spread of the disease, we can “flatten the curve” of its increase. We can slow the rate of growth and even if we do not reduce the number of cases, we can spread them out over a longer period of time.

At first that might seem counter intuitive.

Why not just get it over with?

The problem with the steep curve is that it means that health care facilities may be overwhelmed. This is happening in Italy where New York Times correspondent Jason Horowitz reports that Flavia Petrini, who is president of the Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care, said her group had issued guidelines on what to do in a period that bordered on wartime “catastrophe medicine.”

“In a context of grave shortage of health resources,” the guidelines say, intensive care should be given to “patients with the best chance of success” and those with the “best hope of life” should be prioritized.

Horowitz reports that the guidelines also say that in “in the interests of maximizing benefits for the largest number,” limits could be put on intensive care units to reserve scarce resources to those who have, first, “greater likelihood of survival and secondly who have more potential years of life.”

The most effective way for us to “flatten the curve” in the United States and restrain the increase in the number of cases is through social distancing. In order for social distancing to be effective, it needs to begin early. (Eliza Barclay and Dylan Scott wrote an excellent essay on this for

Dr. Wes Wallace of the University of North Carolina admits that "beginning our social distancing early may seem unnecessary or even silly." But scientists like Wallace tell us that if we wait until the need is obvious, it will be too late.

The church should claim an important role in slowing the spread of the disease. First by suspending services and reducing the points of contact for our people. And second, by modeling that behavior for the rest of the society.

This is not an easy time for us, as individuals, as families, as congregations, and as a global society. We need to work together.

For the Lord is good;
God's steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

Psalm 100:5

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Was Mary a Virgin? Does It Matter?

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
Luke 1:34-35

A Facebook friend posted a column by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof titled, “Was Mary a Virgin? Does It Matter?” In the column, Kristof reports a question and answer session with the popular Evangelical writer Philip Yancey.

We might argue about the first question, but there can be no doubt about the second. The answer is a firm “No.” It does not matter at all whether Mary was a virgin.

Not surprisingly, from his perspective within Evangelicalism, Yancey sees it differently. The virgin birth is central to his understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. But to his credit, he stops short of saying that is essential to being a Christian. At the close of the interview, when Kristof asks him whether he can call himself a Christian if he is skeptical of the virgin birth, the miracles and a physical resurrection, Yancey says, “I would rephrase the question and toss it back to you: Are you a Jesus follower?”

Earlier in the interview, Kristof explained some of his frustrations with the Christian right:
“One of the problems I have with the evangelical church is that it seems more dazzled by the miracles than the message. Particularly in the age of Trump, conservative pastors weaponize God to support a president who is trying to cut Medicaid and school lunches for the poor. Shouldn’t conservative Christians believe as much in the good Samaritan as in the Virgin Birth?”
And Yancey basically agreed. “I grew up in what I now call a “toxic” fundamentalist church in the South,” he said, “and I view with dismay the contemporary mixing of politics and religion, including some of the policies you mention. Churches often end up on the wrong side of issues — such as the blatant racism I heard from the pulpit as a child.”

Believing in the virgin birth has no impact on how we live our lives. You can believe in the virgin birth and still be a racist. On the other hand, if you believe in the Sermon on the Mount it has to make a difference in how you live your life. 

In his wonderful commentary on The New Testament, William Barclay calls the Virgin Birth “one of the great controversial doctrines of the Christian faith.” Wisely, he says, “the church does not insist that we believe in this doctrine.”

Today, when much of the Christian Church has become captive to the biblical literalism of the Religious Right, it is important to reflect on Barclay’s perspective. When he was writing, in the middle of the last century, Barclay was one of the preeminent biblical scholars, and the very embodiment of orthodox scholarship. His work defined the center of Christian biblical scholarship and theology.

We may choose to believe it, says Barclay, based on a literal reading of this passage as well as Matthew 1:18-25. And, he writes, “It is natural to argue that if Jesus was, as we believe, a very special person, he would have a very special entry into this world.”

But there are also excellent biblical reasons not to take the story literally. First, the genealogies in both Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’s ancestry through Joseph. Second, when Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:48) she tells him that “Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” Third, there are other references to Jesus as Joseph’s son (Matthew 13:55, John 6:42). And finally, the rest of the New Testament (Mark, John, and Paul’s letters) knows nothing of this story.

Barclay sets the story in the context of Jewish belief. “The Jews had a saying that in the birth of every child there are three partners—the father, the mother and the Spirit of God. They believed that no child could ever be born without the Spirit.” So these stories are “lovely, poetical ways of saying that, even if he had a human father, the Holy Spirit of God was operative in his birth in a unique way.”

This is more than an academic discussion because it goes to the very heart of how we understand the Bible. The insistence of literalism in this case suggests a literalistic approach to the Bible as a whole. When Christians (especially pastors and Sunday School teachers) insist on a belief in the Virgin Birth, they invite prioritizing literalism over religious meaning.

And, as Kristof points out, when we focus on literalism, it's easy to lose the meaning altogether.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.