More Christian than Jesus

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Far be it from me to criticize Jesus, but he doesn’t always argue like a Christian.

For one thing, like an internet troll, he uses distraction and ad hominem (personal) attacks. Just look at Matthew 15: The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat, as is the custom. It’s a legitimate question. Imagine sitting down to a meal and watching the preacher skip the blessing! Of course, there’s no commandment in the Bible to say grace over meals, but if you don’t, you signal that you’re not really religious, right?

But instead of answering their question politely, Jesus goes on the attack. Jesus says that the Bible warns of hypocrites like them (making it personal). Then he brings up something totally irrelevant—their failure to adequately care for their elderly parents (verse 4). Finally, he talks in general about the pointlessness of dietary codes and concludes with vulgar language about all food being turned into poop (verse 17). It’s shocking. The religious leaders surely thought it was uncalled for. Maybe they even thought it was shrill. Arrogant.

Now, before anyone comes to Jesus’ defense and explains that it’s okay for Jesus to talk this way because he’s Jesus, let me also point out that this is not the only time that Jesus doesn’t argue like a Christian. Although he tells his followers not to call anyone a fool (Matthew 5:22), later on he calls his religious opponents fools and worse (Matthew 23:17). While most Bibles translate his invective against the religious leaders as “Woe to you” (23:13), the Scholars Bible bites the bullet and translates it as “Damn you.” (Considering what “woe” meant to the prophets, and the fact that we don’t ever say, “woe to you” in our own conversation, “damn” probably carries the appropriate rhetorical force. This is strong language.)

I think it’s important to recognize when Jesus loses his cool, because it indicates that these things are really important to him. Only a few times do the Gospels actually say Jesus was angry: when religious leaders opposed healing on the sabbath (Mark 3:5) and when his disciples prevented children from approaching him (Mark 10:14). But we can tell from his language when he has lost his composure in arguments with religious leaders.

I point this out because today, in these contentious times, when religious leaders are as polarized as their congregations over issues like poverty, LGBTQ rights, and health care, it’s common for well-meaning Christians to wring their hands about the fact that we who should be united are always arguing. We should be more civil. We shouldn’t make things personal. We should work toward justice without upsetting people—like Jesus did.

I believe that it is possible for friends to disagree and argue important issues without hatred. I’ve seen it happen in classrooms and restaurants. But in front of a hostile, heckling audience, Jesus went toe-to-toe with religious leaders to defend those they excluded: children, the disabled, and the ones they “locked out of the kingdom.”

For those of us who argue passionately for social justice, including LGBTQ acceptance, it sometimes feels as though we’re expected to be more Christian than Jesus. We’re expected to hear condescending rhetoric like “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” but not reply in a way that would make clear how that rhetoric actually sounds: “Love the bigot, hate the bigotry.”

The way most Christians read the Bible, the Pharisees are the bad guys, and there’s no reason to question or criticize Jesus’ response to them. This puts us safely beyond the reach of Jesus’ harshest criticisms. But the fact is, as religious leaders, most of us clergy are in the Pharisee’s position, trying to do our best to live according to God’s ethical commandments and to teach others to do the same (Matthew 5:19-20). Nobody wants to be a jerk. So we should at least try to imagine how we are like the Pharisees, and hear Jesus’ words to us:

Do we religious leaders today lock people out of the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13)? Or was that just something that happened in Jesus’ day, and nobody does that anymore?

Does anyone obsess over minor matters of the law but neglect justice and mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23)? Or was that just a first century problem?

Do any religious leaders impose hard requirements (like life-long celibacy) on others (like LGBTQ persons) that they themselves don’t have to bear (23:4)? Or was Jesus only talking about a tendency of first-century Jewish religious leaders? When he criticized purity codes, was Jesus merely fighting for the rights of gentiles to eat bacon sandwiches?

When I hear Jesus’ at his angriest, I want to be on his side—but the truth is, as a religious leader, his judgment is heaviest on my tribe. It is unpleasant to have someone place you on the receiving end of biblical polemic, but I believe it is important for Christian leaders to feel the sharp edge of the sword they often wield against others. If Jesus called me a blind guide or a fool, I doubt I would embrace him as a friend who tells me hard truths. I would likely dismiss him as arrogant, insulting, and shrill. I can imagine religious leaders saying that Jesus should try to be more Christian.

The Problem of God

In Christian theology, we often talk about “the problem of evil,” but I think atheists are often more honest in their assessment: The problem is God.

This is why I love Dr. Alyce McKenzie’s recent post, “There’s No Problem Bigger Than God.” It is one of the most succinct and eloquent essays on theodicy I have ever read.

Biblical literalists, of course, will not like it, because her analysis of Paul’s rhetoric points out how Paul was just as flummoxed as anyone by the problem of God’s will. She also indicates that Jesus, Paul, Job, Luke, Isaiah, and the author(s) of Exodus all have different perspectives on God’s will and the problem of evil. Even Jesus (gasp!) was not always theologically consistent.*  (*In the differing accounts in the gospels, anyway).

One of my favorite examples of the Bible’s diverse perspectives is the story of David’s census. People of his day believed that because King David counted the population of Israel, God punished him—and the nation—by sending a plague and killing a huge number of people. This story alone is difficult enough, because I can’t help but think about the current Ebola epidemic. Whose fault is this epidemic? What bad policy decision is God punishing? I don’t believe God acts so capriciously. This puts me at odds with a sizable number of Christians who do.

But although two different authors agreed that God punished bad policy decisions with plague, they disagreed about the cause of David’s disobedience. The author of 2 Samuel says that God incited David to count the people of Israel. The author of 1 Chronicles claims it was Satan. Of course, there are various kinds of intellectual acrobatics you can perform to resolve these dissonant explanations. But McKenzie hits the nail on the head: the Biblical authors are just as flummoxed by the relationship between God and evil as we are.

While recognizing that fact may be uncomfortable for many Christians, for others of us it is a great comfort. Seeking God or following Jesus does not mean living a life free from contradictions. The God who cries out, through Jesus, “Why have you forsaken me?” and who prays, “Not my will, but yours be done,” understands the problem of evil better than the platitudes on church marquees. The God who says, through Jesus, “Happy are those who mourn. Ecstatic are those who are poor,” forces us to confront the paradoxes of our lives and of human society.

If everything that happens is God’s will, then there is no point in praying, “Your will be done.” We pray for the kingdom and for God’s reign precisely because we live in a world where God’s will isn’t always done. The challenge for God-seekers and Jesus-followers is not to resolve the problem of God and evil so we can be intellectually comfortable. The challenge is to turn our discomfort into action, to reduce the distance between God’s kingdom and this hurting planet, and to bear the goodness of God to the world by actively resisting evil and injustice.

When It’s Hard to Let Go

(This post originally appeared on Ministry Matters.)

“I’ve tried to pray and give my problems to God,” the grandmother told me, “But I can’t seem to stop worrying. What does that say about my faith?” It was the third time in a week that someone had asked me such a question. The first had been a man who couldn’t let go of his anger toward his ex-wife. The second had been a woman who was full of guilt and regret about her past. Each had asked me if their lack of peace meant that they lacked faith in God.

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“Worried People 2″ by Bhernandez from Miami –  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Regret, worry, anger, and social inhibition are only easy to let go if you are an animated Disney character. For the rest of us humans, our grip on negative emotions is surprisingly strong. Even when life is going along swimmingly, my brain will often go searching through the dusty cardboard boxes of my memory and pull out a decaying recording of an embarrassing memory from middle school. I can still sweat and turn bright red as I relive trivial social gaffes from thirty years ago. Why do such things have such a powerful hold on us?

In these kinds of pastoral care situations, I find that Christian culture is mostly unhelpful. We repeat trite sayings from inspirational posters: “Don’t tell God how big your problems are; tell your problems how big your God is!” For years, preachers have attributed negative thoughts and memories to the devil: “That’s just Satan trying to bring you down! Keep your eyes on Jesus! Don’t let the devil steal your joy!” That approach may work occasionally, but for people overwhelmed by guilt, worry, or anger, policing their thoughts and attributing negativity to Satan only makes the problem worse. Now they not only have the stress of worry, but they also feel obligated to play emotional Whack-a-Mole, tamping down every negative thought. Someone who is a worrier now worries about their worry. Someone who feels guilty now feels guiltier.

What I share with people caught in such a bind is this: Your brain is a problem-solving organ. God gave you your brain to keep you alive. In fact, your brain loves solving problems so much that if you don’t have a problem, it goes looking for one. It rummages through the drawers of your experience and pulls out powerful memories and examines them, asking, “What can we learn from this? What could we do differently?” Sometimes it even invents problems or situations you haven’t encountered yet.

Our brains do this so that we can learn and survive. It helps us avoid mistakes. Usually it is helpful: Check your blind spot when you merge so you don’t have a wreck. Don’t let Billy play with your favorite toys, because he will break them.

The problem, of course, is that not everything is a problem to be solved. A man whose wife had an affair kept asking. “Why didn’t I see something? How could I have been so stupid? What could I have done differently?” His brain was approaching the experience as if it were a problem to be solved, when, in fact, there was absolutely nothing he could have done differently. Pointing out this fact to him could not make him stop obsessing over it, though. Nor could it help the woman who said, “If I had stayed on the phone with Mom another minute, she wouldn’t have been at the intersection when the drunk driver ran the stop sign.” These kinds of thoughts are impenetrable to logic or reason, because our brains keep trying to find solutions to these unsolvable problems.

“Metacognition” is the word psychologists use to describe how we think about thinking. It can be helpful to take a step back from our cognitive process and observe what’s happening. For many people, thinking about our brains trying to solve problems can be helpful. “This is just my God-given brain trying to solve an unsolvable problem.” If we acknowledge our irrational brains, we can allow the negative thoughts and feelings to have their moment and then pass away so we can get on with real life and solvable problems.

Of course, some folks feel empowered by the idea of spiritual warfare, and thinking of their lives as a cosmic battle is uplifting. They relativize their negative thoughts by attributing them to Satan. But it’s important not to treat negative emotions as if they are a failure to be adequately faithful. Although Jesus told his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, he acknowledged that we do, in fact, have trouble today. He was well-acquainted with human frailty, and treated it with compassion, not contempt. Unbidden negative thoughts and feelings are not a failure to be faithful. They’re simply part of the total package of being human.

The Pot and Kettle

At least I’m not a hypocrite, like you are.

Your kind always makes sweeping generalizations about other people.

Who, me? Sarcastic? Oh, never!

You make ad hominem arguments because you are an evil, twisted person.

You’re attempting to undermine my position by psychoanalyzing me. Was your mother this condescending to you as a child?

You are a bully who accuses other people of bullying.

I’m not going to argue with you, because you’re wrong for the following reasons.

You are being redundant and repetitive.

You believe we should kill old people and eat babies. That’s why you make these straw-man arguments.

One of your kind was prejudiced toward me once.

How I Became a Feminist

In 1998 my wife discovered a mass in her abdomen. It was about the size of a softball. We scheduled an appointment with an ob-gyn, who told us that it was probably not a cancerous ovarian cyst. It was more likely a uterine fibroid. An ultrasound confirmed that two very large cysts were growing, distorting the shape of her uterus so that their placement was unclear. Were they inside or outside? On her ovaries or not?

We scheduled laparoscopic surgery and a biopsy, and learned that they were, in fact, uterine fibroids. “Very unusual for a white woman to have such large fibroids,” said the doctor, a statement we’d hear more than once in the following years. “I can’t believe you’re not having more pain.” We’d hear that one, too. We scheduled a follow-up appointment and spent a couple of weeks in a haze of mild anxiety.

This was just as Google was becoming a household word, but internet searches didn’t turn up much about uterine fibroids. I was a seminary student at Vanderbilt University, and there was a fabulous medical library on campus. We spent several hours looking through journals and learned that although fibroids are very common, they are not typically dangerous. There were a variety of possible treatments, from embolization (killing the fibroids’ blood supply) to myomectomy (cutting them out), but cutting out such large cysts increased the risk that scar tissue would complicate pregnancy—if we could even get pregnant. We learned that a majority of women have fibroids, and they are the main reason women have hysterectomies.

I was surprised that neither of us had ever learned about this common problem, and frustrated that every article we read said that nobody really knows why fibroids happen. In addition to creating fertility problems, we learned that fibroids might sometimes be responsible for dangerous ectopic pregnancies. Everything we learned about them only increased our uncertainty. My wife had been taking birth control pills for years to control painful periods. Did that contribute to the growth of fibroids? There was no consensus. Some said yes, others said no.

When we went in for our follow-up appointment, we brought all of our questions. Would we be able to get pregnant? Would it be safe to do so? Would insurance cover some kind of surgery or treatment? The doctor listened to our questions and was impressed with our research, but he couldn’t really tell us much more. He referred us to a specialist.

The specialist wasn’t much help, either. Our biggest concern was a dangerous pregnancy. He basically shrugged and said, “Whatever your plans for having children, you should probably do it sooner rather than later. These things tend to grow. It may grow a little, or it may grow a lot. If it grows a lot, you could have a complicated pregnancy.”

As a student, I was required to buy health insurance. We seldom used or needed it. Every August as the semester began, I had to scrape together enough money to buy our coverage. Most of our doctor visits happened at the university, and we never had trouble with insurance.

The following month we got a statement from our insurance company saying that we owed $260 for an uncovered doctor’s appointment. We were school-poor. We budgeted each month down to pennies. Our entertainment was whatever was free on campus. We had $100 in a savings account. The bill might as well have been for $1000—there was no way we could pay it.

I called the number on the back of my insurance card. The customer service representative on the other end of the line was a young guy—probably my age. I asked him why our insurance was refusing to pay. He looked up something on his computer.

“Ummmmm… oh, here it is. Yeah, we don’t cover contraceptive charges.”

“What? No, this isn’t a contraceptive charge. This was a consultation about tumors on my wife’s uterus.”

“This doesn’t say anything about tumors,” he said.

“They are fibroids. A kind of cyst. We were just thankful it wasn’t cancerous, but we were worried about complications. So that’s why we had the consultation.”

“So, were you asking about getting pregnant?”

I didn’t like where this was going. “Yes—I mean, no, not really. Getting pregnant is part of it, we just want to make sure there wasn’t any danger. This is about her health.”

“Well, if you were talking about getting pregnant, then it’s a contraceptive charge. Or a fertility charge, and we don’t cover fertility consultations, either.”

“No, listen, you’re not hearing me.” I had tangled the cord around my fingers. “I want to make sure my wife is safe. This is about her health. I wanted to know if she gets pregnant, would it put her life in danger.”

“If you were talking about preventing pregnancy, then it’s a contraceptive charge.”

“What the hell? Look, if I had a tumor the size of a softball on my testicle, would that be covered?”

The cubicle jockey on the other end laughed, “Sir, men can’t get pregnant.”

I’d always heard of sentences being felt “like a punch in the gut,” but had dismissed them as cliche. But that’s where I felt his words: a physical pain, a cold, hollow place in my abdomen. Then I felt the rage. I started cussing.

I asked to speak to a manager, and I was referred to another man with whom I had the same conversation. They informed me of an appeal process, but said they doubted it would change anything. If I couldn’t pay the $260 at once, I could probably work out an arrangement with the doctor’s office to pay in installments.

When I hung up the phone, my wife and I were both shaking and crying, the frustration and helplessness we felt having no other outlet. I do not believe violence is the answer to problems, but in that moment, I wanted to reach through the phone and throttle the idiot on the other end. He was probably just a student, like me, working a call center to pay his way. He spoke out of his ignorance. But my wife and I had scraped together what little money we had to buy this insurance, only to hear them laugh at our physical and financial distress. They laughed at my protest of unfairness. HIs words echoed in my mind: “Sir, men can’t get pregnant. Men can’t get pregnant.” As if it explained everything in the world.

I had never experienced the dehumanizing effects of sexism myself, the devaluation of half of humanity’s fundamental life concerns: health, freedom, and responsibility. For the first time, I felt was on the receiving end of systemic misogyny. At least, I felt it financially. My own health problems were classified as health problems, but my wife’s health problems were contraceptive or fertility problems—convenient labels that allowed our insurance company to refuse to give us the money we had already paid to them for our health care. The fact that I was concerned about her life and well-being was irrelevant. The minute we started talking about her lady-parts, her identity as a human being ceased to matter.

I would never stand for an insurance company or an employer telling me what kind of medical care I could get for my man parts. The only person who can make educated decisions about my body is me. And if part of the compensation of my employment is health insurance, then I’d better get the care that I’ve already paid for.

Of course, I was worried about our family planning, too. But getting any kind of financial help with such things had never crossed my mind. We had been paying for her pills for ages. It never occurred to us that we were actually saving the insurance company money. We were not trying to freeload birth control from a corporation. We just wanted the money we had already paid.

This was also the first time I had seen first-hand the banal dismissiveness of men who fail to see the sexism present in the medical system, or their complicity in it. My attempt to point out that my wife and I were treated differently was laughed off.

I’m a bit ashamed that I had to be hit where it really matters—in the wallet—for me to understand the demeaning way our society treats women every single day. If I had been wealthier, the bill would have been a minor annoyance. Why not just pay it? Instead, I had felt the physical threat to our existence those policies represent because we were riding the edge of poverty. Of course, the worst thing that would have happened is that I would have had to drop out of school and get a job. But I was suddenly much more sympathetic to people in real poverty.

Now, when I hear someone use cowardly rhetoric to talk about birth control, or of “being a slut on someone else’s dime,” I think about all the dimes I collected to pay an insurance company for nothing. I think about the corporate jets their executives fly. I think about the very tall buildings on Wall Street that I helped finance. And I think about the sluts in congress who sell their morals to healthcare industries, and the pimps in corporate boardrooms who control them.

We did manage to have a child, eventually, though we don’t know whether or not to blame the fibroids for her two miscarriages—they still don’t know much about them, you see. And they don’t know why black women get them more often than white. If white men got fibroids on their testicles, and it required castrations, you can be damn sure we’d know what causes fibroids and how to treat them. And you know insurance would pay every cent.

When she delivered by caesarian, the ob-gyn said the largest fibroid was the size of a basketball. It had shrunk by the time she had a hysterectomy. At that point, it weighed only six pounds. By that time in our lives we had decent insurance that treated her like a human being. We only had to pay a few thousand dollars for the surgery—still far out of reach of most of America’s poor.

So, that’s how I became a feminist. That’s when I claimed the label and decided that I would work hard to be a better ally, because being on the losing side of a double standard really sucks. When defenders of that double standard accuse you of being morally deficient, it adds insult to injury. When they laugh at your distress, it makes you fighting mad. Militant, even. I am thankful for the epiphany.

While nobody ever took our medical choices completely away, we were jerked around financially and emotionally by an insurance company, and we paid for the privilege. I wished at the time that we either had no insurance or a public option. Either would have given my wife more autonomy over her own body. If we had not had the financial and moral support of our extended family, I can easily see how this kind of uncaring “care” could cost us the ability to have children… or worse.

Jesus described his problem with the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The concept of universalizability is one of the bedrock fundamentals of ethics: what applies to one, applies to all. Yet we continue to place a heavier burden on one half of humanity than the other in so many ways.

As I said, I’m grateful for the experience. It’s not the only one that has helped me to see my own privilege, and look past it, even when I thought I’d already dealt with it. I hope that our descendants can inherit a world in which the burdens of the world are shared equally between rich and poor, women and men, and where access to healthcare is no longer used as a tool of oppression.

 

Modern Parables 9: The Good ______

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A preacher stood up to test Jesus: “Level with us, Rabbi: Who gets into heaven?” Jesus said: “A man was beaten and bloody on the side of the road. A Southern Baptist preacher passed him by. An non-denominational pastor passed him by. Finally, a Muslim stopped to help him. She bandaged his wounds and took him to the hospital. When they asked about insurance, his doctor, an agnostic Jew, paid for his care in cash. Which of these demonstrated their desire for heaven?” The preacher mumbled, “The ones who helped him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Then the religious leaders went out and plotted how to destroy him.

Modern Parables 8: Late to Work

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

To what shall I compare the reign of God? It is like a maid who apologizes to the lady of the house for arriving late to work. “And why were you late?” the wealthy woman demanded. “Please, ma’am,” said the maid, “my old junker wouldn’t start, so I had to take the bus. That is why I did not arrive until after noon.” The wealthy woman gave the maid the keys to her own car and said, “You may have my car. And come, marry into my family. Take my oldest child’s hand in marriage, and live with us, so that you will not be late again.” The gardener overheard this exchange, and grumbled about it. “This new girl has the easiest job of all the staff. I have worked for you for years in the heat and the snow. Why should this irresponsible girl be given an expensive car, and your daughter’s hand in marriage, when I’ve given you years of faithful service?” The woman replied, “Friend, you never asked. You are welcome to sleep in the shed any time you like. But now, get to work: I need flowers for a wedding.”

 

Modern Parables 7: Beach-Front Property

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

Climate change and rising sea levels began destroying a wealthy industrialist’s beach-front property. So she sold that house and bought a mountain cabin. “I feel closer to God up here,” she said. “And one day, this will be beach-front property, too.”