God Cares About Your Happiness

Deutsches schwarzköpfiges Fleischschaf.JPG
Deutsches schwarzköpfiges Fleischschaf” by 4028mdk09Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

God is concerned about the material conditions for human flourishing. 

“Material conditions” means the stuff out of which life is made. That means tangible stuff: money, bodies (health), food, water, and physical touch. This is why so much of the Bible is about poverty and economic inequality, why there’s manna in the wilderness, why Jesus heals peoples’ bodies, and why incarnational theology is so important.

It’s also why Ezekiel’s God is so angry with the way the rich despoil the planet and ruin it for the poor.

God is also concerned with the social conditions for human flourishing.

“Social conditions” means the stuff out of which our life together is made. Relationships, politics, power, justice, and communication. This is why so much of the Bible deals with jealousy, anger, and forgiveness; with shared, decentralized leadership; with moral double-standards and hypocrisy.

I think it’s important to state these things, because there is a toxic Christian meme that regularly makes the rounds that asserts that God cares more about your holiness than your happiness.

I understand what people are trying to say when they assert these things: that our culture is self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But the Bible never contrasts holiness with happiness. True happiness, biblical authors assert, comes from meditating on and understanding Torah—not just the literal words of it, but the deeper truths to which they point. The Hebrew Torah was like the Greek Logos. It was Wisdom, the principles by which God created the world, and when human beings sought them out, they would find “true happiness.”

In this, the biblical authors agreed with Greek philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Aristotle. Happiness is more than pleasure-seeking: it is found in virtue and understanding. You can’t buy it, and excess wealth is dangerous—but it’s hard to be happy in poverty.

Jesus echoes his Jewish tradition and comments on Greek philosophy as well when he says this stuff:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. (Matthew 5:3-11, CEB)

You would think that these assertions would be uncontroversial: God cares about the material and social conditions for human flourishing. God is concerned with human happiness. But there is a political aspect to these statements as well.

God is not concerned about the poor because God wants them to be holy; God wants them to be happy—which has political implications. God wants oppressed and marginalized people—the “thin sheep” in Ezekiel’s story—to be happy, to have fresh water and good pasture, not dirty water and ruined pasture.

A God who cares about human happiness is a dangerous God. God is dangerous to those who relativize the happiness of other human beings.

This God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who cares about human happiness and not merely holiness, IS controversial. Holiness is the means, not the end. We do not pursue happiness in order to be holy, but holiness in order to be happy. Holiness which does not lead to greater human flourishing is not holy. It is infernal.

How to Avoid Anti-Jewish Preaching

"Sammlung Braginsky Megillah2" by Fred Schaerli

“Sammlung Braginsky Megillah2″ by Fred Schaerli

This article originally appeared at Ministry Matters.

“Don’t preach something that gets my kids bullied on the bus.” That’s what our guest lecturer, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, said to our preaching class over a decade ago. I’ve never forgotten her admonishment.

That’s not to say that I’ve always lived up to it. As a preacher, I will confess that I’ve uncritically repeated anti-Jewish ideas in sermons and writing without ever realizing they were anti-Jewish. It’s too easy to equate Pharisees with legalistic or hypocritical Christians. It’s too simple to buy into the theology that Jesus represented grace while Judaism represented law, that Jesus replaced an oppressive “Old Covenant” with a freeing “New Covenant,” substituting a relationship for rules.

It’s easy to portray Judaism as a religion obsessed with ritual purity—ignoring that the usual consequence for ritual impurity is simply not going to temple. As Dr. Levine told our class, “Being ritually unclean was generally not a big deal—most people were probably unclean most of the time.” Being ritually impure is an important part of life. Although handling a corpse might make you ritually unclean, burying an unburied body is an ethical imperative and an act of love. Having sex or menstruating might make people unclean, but it is a necessary part of being fruitful and multiplying. Judaism did not consider ritual impurity a sinful state! It was simply part of life. Conversely, one could be a jerk, fail to do justice and righteousness, and still go to worship—just as Christians do today.

Another version of this anti-Judaism says Jesus’ culture was patriarchal, but Jesus was a feminist, that first-century Jews were obsessed with money and privilege but Jesus, radical that he was, showed love to the poor and marginalized.

We often assume that for the Christian narrative to work, we have to make Jesus opposed to his own religion. Instead of locating him firmly within Jewish tradition, we make him an Other. The gospels themselves make it easy to do so: we read Jesus’ polemic against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, or about how “the Jews” rejected Jesus in John. Historically, it’s just as accurate to say that the early church rejected Judaism!

Dr. Levine’s recent book, Short Stories by Jesus, not only examines Jesus’ parables by placing them in a Jewish context, but also reviews some of the ways anti-Judaism gets perpetuated in Christian books, periodicals, and commentaries. Christians often rush to make parables clear-cut allegories with heroes and villains, to extract a tidy preachable moral from each story. Even when we take the view that parables are meant to unsettle, rather than simplify, we have very particular views about who is meant to be unsettled. As Levine says, “Clergy actually do think they are presenting a challenging message when in fact they are, unintentionally, repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes” (p. 20).

In the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8), for example, we usually read with the assumption that the widow is a victim in need of rescue. Christian preachers often claim that in her first-century Jewish setting, she had no rights and was doomed to a life of poverty. Levine’s close linguistic reading of the text reveals that the widow is a dangerous woman: she desires revenge on an enemy, and the judge is afraid she will punch him the face!

Levine also gives us a view of biblical widowhood that is at odds with our usual reading of helpless victims in need of rescue. Although the Bible is full of admonitions to care for widows, and although biblical authors talk of society’s obligations to widows, widows clearly could own property—otherwise, why would villains be after their houses (Luke 20:46-47)? If they were helpless, why would Paul feel they needed to be regulated (1 Timothy 5)? In Jewish tradition, women without husbands are often strong protagonists who act decisively, like Judith, Ruth, Tamar (Genesis 38), and the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17).

It is not only our characterization of heroes and villains that reveal our anti-Jewish tendencies. When we describe Jesus’ audience as being offended by the lavish love of the prodigal Father, or indifferent to the suffering of Lazarus, or scandalized by a woman hiding leaven in bread, we reinforce the idea that his listening Jewish audience embodied everything wrong with us. (These are also sloppy readings of scripture, often contradicted by evidence in the story itself). By extension, we make Judaism into a broken religion in need of correction—a correction that can only happen through Jesus.

We don’t need to call Jews “Christ-killers” to promote anti-Judaism. Both conservative and liberal Christians, liberation theologians and evangelicals express this kind of anti-Judaism. It is perpetuated by Christians on both sides of the modern Israeli/Palestinian debate. It is deeply rooted in our Christian rhetoric. It means Christians in the pews seldom receive an accurate picture of either historical or modern Judaism, and that Jewish kids get bullied.

Here are some ways to avoid expressing anti-Judaism in our preaching:

  1. Refer to the “Hebrew Bible” instead of the “Old Testament.”
  2. Remember that most of what Jesus said about Pharisees and Jews of his day can be applied to committed religious people in any time and place. When Jesus talks about “Pharisees,” he often means it the same way that I mean “Christians” when I use it in this article—as a critique of a group to which we belong.
  3. Be careful about referring to “what Jews believe(d) or practice(d).” It’s often more accurate to say “some Jews.” Remember that like Christianity, Judaism has never been homogenous or monolithic. There are multiple ways of reading, interpreting, and living out Torah. In Jesus’ day there were at least four major Jewish factions, and even within those factions, people disagreed.
  4. Remember that real live Jewish people exist in your community. Christians often talk about Judaism as if it is in the past, or somewhere over in the modern state of Israel, and that it stopped developing 2000 years ago. Learn about contemporary Judaism in your own community.
  5. Take every opportunity to show how Jesus’ message echoes the major themes of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus did not invent concern for people at the margins, nor did he introduce an entirely new understanding of grace and sin. Connect what Jesus said to other Jews who lived around his time period, like Hillel, who said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.”
  6. Avoid attributing legalism, violence, or other negative qualities to the Jewish faith or the Hebrew Bible. It is not the case that Jews of the first century, or today, believe in stoning adulterers or disobedient children. Christians often assert that our “New Covenant” supplanted the Old. But Jewish parents love their kids, spouses, and neighbors just the way Christians do—imperfectly, passionately, and with a measure of grace. Jews manage to avoid stoning adulterers and disobedient children because they have a mature and nuanced understanding of how the Bible should guide their lives.

We do make definitive and distinctive claims about the person and character of Christ, and Christians have a unique theology of incarnation, atonement, and salvation. We do not need to stop lifting up the name of Jesus. But we need to learn to do so without denigrating—or making exotic—Jesus’ own faith.

“Don’t preach something that gets my kids bullied on the bus.” It’s a good principle for preachers to remember.

For further reading: 

The Jewish Annotated New Testament Ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler

The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine

The Jew Named Jesus by Rebekah Simon-Peter

Anti-Judaism in Christian Teaching and Preaching by Matt Skinner

6 Ways to Avoid Unintentional Anti-Judaism by William F. Brosend

Preaching Without Contempt: Overcoming Unintentional Anti-Judaism by Marilyn Salmon

How Not to Ask a Question

I’ve been told “not to feed the trolls,” and Jesus tells us not to “throw our pearls before swine,” because they will simply “trample them under foot, and then turn and maul you.” I probably don’t follow this advice often enough. I think the identity of the pig or troll really depends on which side of the fence, bridge, or screen you are on.

Still, I think these kinds of interactions can be instructive.

From John Lomperis, in the comments of his blog. I will not link to them, because there are some pretty awful comments posted there:

Thanks for your reply, Dave. I’ll try try to make this easy for you: Are you willing to simply say, without any dodges or word games, that you believe that “monogamish” relationships and all extra-marital sex is inherently sinful, and that RMN should not suggest otherwise?

Here is my response:

Hi, John,

While you say you will make it “easy for me,” your question is a rhetorical trap. You start off with a fairly straightforward shibboleth, but you tag an additional clause which asks me to join your accusation of RMN, which I will not do.

It’s a bit like asking, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” That trap is called a “loaded question.” It makes it impossible to answer “yes” or “no.”

In your post on the Facebook group “The New Methodists,” you introduced your article with admonishments that nobody should use straw man or ad hominem attacks against you. I take it you have some familiarity with these logical fallacies. Perhaps you have been accused of them before. Considering that your article that mentioned me was one long amalgamation of ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments and slippery slope logic, perhaps you felt that if you beat people to the punch, you could get away with what you forbade others to do.

In the same way, you lead this question with admonishments not to play “language games.” In the very next sentence, you are playing language games. How should I take that?

I don’t read enough of your stuff to know if this is an intentional strategy on your part or not. For my part, I’m willing to give you a charitable reading: Maybe you’ve made a mistake.

Even so, considering this repeated rhetorical pattern in all two of our online interactions, I am not inclined to think of you as a trustworthy dialogue partner. I suspect you are more interested in scoring points than having a discussion, and are merely looking for more fuel to stoke a rage engine. So, as a preacher and educator, while I am always interested in having a discussion about the nature of sin, sexual ethics, and Methodist polity, I must decline to answer your question. You are welcome to read my follow-up, “What Good is Monogamy?” which is posted on my blog. There are several sentences there which I cannot prevent you from taking out of context and writing whole new pieces on, if you so desire. It is rather long, and there are a lot of words in it.

I still think your question is interesting, and I’d love to have a conversation about what it means for something to be “inherently sinful.” Is war, lying, or contempt inherently sinful? Do these things alienate us from God? I’d love to hear what you think about Abraham and Sarah being half-siblings, and if their incest is inherently sinful or not. (I do, actually, think that their marriage was sinful in this and many other ways, but I think that’s much less interesting than God’s covenant relationship with them.)

Anyway, sorry that I can’t answer your question without language games. But if you want a straight answer, you’ll need to ask a straight question. Thanks for trying to make it easy for me.

I wish you the best.
Dave

—————–

There is a lot more I could have written in my reply, if I felt that my interlocutor was genuinely interested in conversation. While I believe infidelity and promiscuity do alienate us from God, categorizing extra-marital sex as sinful while simultaneously forbidding marriage to gay people is, in fact, a greater sin. If heterosexual marriage were forbidden, I suppose I’d have to live in sin, too.

Forbidden marriage has been a theme of literature throughout history, and it’s why we have stories where protagonists marry in secret. Romeo and Juliet were not “technically” living in sin, because they were married, right?

There’s also an illustrative Bible story in Genesis 38. It tells the story of Judah, who accused Tamar (his daughter-in-law) of “playing the whore” (which was “inherently sinful,” apparently). Judah, by his own admission, was in the wrong. Tamar was “more righteous” because he denied her marital rights. (Judah stays mum on his own extra-marital shenanigans). I think Genesis 38 is a great story for our own time, when plenty of self-righteous Christians loudly condemn sexual sin in others while working very hard to make marriage inaccessible to others. Judah was willing to burn her alive for her infidelity. He was not willing to let her marry. That’s quite a double standard.

I do not think most anti-gay people are very interested in these kinds of stories or this kind of discussion. John is interested only in the right answer, or more specifically, any answer that allows me to be discredited. I have found that in discussions with anti-gay Christians, not many are very interested in the Bible or the actual stories it contains, or the kinds of questions they raise. It is far easier to deal with abstractions than actual cases, with ideas rather than people, and with “what the Bible says” than with the actual stories the Bible tells.

As I said in my earlier post, rules and vice lists can be useful. But when they are maintained by people hell-bent on supporting a double standard, they are simply tools of oppression. I don’t see value in accepting their terms of conversation or the way they frame the issue.

What Good is Monogamy?

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Library of Congress Photo – Mr. Allisson’s Wedding

 

Imagine my shock at learning that I support polyamory.*

These are the perils of trying to shift discussion away from slippery slope fallacies and sound bites from people who are firmly committed to them. I wish I could say that I was misconstrued in my previous article, but I assumed that people would want to come along for the ride when I tried to establish some positive claims for monogamy beyond “one man, one woman” or “what the Bible says.” But apparently when I wrote the sentence “I’m not ruling out multiple-partner marriages,” some people got off the train.

Here is one of the most important points that I hoped to make in my previous article:

If there are good reasons to prefer monogamy for straight people…
then those same reasons apply to LGBTQ people.

Not “one man, one woman.” That slogan does not establish good reasons for monogamy.

Not “the Bible says.” It is not true, and it does not describe good reasons for monogamy.

Not “polygamy is icky.” That does not describe good reasons for monogamy.

If one can’t come up with good reasons for monogamy, one can’t rule out other arrangements. In other words, the “slippery slope” is only a problem for those who can’t give good reasons for monogamy, or who think the slogan “one man, one woman” is a convincing reason to support it. Naturally, if this is your main criterion for sexual ethics, and someone threatens to take it away from you, then you don’t have a way to make judgments about other sexual behavior.

Which, honestly, is both sad and scary.

There are a variety of ways we think about ethical questions. There is rule-based (deontological) ethics: Don’t tell lies. There is outcome-based (consequentialist) ethics: Lies have these kinds of consequences. And there is virtue ethics: We want to be people of integrity, who express honesty.

In real life, we use a variety of approaches.

Some Christians, having been so programmed to think in terms of the Ten Commandments, never grow beyond thinking of simple rule-based ethics: Don’t kill. Honor the sabbath. Don’t make idols. The sad thing is, they never have the joy of understanding what those rules do or the concepts they embody.

Imagine how much stronger we would be if we understood them: Every person bears the image of God, every person is a universe of subjectivity, so don’t kill. Every person, rich and poor, every animal and even the land deserve rest, so observe the sabbath—and pay laborers enough that they can, too! Don’t make idols that look like kings or celebrities because the image of God is already found in the poorest among you, in your neighbor, and in your enemy.

This is a very different way of doing ethics from rule based “don’t do this” lists. It asks us to think like grown-ups.

Naturally, we still have rules—society could not function without them. And we can still say don’t kill, don’t make idols, observe the sabbath. Sometimes we examine ethical dilemmas and come away with different or modified rules or norms. “Act justly” is a better norm than “don’t lie,” because if you’re hiding Jews from the Gestapo or Christians from ISIL, it may be good to lie. If you’re hiding money from the IRS, it probably isn’t.

When it comes to certain biblical regulations—don’t sleep with a woman while she’s having her period; if you have sex, take a bath in the evening and wait a day before going to temple; don’t wear clothes made of two kinds of fabric—when we search for reasons, we may have to think historically and anthropologically.

Christians often don’t think in these terms. But they know that we do actually have to disregard some biblical rules while following others. Rather than think in terms of ethics, they think in terms of covenant: New vs. Old. And even though which rules we observe and which we don’t are arbitrary from that perspective, if certain rules preserve sexism or heterosexism… well, that’s better than making God angry.

The other problem with thinking in terms of New vs. Old Covenant is that it is inherently anti-Jewish. Liberal Christians make this same mistake when they characterize the Hebrew Bible as being legalistic or the Hebrew God as being angry. Jews don’t see it that way at all, because they’ve been doing advanced ethics for thousands of years.

It’s time Christians grew up, too.

Good Reasons for Monogamy

I provided several good reasons in my article supporting the virtues of monogamy: equity, respect, mutuality, social stability, clear parental responsibility, clear legal rights, preventing the spread of STDs, and creating intimacy. If there is something good about monogamous exclusivity, if it makes us more human, if it helps us understand the concept of commitment, if it builds character, if it necessitates creativity, if it teaches us something important about covenant love and the nature of God, all of those good things should be available to all people. But if it’s just about a single penis being used in a single vagina, then that’s not a good way to do Christian ethics, nor is it a good witness to non-Christians that we have anything interesting to say about sexual ethics in the public sphere.

Let’s observe something about the way humans actually behave (which is an important part of descriptive ethics): It’s interesting that we celebrate not only marriage, but anniversaries. When people have been together for 25 or 50 years, we say “Congratulations! Good job!” because they have accomplished something: they have managed to stay alive and not only avoid resenting each other, but also they have remained committed, grown in love, and (hopefully) thrived. We celebrate these monogamous unions in a way that we don’t celebrate random hook-ups.

So what are we celebrating when we celebrate those anniversaries? Presumably, if it were not a real achievement, we would not think of it as a big deal. It would just be the arbitrary passage of time. We celebrate it not because the Bible says to celebrate it, but because we attach certain virtues and social goods to the concept of monogamy.

When I do a wedding, if couples choose to write their own vows, I tell them that their vows need to be parallel. In other words, if they are making a covenant promise to each other, they both need to buy into the same promise. I do this because before I was ordained, I once attended a wedding where the husband made up his vows on the spot. I walked away with the impression that what he had promised was, “Forever is a long time, and I’m not making any promises.” I resolved that if couples wrote their own vows, their vows would have to be parallel—and they would need to be written and approved beforehand! They need to promise to be in it for the long haul, and to be equal partners in the life they are building together, to share their journey of faith and a commitment to their larger church and community.

Not all Christians follow this practice. Some straight couples I know and respect promise to fulfill different roles: the wife to “honor and obey,” and the husband to be “the spiritual head of the household.” I have to concede that although those vows are not to my liking, their marriages can be strong and admirable as well. I believe in a marriage of equals, but I can conceive of other ways of doing marriage.

I could list some of the virtues of my own marriage and the spiritual growth it has worked in me. But although I would wish that experience for everyone, I can’t claim that these are universal virtues of monogamy or that they are exclusively available to married folks. For some people, marriage is an abusive trap, a living hell. This is not the fault of monogamy or marriage. It’s the fault of one partner breaking their vows of faith. But monogamy is not more or less virtuous than polygamy, polyamory, or random hook ups just because it’s monogamy.

Ideally, monogamous marriage means someone has your back. There’s at least one person in the world who will not form a coalition with others against you. You make a vow to “forsake all others” because allowing third parties into the intimate parts of your life means that you are no longer someone’s exclusive concern. This is not about jealousy, but practical social arrangements. Being someone else’s “main thing” is important. Two or more people cannot be a main thing.

After February 9 during the brief window in Alabama when same-sex couples could marry, I talked to more than one couple who said that they had lived together for 10 or more years. They did not think that getting “official” recognition would mean much. Yet all of them said, “It’s different.” Marriage is different from living together. Exchanging vows and becoming “legal” imparts a social value that is difficult to put into words.

But we can measure it: in states where marriage equality has passed, LGBTQ physical and mental health are better.

We put rings on our fingers to signal to the rest of society that we are in a special relationship with another person. We are no longer sexually or romantically “available,” but attached even when we are far away. In a good marriage, this ring becomes a symbol for absolute trust. Having social recognition of this bond of exclusive partnership is important. Denying it is both cruel and costly.

Everything I’ve just said about the social goods of monogamy can be applied to marriage between same-sex partners as well as straight ones.

Criticizing Monogamy

Which brings me to another question: Why do we not celebrate celibacy in the same way as we do heterosexual marriage? Jesus said some people make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God, and Paul considered it a spiritual gift. Why don’t communities gather to say, “Congratulations on your 25th anniversary of celibacy!” Yet in our culture, we either ignore it, denigrate it, or regard it with a kind of pity—even in most Christian communities (outside of Holy Orders). Because of this double standard and discrimination, sometimes people append “asexual” to the already-cumbersome alphabet soup (LGBTQIAP+).**

I suspect if we dig into the whys and wherefores of our attitudes toward our celebration of monogamy, we’ll find that it’s not about the virtues of marriage so much as it is about the support of patriarchy. This is why we do not celebrate celibacy. This is why polyamory or polyandry (one wife with multiple husbands) is so destabilizing—much more so than polygyny (one husband with multiple wives). This is why Christians shrug off Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Elkanah’s and David’s polygamy as being irrelevant to the discussion, or being rendered somehow irrelevant in the “New Covenant.” (Jews have been doing monogamous marriage for thousands of years without the benefit of ascribing to a “New Covenant,” so why do they also consider monogamy praiseworthy? A new covenant has nothing to do with it.)

As I said above, monogamy is not more or less virtuous than polygamy, polyamory, or random hook ups just because it’s monogamy. A monogamous marriage can be just as abusive, exploitive, sexist, and fatal as any other kind of relationship. This kind of exploitive monogamy is not limited to the distant past.

Critics of the institution of marriage have often talked about the sexist roots of “traditional” marriage. We often forget that the process of marriage in the ancient world was simply the act of heterosexual intercourse itself, sometimes with the exchange of money or gifts between a husband and the wife’s family. These marriages were often arranged, and the sex was not always consensual. After the husband tore his virgin wife’s hymen, the bloody sheets were presented to his in-laws so that they might keep “evidence of her virginity:”

Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, ‘I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.’ The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. The father of the young woman shall say to the elders: ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man but he dislikes her; now he has made up charges against her, saying, “I did not find evidence of your daughter’s virginity.” But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. (Deuteronomy 22.13-17, NRSV)

This very process is still practiced today in places like Iran. A story on this American Life contains a reference to this ancient biblical practice, though the events took place just a few decades ago. These practices still exist in our world.***

Library of Congress Photo - Bedouin Wedding Processional

Library of Congress Photo – Bedouin Wedding Processional

But adopting a critical stance toward monogamy is not acceptable in our culture: witness the ginned-up outrage over my blog post on the subject. As I said, some of the criticism is warranted. I could have been clearer in my section on polygamy about what I was driving at. But the argument of the blog “rebutting” my article does not actually address any of my questions or points. The critical response simply implies, “This yokel (or this group) believes in polygamy—he’s a moral degenerate and should not be a pastor. Do not listen to him.” But that is not an argument that supports the virtues of monogamy. If an atheist polyamorist were to raise the question, “What are the virtues of monogamy, and why should they be denied to gay people?” it would still be a reasonable question, and one that Christians should take seriously.

The articles in question gleefully double down on the slippery slope fallacy. For their authors, the slide from interracial marriage to gay marriage to multiple-partner marriages to incest, bestiality, and marriage to mops is inevitable once you remove the cornerstone of Christian sexual ethics:

There are reserved parking spaces for penises.

This norm is the bedrock of traditionalist support for their understanding of marriage. They believe this principle is established in the Bible, and that if you take it away, anything becomes acceptable. What they want is not a set of norms to evaluate sexual behavior, but a list of sexual behaviors that are “inherently sinful,” a set of dos and don’ts.

To be fair, I do not think most straight men think of their wives primarily as places to park their penises. But I do think this idea is implicit in conventional Christian culture, and has everything to do with purity balls, promise rings, and anti-feminist rhetoric.

The widespread acceptance of this principle can be witnessed in the double standards our culture applies to women and men in language about modesty and sexual promiscuity and in victim-blaming rape culture. Our Christian culture’s support of heterosexual marriage has less to do with the value of marriage or the goods it provides. It has more to do with preserving patriarchy. Shame around “sexual purity” is the rhetorical weapon used to reinforce this principle (more on that below.)

In our culture, anxiety about polygamy or polyamory is seldom about one man with multiple wives (polygyny), but about legally-sanctioned threesomes, open marriages, or polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands). The fear is that people might, without shame, have lots of sex in ways of which we disapprove. But while conservatives can often describe this sexual dystopia, they have a difficult time framing those concerns as positive support for monogamy. They prefer to stick with the “one man, one woman” slogan.

There will be quick retribution if we question the virtues of monogamy in our culture or relativize it (by talking about the practices of other cultures). This is the “political correctness” of patriarchy, and it has been around for thousands of years.

No wonder people thought Jesus was possessed by demons when he spoke disparagingly of family ties. Patriarchy is a god and to question it is blasphemy.

What’s missing?

What traditionalists fear is that if we kick away this patriarchal “parking space” norm, we will have nothing left. We will slide down a slippery slope into sexual anarchy. But, in fact, we can come up with several excellent norms, supported both by the Bible and Christian theology and tradition, that are much better for doing sexual ethics. I’m a big fan of Margaret Farley’s norms for Christian ethics from her book Just Love:

1. Do no unjust harm – this is also Wesley’s first principle of discipleship.

2. Free consent – a norm almost completely missing from the Bible, but which we should derive from loving our neighbor as ourselves.

3. Mutuality – both partners give and receive love and physical affection. The relationship is not one-sided.

4. Equality – power and responsibility are equally shared. The humanity of one partner is not denigrated.

5. Commitment – partners treat each other as ends and not means, as human beings instead of sex objects.

6. Fruitfulness – the relationship may not produce children, but produces spiritual and social fruit. The relationship develops other social goods for the larger community beyond the partners.

7. Social justice – partners think not only in terms of what’s good for them, but what’s good for the world, their potential children, and future generations.

These norms are so, so much better than “one man, one woman.” They give us positive ways for evaluating relationships. They allow us to rule out exploitive, abusive, selfish, or toxic relationships in a way that “the Bible says” does not. Moreover, they are intelligible to people who are not Christians. They give us a common language to talk with those who may not share our faith.

They also give us an opportunity to share what it is about our faith that should appeal to non-Christians. Some people call marriage God’s graduate school: It challenges us to learn how to love God and neighbor in a deeper way. We learn to love our neighbor better when we have another person challenging us to live beyond our own selfish tendencies every day.

These norms also give us language that encompasses both the sexual and non-sexual aspects of a relationship. As same-sex marriage supporters often point out, marriage is about more than sex. The vast majority of time we spend in a marriage is not sexual, but practical: checking calendars to make sure our families don’t have conflicts around school or work, balancing the checkbook, buying groceries, preparing food, enforcing discipline, celebrating birthdays, or supporting each other in crisis. Sexual intimacy can give us the strength to do all of these things better because we know and are known by another person. We trust that person with our lives, because we trust that person with the most intimate parts of ourselves in our “nakedness,” our vulnerability.

Again, all of these norms apply to same-sex marriage as easily as they apply to opposite-sex marriage.

The Problems (and Advantages) of Polygamy

We could also use these norms to critique polygamy or relationships that fall outside of monogamous marriage. Commitment is a problem for non-monogamy, because to value and understand an “other” as a subjective self takes a lifetime of knowing and being known, of sharing goals and dreams. Mutuality and equality are called into question in relationships that include more than a pair.

In my previous article, I mentioned that workplace relationships, like incest, violate equality and free consent norms. As I mentioned above, in places where polygyny is practiced, partners are often not equal, and consent is not free.

A commenter on my previous article asked me to clarify my take on polygamy, and I responded this way:

I suppose my biggest critique of polygamy / polyamory is that it violates a norm of exclusive commitment and calls into question equal power relationships. In classic polygamy (polygyny), women, girls, and even young boys often wind up the “losers” in that kind of social arrangement. It requires an unequal distribution of men and women, and anyone who is not an older male does not have the same level of freedom or power.

…it takes a lifetime of exclusive commitment to truly know another person intimately, [and] adequate respect given to that process doesn’t leave time for anyone else. I think exclusive commitment is one way to protect the idea that people are treated as ends instead of means, that others are not used for their sexual utility only (either for pleasure or reproductive purposes), but are valued as complete subjective selves.

We have to recognize also that these norms may not apply cross-culturally. In some cultures, men and women who marry do not live together. Men continue to live in the “men’s house,” and women live with their extended family. What do we say about monogamy or commitment or equality in this situation? How would people in this culture live out the gospel? Do we force them to live in single-family homes in the suburbs?

This doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize other cultural practices. Cultures that practice polygyny and female genital mutilation violate the norms of equality, mutuality, free consent, and doing no harm.

It also doesn’t mean that Christian marriage is safe from critique. All of these norms are available for critique once they are stated. Is commitment really important? Do we ever really value other people as “subjective selves?” Is that kind of long-term relationship necessary for people to develop mature love, and if so, what are we saying about people who choose to remain celibate, or people who are asexual, or people who are single? Are they not able to love maturely?

I welcome these kinds of questions from folks who have rejected traditional marriage and find our cultural idolization of it oppressive. Their voices need to be heard.

But doing this kind of thoughtful reflection on relationships is more work than just saying “polygamy is bad.” It requires us to examine questions about power, respect, and consent, which patriarchal Christianity cannot abide.

Nor can it abide moral imagination. Part of doing ethics for thousands of years has involved trying to come up with a scenario, no matter how far-fetched, in which something forbidden might become acceptable. The rabbis of ancient Israel asked “under what circumstances does it become okay to violate the sabbath?” Philosophers ask questions about how we make life-and-death decisions when choosing between the good of the many and the good of the few (see the trolley dilemma). So to test our ethical norms, we should ask, “under what circumstances can we imagine polygamy being acceptable?”

This would be a great discussion for a classroom, although by floating it I again risk the ire of right-wing bloggers. If one man and three women are stranded on a desert island without hope of rescue, does polyamory become acceptable? Most straight men will want to say yes—but does it really? What about one woman and three men? In proposing this scenario, do we recognize the danger of rape, the historical precedent of jealous male violence, and the question “How free is consent in this situation?” Can we really talk about any social and sexual agreement the four of them develop as “marriage?”

What if they are not on a desert island, but the last survivors on the planet, and the human race will die out unless they reproduce? Genetic diversity will be important for future generations, so do they have an obligation to sleep around as much as possible? Or do our norms override even the survival of the species?

What if we are colonizing another planet? Sending lots of men on a spaceship is an inefficient use of resources, so would polygyny be acceptable in that situation? Why use men at all, if we have the technology to allow for an all-female crew? Although it sounds like a setup for a sci-fi sexploitation novel, it forces us to clarify what norms we are using when we judge human sexual relationships.

These questions involve an element of storytelling and an openness to uncomfortable answers. This is where philosophy becomes narrative, and the stuff we’re talking about as abstract hypotheticals get incarnated by characters with whom we sympathize. This is why we should read fiction.

Rhetoric and the problem of doing Christian ethics in the public sphere

Unfortunately, my recent experience has shown me that not everyone appreciates this kind of imaginative exploration. Questions and narratives are as threatening to patriarchal Christianity as people who refuse to be shamed.

Conventional patriarchal Christianity is heavily dependent on shame to police behavior. Disgust and shaming are deployed against any who challenge patriarchy. Because these tactics are largely emotional instead of rational, they take advantage of a full range of fallacious logic: slippery slopes, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, straw man arguments, and so on. Both articles attacking me doubled down on the slippery slope fallacy, but they do not address the question, “What good is monogamy?”

I usually prefer to ask questions rather than offer value judgments. I generally don’t repost or retweet moral outrage, because these are the tools of cable news networks. I prefer classroom-style discussion. These styles don’t play well together. Doing Christian ethics in the public sphere requires writing for a potentially hostile audience.

Shame, disgust, and violence are tools of patriarchal Christianity, partly because of its atonement theory (often called “penal substitutionary atonement”—which makes me snicker.) The narrative goes like this: God is going to send us to hell because God is disgusted with our sinfulness. But God chose to take out his (and he is definitely masculine) wrath on Jesus instead of us. If we buy into this narrative through confession and repentance, we can experience cathartic release of all of our guilt and shame, and God will not be violent with us (by sending us to hell).

The advantage of this individualistic atonement theory is that for people who need to be saved from their destructive behavior (especially addictions), who feel burdened by guilt and shame, they can have a cathartic release. God is not against them, but for them. They are freed from their past and can begin again. It can be a liberating story.

The problem is that not everyone feels particularly guilty. What is a Christian evangelist to do with someone who doesn’t feel particularly sinful? The answer is easy: make them feel sinful. Let them know how awful their sin is. Even if their sin isn’t particularly awful, it’s all the same to an infinitely holy God. This approach has worked well in America ever since Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and described us sinners as disgusting spiders held by God over eternal flames.

But increasingly, Christians are becoming aware that being saved from personal sin and hell is not everyone’s prime concern. There are different ways to talk about atonement and what God does for us through Jesus Christ. For many who are ground under the heel of oppression, who are targeted unfairly for violent policing in American cities, who are trapped in abusive marriages, who are denied legal rights because they are gay, the primary thing they need to be saved from is not their own personal sin. Doubling down on shame rhetoric does not make them rush into the arms of the Lord. They have enough shame. We cannot turn the thumbscrews on them any tighter to make them confess. What they need saving from is the sin of injustice, of discrimination, of violence.

This is why conservative reaction against progressive evangelicals has been so vitriolic. If people stop listening to the shame rhetoric of conventional patriarchal Christianity, they won’t come down the Romans road to the altar. We will all go gaily traipsing down the slippery slope to moral anarchy and damnation. It’s why any ambiguous statement will be seized upon as evidence of liberal moral turpitude.

The church of conventional patriarchal Christianity has played the role of disapproving parent to our culture for so long that it doesn’t know what to do when adolescents give it the finger or shrug and say, “Nuts to you and your shame language.”

It’s worth noting here, as many others have pointed out, that Jesus doesn’t use much shame language in the gospels. At least, not with everyday people. The folks Jesus uses shame language with are religious leaders who themselves attempt to shame him by saying he’s abolishing Torah, destroying the traditional family, and turning the world upside-down. The tabloids published articles about him: “Rabbi from Galilee accused of Threatening to Tear Down Temple.”

When we bring up the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, people who want to preserve patriarchal Christianity desperately hang on Jesus’ last “go and sin no more” as a lifeline. “See?” They argue, while picking up more stones. “He’s not letting her off the hook.” Anything to preserve shame as a weapon.

And this is why doing what I do as a pastor at the margins—asking questions, describing history, talking about real (instead of imaginary) social problems, pointing out arguments that biblical authors have with each other, making friends with LGBTQ activists—is dangerous. Using my pastoral authority as a platform to create an open classroom for discipleship, rather than a secure position from which to attack others, involves risk.

But it also opens up the biblical text and Christian tradition to those who have been marginalized by patriarchal Christianity. It makes doing Christian ethics relevant to people who are not Christians.

 


*The headline is “Major United Methodist Gay Lobby Group Accused of Endorsing Polyamory,” which is a little bit like the headline, “Barack Obama Accused of Being a Socialist.”

**I recognize celibacy and asexuality are not necessarily the same thing, but I think they fall under the same double-standard in terms of cultural prejudice.
***The story on This American Life is about a woman who married a man, moved to America, divorced him, then later remarried. It is a great way to illustrate how personal and social opinions of marriage are different across cultures, and what they mean to the people they affect. It’s also a great piece on marriage in general, and how people can (and do) change over time.
[Edits on 3-17-15 for grammar and clarity]
[Epilogue] – This article is intended to address Christian sexual ethics, not UMC polity or theology. If I were to talk about the quadrilateral (scripture, tradition, reason, experience), this would be an even longer article. Tradition affirms monogamy through our liturgy and theology. There are also arguments to be made for monogamy that are derived from scripture that go beyond “what the Bible says.” Again, that would be another topic, and would require a distinction between the actual words of scripture and the theology we derive from it.

10 Biblical Themes Avoided by Anti-Gay Christians

By Anonymous (photo by Adrian Pingstone) (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Anonymous (photo by Adrian Pingstone) (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been involved in several conversations both online and face to face about the Bible and LGBTQ issues. Because public discourse about the Bible has been dominated by the Christian Right for the last forty years, many folks are surprised that the Bible has anything positive to offer LGBTQ persons. Discussion about the Bible tends to rehash the same old “clobber passages.” I think it’s important for Christians who favor LGBTQ inclusion to reframe the discussion, so I offer these ten biblical themes that anti-gay Christians avoid talking about.

1. Tying up heavy burdens for others. This is from Matthew 23:4, part of Jesus’ chapter-long polemical rant against the religious leaders: “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 language of burden and yoke was a common metaphor for how religious leaders interpreted scripture. A “heavy burden” was a burdensome interpretation. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus contrasted himself with legalistic religious leaders. For their part, they accused Jesus of misreading the Bible or of “abolishing the law” (Matthew 5:17)—exactly the same arguments made against LGBTQ persons and their allies.

Anti-gay Christianity claims that “acting on” gay or lesbian attraction is a sin, and that they should abstain from sexual pleasure or intimacy with another human being for their entire lives. This is a “heavy burden” that most straight Christians do not shoulder themselves, but one which anti-gay Christians lay upon the shoulders of others. While celibacy may be a lifestyle choice, requiring it of others is certainly putting a burden on their shoulders.

Though they have accepted the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity may be something we’re born with, some of my colleagues describe LGBTQ identity as a genetic disorder, a product of our fallen world, like alcoholism or genetic obesity. The difference between being LGBTQ and being an alcoholic is empirical: “treatment” for addiction or obesity leads to lower mortality, depression, suicide, and other risk factors. But “treatment” to “cure” being LGBTQ leads to more depressions, suicide, and other risk factors. This burden isn’t heavy—it is crushing, even fatal.

(See also Acts 15:10: “Now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?”)

Matthew 23 also contains at least two more relevant scriptures, including:

2. Locking people out of the kingdom of God. Jesus continues to rail against religious leaders, saying: “For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them” (Matthew 23:13). There are a lot of ways to interpret what it means to “lock someone out of the kingdom,” but telling people they are abominations has got to be high on the list. Taken with the “heavy burden” line a few verses earlier, it seems overly strict interpretations of scripture may be what Jesus is talking about here. People want to enter and participate in the kingdom, but they are made to feel unwelcome.

3. Proselytizing hateful attitudes. “For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). Franklin Graham is probably the highest-profile Christian leader connected with promoting anti-gay legislation in other countries (like Russia and Uganda), but he shares the spotlight with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and pastor Scott Lively. I am reluctant to imitate the rhetoric of anti-gay activists who gleefully declare that LGBTQ persons and their allies are hell-bound. But in the context of Jesus’ angry speech in Matthew 23, I suspect drafting laws that impose the death penalty or jail time on gay people, using the Gospel of Christ as a pretext, is the devil’s own work. How much homophobia is native and how much is imported by Christian missionaries could be debatable—but “crossing sea and land” to make new hate-filled converts is certainly part of the anti-gay agenda.

All of these three themes are applicable to anti-gay attitudes themselves. Religious exculsivism and hypocrisy are something all of the prophets rail against:

“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6)

Jesus echoes:

“…if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7)

and Paul affirms:

“…as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” (Romans 2:24).

All of these scriptures highlight the theme that religious leaders, in their pursuit of religious zealotry (often supported by the Bible), alienated people from God.

We’ll return to Matthew and the table-turning rhetoric Jesus uses against religious leaders in a bit. But first, let’s flip WAY back to the beginning of the Bible, where God talks about:

4. The importance of companionship. “It is not good that the (hu)man should be alone,” says God in Genesis 2:18. This scripture, by the way, could be seen as a direct contradiction of Paul’s (or his reader’s) statement in 1 Corinthians 7:1 “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” While Paul thinks that celibacy is preferable (7:7), he acknowledges that all of us “have a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.”

While anti-gay Christians often say that God made “Adam and Eve,” not “Adam and Steve,” the next event in the creation story isn’t the creation of woman, but the creation of animals (Genesis 2:19-20). It’s only after this long process that God takes Adam’s bone (possibly the baculum, or penis bone) and forms a woman.

This fanciful and humorous creation myth was most likely intended to be descriptive: why, unlike other animals, do human males lack a baculum? Why, unlike other animals, do we have sex for pleasure any time, instead of only when females are in estrus? Why do we long to be united with another? Why do snakes walk on their bellies? Why, unlike other animals, do women have pain in childbirth? The story is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not say this is the only way to be sexual. In fact, our ability to have sex any time—and in a variety of creative ways—sets us apart from the animals. The authors seem to have recognized this basic fact.

If it is not good that we should be alone (unless it’s by our choice, as both Paul and Jesus indicate), then it is not good to forbid LGBTQ persons intimacy with a partner or “helper” that suits them.

5. The irrelevance of reproduction. God’s covenant with the ancient Israelites was about two things: land, and offspring to inherit it. But Isaiah claimed that God had a bigger picture in mind. He comforted those prisoners of war in Babylon who had been castrated by their captors:

…do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:4-5)

Again, a common argument by anti-gay Christians against LGBTQ persons is that reproduction and natural law proves God’s intentions for heterosexual pair bonding: Gay couples can’t have babies! But lots of people get married who cannot reproduce: old people and infertile couples, for example. Isaiah upends this argument completely. Reproduction is not necessary to participate in God’s covenant with Abraham. Even eunuchs have a place in the coming Kingdom.

Speaking of eunuchs…

6. Some people are born different. Jesus recognized that people are not always born according to a strict gender binary:

“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:12)

What do we do with people who are born intersex, or without clear gender? Their parents may choose to raise them as male or female, but with whom should they be “allowed” to be intimate? I have never, ever heard a decent explanation for this from anti-gay Christians. And once we open that door, we have to consider the possibility that people may be born with one set of equipment and chromosomes, but a different gender identity.

Jesus also seems to indicate in this passage that celibacy is a lifestyle choice—and not one that is appropriate for everybody. Paul corroborates this idea in 1 Corinthians 7:7, when he says not everyone has the same gifts.

This passage fits nicely with something Paul says as well…

7. Gender is no longer relevant in the new Kingdom. Paul tries to get Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to live together in harmony and put aside distinctions like who is circumcised or not. But he throws open the door to erasing all kinds of social distinctions: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) (see also Colossians 3:11). If we were to write his words for today’s world, we might say, “There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer black, brown, or white, there is no longer male, female, trans, or genderqueer, there is no longer gay, queer, or straight; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

8. God’s impartiality. Multiple authors affirm that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6:9, James 2:9, Mark 12:14). I wrote a book about this. The gist is that this phrase was a well known slogan to the early church. If the early church hadn’t decided to accept “abominable” uncircumcised, pork-eating Gentiles, most of us wouldn’t be here. Christianity would have remained a tiny Jewish cult instead of a world-wide movement.

This slogan plays a key role in Romans 1 & 2. Since Romans 1 is often used as a “clobber passage” against homosexuality, it’s important to remember this turning point, where Paul springs the trap on his readers: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself (Romans 2:1). His religious listeners should not assume they are better than the pagan Romans, he says, because God shows no partiality. If people who use Romans 1 to condemn gay and lesbian persons actually read to the end of the chapter, they would be brought up short by Paul’s clever rhetorical trap. If you agree that the Roman emperors (like Caligula, who was stabbed in the genitals by his male concubine—“receiving in his own body the due penalty for his errors”) are without excuse for their sexual deviance, then you, too, are without excuse. Paul’s goal is to use his readers’ prejudice against Roman pagans to indict themselves. If someone is prejudiced against gay folks, the rhetorical trap works just the same.

The phrase “God shows no partiality” was obviously well-known to ancient writers, since it shows up in the gospels and the letters of the New Testament. It’s used to erase distinctions between religious and non-religious, between Jews and Gentiles, between leaders of the church and followers, and between rich and poor. It’s not much of a stretch to use it to erase distinctions between gay and straight, transgender and cisgender.

9. Luke’s gay apocalypse. There is a detailed description of this interpretation here. The first time I read this interpretation of Luke 17:34-35, I thought reading gay and lesbian sex into it was pretty wacky: “In that night, two men will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding; one will be taken and one will be left.” But now I find it impossible to read the passage without seeing the possibility that Jesus is saying homosexuality is irrelevant to salvation. The fact that the passage begins with a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah may reinforce this reading—if Genesis 19 is really about homosexuality.

This interpretation does interesting things to our arguments about the Bible and LGBTQ issues. In our modern debate, anti-gay Christians claim that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about homosexuality. The counter-argument is that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is really about xenophobia and violence toward strangers. The inhabitants of the towns threaten visitors with rape. So, the counter-argument goes, this is a story about violence and exploitation, not a story about consensual sex between people of the same gender.

But because Luke’s apocalypse references Sodom and Gomorrah and two men in one bed, then I think it’s reasonable to claim that if one is about homosexuality, then so is the other—and if one isn’t then neither is the other.

The other common New Testament debate is about what Paul meant by the word “arsenokoites” from 1 Corinthians, 6:9. It’s often translated as “male prostitutes” or “homosexuals” or even “Sodomites,” but it is really a compound Greek word formed by the word “man” and “bed.” Anti-gay Christians claim that the word is clearly Paul’s reference to homosexuality. The counter argument is that it could be about any kind of sexual abuse or exploitation. The anti-gay response is that no, really, man-bedders has got to be a reference to the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22, “lying with a man.”

But Luke’s gay apocalypse also turns this argument on its head. If “man-bedders” is “clearly” Paul’s reference to homosexuality, then Jesus’ similar language about two men in a bed must also be about homosexuality. This is one of those interpretive situations where you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Either Paul isn’t talking about gay sex and Jesus isn’t either, or they both are. Either the story of Sodom and Gomorrah isn’t about gay sex, and Luke’s gay apocalypse isn’t either, or they both are. Either way, Jesus trumps both Genesis and Paul.

And speaking of Jesus, let’s end with…

10. Jesus loves weddings. In one parable Jesus tells, the folks who refuse to attend the wedding and who refuse to celebrate are not the good guys (Matthew 22:1-14). We don’t really know why they refuse to celebrate; maybe the king’s son is gay?

While the parable is often read as an allegory or an indictment of “the Jews,” A.J. Levine points out that these kinds of readings are not always faithful to Jesus’ Jewish context. The fact is, we know people who refuse to attend weddings, or who only attend because there’s an open bar. We know people who shout and wave signs to protest marriages. What the king (or the nameless host in Luke 14:15-24) decides to do is go out and bring in random people off the street, whether they were originally invited or not.

Anti-gay preachers and protesters at gay weddings are an object lesson for this parable. They are a concrete reminder that no situation, not even heaven itself, is so joyous that someone can’t find a reason to bitch and moan. Is it really so hard to imagine people refusing to attend or celebrate a wedding, when we see it happen in front of our own faces?

I do not pretend that my presentation of these scriptures is a thorough or unbiased exegesis. I’ve found that anti-gay Christians who use clobber passages from the Bible are quick to point out proof-texting and eisegesis when others do it. This is both a case of pointing out the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, and of being able to dish it out but not take it.

But because anti-gay rhetoric has dominated public dialogue about religion and sexuality for the last forty years, I think it’s important for Christians who favor LGBTQ inclusion to reframe the discussion. It’s also important because people who wield the Bible as a weapon need to know what it feels like to be told you are on the wrong side of the wrath of God. The Word of God is indeed a two-edged sword, and it cuts both ways. People who use it as such had better be skilled enough that they don’t cut off important parts of themselves.

The fact is that most people are not persuaded by nuanced academic readings of the Bible. Persuasion happens because of relentless repetition in countless sermons, bumper-sticker slogans plastered across T-shirts and cars, and conventional wisdom passed along among friends. For this reason, I think it’s important that LGBTQ Christians and their allies learn these biblical themes, and spread them far and wide.

Here they are again, in digestible form:

  1. Don’t tie up heavy burdens for others that you don’t have to bear (Matthew 23:4)
  2. Don’t lock people out of the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13)
  3. Don’t cross sea and land to convert people to your hellish religion (Matthew 23:15)
  4. It is not good for humans to be alone (Genesis 2:18)
  5. I will give you an inheritance better than sons or daughters (Isaiah 56:4-5)
  6. There are eunuchs who have been so from birth (Matthew 19:12)
  7. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)
  8. God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11)
  9. In that night, two men will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding; one will be taken and one will be left (Luke 17:34-35)
  10. Those who refuse to celebrate weddings are not the good guys (Matthew 22:1-14)

Christian Sexual Ethics for Dummies (Why We Don’t Marry Mops)

1. Prologue

Gay marriage is almost the law of the land, and I’m still reeling from surprise that Alabama was not the last state where it became legal. Some anti-gay folks deployed the usual inflated rhetoric, the most amusing of which was a Birmingham preacher who spoke at a city council meeting. You can watch the video here. Now that men can marry men and women can marry women, he said, humans would soon marrying, among other things, dogs, cats, snakes, brooms, and mops. Some have said that the next thing will be marriages of three or more people, or incestuous marriage.

This kind of argument is known as a “slippery slope” fallacy. A fallacy is a misleading argument. A fallacy may sound reasonable or even convincing, but it’s based on flawed logic. The “slippery slope” fallacy says that one action or claim will lead to a series of others that creates an undesirable result. In this case, if legal marriage rights are granted to gay and lesbian persons, people will soon be marrying their mops.

2. The Question – Inanimate Objects and the Problem of Love

By MOs810 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsSo why don’t we marry our mops?

We could propose several reasons. This is not an exhaustive list:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware or autonomous, and therefore
  3. Mops are not capable of consent, and cannot make vows
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  6. Mops are not capable of sharing an equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship.

Mops, therefore, not only make poor lovers; they make poor people. This is not to say that we may not have some kind of sentimental relationship with a mop. Inanimate objects can have sentimental value. Teddy bears, for instance, are nice to cuddle. But teddy bears, like mops, cannot meet any of the above criteria. Most inanimate objects cannot. (Robots and artificial intelligence may provide and interesting challenge to the above criteria, but they go beyond the scope of this article).

Now, inanimate objects, while they are not capable of consent, have a long history of being used in sexual ways. In this regard they are like other tools which give people pleasure—televisions, radios, scented candles, electric massagers, and hot tubs, for example. The virtues and vices of using these tools can be debated. Still, most people will not be inclined to marry their masturbatory aid for the above reasons: a dildo is a tool and, unless artificial intelligence is involved (again, beyond my scope), not capable of loving anyone back. More significantly for the purposes of marriage, neither dildos nor mops of the non-robotic sort can make breakfast, help carry the groceries, earn a second income, or enter into legal contracts.

Since I am writing from a perspective of Christian sexual ethics, this is an appropriate place to point out that there is no explicit biblical prohibition against masturbation, with or without tools. Some people (both Jewish and Christian) look at Genesis 38 and the story of Onan as a warning against self-pleasure, but most scholars reject that interpretation. Onan’s sin is not masturbation (or coitus interruptus), but theft: he attempts to defraud his late brother of his inheritance by not giving him an heir (38:9). His sister-in-law goes on to seduce her father-in-law by posing as a prostitute (38:15) and is finally called the most righteous of all the characters in the story (38:26). If we accept that Onan’s sin is masturbation, then we’re left with the odd lesson that adultery, cultic prostitution, and non-consensual sex are more acceptable to God than masturbation. Since the Bible does not list masturbation among sexual sins, and since it is probably the sexual practice most easily at hand for a majority of human beings on the planet, it seems reasonable to conclude that biblical authors were not too worried about it.

The Birmingham preacher, in his rant, may have been alluding to masturbation when he expressed frustration at not being able to find batteries, but it is difficult to tell. Only he knows what was going through his mind.

3. Living Things and the Problem of Consent (Dogs, Cats, Alligators, Swans, and Gods)

Cesare da Sesto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Having dealt with inanimate objects, let’s turn to the others Rev. Hatcher mentions. Dogs, cats, and snakes, unlike mops and brooms, are alive. Are they viable marriage partners?

At the risk of offending reptile pet-lovers, I will claim that snakes, whose brains are much more rudimentary than dogs and cats, are not capable of love. Reptiles do not typically form social bonds of the sort that would lead to marriage.

Cats and dogs, while mammals, also do not make suitable marriage partners. Even cat lovers will acknowledge that though their cats may be capable of love, and while they display a high (and often frustrating) degree of autonomy, they are still not able to give consent either to marriage or sexual relations. Moreover, cats’ reciprocity is debatable—do they love their owners, or is it merely (pardon the metaphor) a marriage of convenience? Dogs, likewise, are not able to give consent, although they demonstrate a high degree of loyalty. Since both of these animals lack language, making vows and giving consent are not possibilities. Dogs are still valuable helpers: service dogs illustrate the kind of important bond between dogs and humans.

While the Greek and Roman myths are full of stories of humans cavorting sexually with gods in the form of animals (swans, bulls, and eagles, just to name a few), and while inter-species sexual activity has been documented in real life, these relationships can hardly be said to constitute marriage. In most of the mythological cases, the consent of the human, if not the animal, is ambiguous. At the very least, there was an element of dissembling: Did Leta know the swan was Zeus? We cannot know. Either Leta or the swan or both were violated, which places that sexual act outside the realm of what is proper. This has not kept artists from depicting—quite frequently—these various sexual encounters.

I can imagine, though, that inter-species marriage relationships might be possible if we met a sentient alien race that was similar enough to our own (even though theirs may have multiple genders, or no gender). Could we talk reasonably about “what God intended” in such a circumstance? But who knows? They might find our monkey-like bodies too disgusting to contemplate anything other than a platonic relationship. Like robotic artificial intelligence, this falls outside the scope of this article.

Free consent is vital to the concept of modern Western marriage. It has not always been so. Child marriage, shotgun weddings, and concubinage have all been part of our history. Some ancient biblical authors believed that guaranteeing paternity was more important than consent, so a man who raped a virgin was then obligated to marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). In that culture, such marriages helped secure her future, since her value as “unspoiled merchandise” was diminished. However, other Biblical authors creatively critiqued this social double-standard (see again the story of Tamar in Genesis 38).

Consent also rules out marrying people who are catatonic or mentally impaired to a degree that they cannot give consent. For this reason, pastors will often refuse to marry people who are drunk. Modern anecdotes of couples who get drunk and wake up married in Las Vegas are common, although these are usually cautionary tales of what ought not to be done. One must be sober and in full possession of one’s faculties to get married.

4. Taboo Relationships

What about taboo human relationships? Incestuous marriages? Multiple partners?

Incestuous relationships are problematic for a number of reasons, primarily related to autonomy, consent, equity, and reciprocity. In familial relationships, the primary question becomes “how free is the person to make a choice?”

We can compare it to another common ethical violation: If a boss or a supervisor demands a relationship with a subordinate, it is workplace harassment. Family relationships, which are even more private, contain much greater possibility for abuse. Even if someone gives their consent, we’re left with the question, “How free is their consent?” In the workplace or in the military, a consequence of rejection may be firing, demotion, or loss of pay. The reward for compliance may be promotion, higher compensation, or status and prestige. The consequences may be described explicitly as a threat or reward, or, more deviously, they may be implicit and assumed. These latter cases are the most insidious, as people in power often claim that people under their power were willing partners.

In family relationships, even the loss of esteem of a family member may be coercive, especially in parent-child relationships. In this situation, how can consent be truly free? Even if these consequences are only possibilities, they place partners in very unequal positions of power.

While romance does happen in the workplace, generally supervisors and subordinates must sever their workplace relationship. This is not possible with familial relationships. Because of discrepancies in power and the question of consent, incestuous marriage remains unacceptable.

Bestiality and incest are often used in slippery-slope arguments against gay marriage. But the main reasons we avoid them is not “because the Bible says so.” There are good reasons to avoid such relationships besides the fact that they are prohibited by scripture. These questions are often deployed as fallacies in order to raise the “ick” factor in the listener, to generate sufficient disgust to paint the issue in question in a negative light. This does not mean that we should not consider them as arguments (the “fallacy fallacy.”) I think there is value in doing so because it clarifies how we think about marriage and sexual relationships.

5. Monogamy and Exclusivity

As for multiple partners, we must observe that the Bible contains many stories about polygamy. People have put households and families together in a variety of innovative ways. Christian missionaries have often struggled with how to address those relationships within the context of spreading Christian values. But for the purposes of talking about marriage and Christian ethics in our American context, we’ll bracket, for the moment, these other cultures and the fact that some people believe that legal marriage is itself a problem or an outdated institution.

Let’s look again at the reasons that marriage to a mop is not appropriate:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware and do not have autonomy
  3. Mops are not capable of consent
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot make vows of marriage
  6. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  7. Mops are not capable of sharing the equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship that leads to long-term social stability.

These last two reasons for avoiding marriage to mops are, I think, also the best arguments against multiple-partner marriages. (I am not, by the way, ruling out multiple-partner marriages, but illustrating one way to think about it).

Marriage is, essentially, the simplest social arrangement for two non-kin human beings to come together to make a family. Karl Marx observed that the elemental form of human being is not an individual, but a family. A single human being on an island lacks what makes us most distinctively human: our social community. Being in solitary confinement “de-humanizes” us. We are verbal, we can imagine others as subjective selves, we form pair-bonds, we use higher reasoning, all because we have to coordinate social action. Aristotle observed that we are “political animals.” Just as you cannot understand bees without studying a hive, you cannot understand human beings without studying how we organize in social groups. The family is the most elementary social group, and a pair is the smallest unit of human society you can have and still call it “human.” We celebrate the equitable, mutual, reciprocal love of that basic relationship because we recognize something virtuous in this act of family-making. Two have become one.

But for most of human history, equitability, mutuality, and reciprocity have had little to do with family or marriage. In biblical times, men treated women more like chattel than like subjective selves whose consent and autonomy mattered. Of course, there are plenty of scriptures (Samuel 1:8, Song of Songs) that indicate these ancient people were not oblivious to love as the basis for marriage.

Today, though, the willing self-giving of two people to each other to enter into this basic social relationship is considered a praiseworthy thing in our society. Ideally, these arrangements lead to long-term stability that benefits society. Couples can raise children, if they so desire, and support each other by creating networks of enduring relationships that build resilient communities. Divorce and separation, when it happens, hurts the partners, children, and even the fabric of the community as friendship ties are severed.

While it may be possible for more than two people to enter into this kind of relationship, the most basic system is a pair. We must acknowledge that even pairs are seldom alone in how they form households and families: grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, children and grandchildren may all live under one roof. They do not all enter into this kind of covenant relationship, and their presence in the household may be temporary. But in a household with a married couple, all of those relationships are often sustained by the vows and stable relationship of at least one pair.

Sex and reproduction is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a marriage. People marry who cannot have sexual intercourse. Infertile couples marry. Old couples marry. We must also acknowledge that people can, and do, form households or families without marriage. These may be created with any number of sexual or non-sexual relationships. Sex and reproduction are not necessarily part of the relationship.

But part of the traditional vow of marriage is sexual exclusivity, “forsaking all others.” There are several reasons for this exclusivity:

  1. Ensuring paternity and clear parental responsibility for children
  2. Preventing the spread of STDs, especially to the unwitting partner
  3. Ensuring each partner’s energy is focused on the other for stability’s sake
  4. Creating intimacy

Regarding #3 and #4, it should be obvious from divorce statistics that it is difficult enough to create a stable long-term relationship with one other person. Adding more into the mix increases the difficulty level. In cultures which practice other forms of marriage, these reasons might be contested or mitigated by different social arrangements in a village or community. But if having a stable marriage relationship is itself a good to be desired, we can make reasonable arguments for monogamous exclusivity.

Again, this does not rule out the possibility of other marriage arrangements. It does force us to clarify what the social goods are that we believe marriage is supposed to produce. People can, and do, argue that the Bible supports polygamy. If we wish to make arguments about what Christian ethics supports, we will have to do better than just make claims about “what the Bible says.” The long-term work of truly “knowing” another person, coming to terms with our differences, sharing a mission in life together, all may be virtuous goals of monogamous marriage supported by sexual intimacy. But if these are good for straight folks, they are good for LGBTQ folks as well.

6. Further Thoughts about Sexual Ethics and the Bible

Many folks have a good deal of anxiety about the rapid social change that has led to the social acceptance of homosexual relationships. They fear that rejecting one set of moral standards means abandoning all moral standards. But in pursuing this (absurd) question, I’ve illustrated that we have many ways of making ethical judgments. “The Bible says” is only one kind of deontological (rule-based) ethics, and it’s one that not even devout Christians follow completely. We refrain from adultery, murder, or bearing false witness not because the Bible forbids it, but for other very good reasons. That the Bible forbids it gives us interesting theological insight into the ethical nature of God—but it’s not the primary reason we don’t kill.

LGBTQ allies have often noted that the Bible also forbids eating shrimp and endorses the stoning of disobedient children. While dispensationalist Christians sometimes relegate certain regulations to the “old” covenant, it’s pretty clear that even they are not refraining from stoning their disobedient children because one set of regulations (or divine commands) has been superseded by another set.

There are challenges to traditional binary-gender opposite-sex marriage even without the looming inevitability of same sex marriage. Sometimes people are born intersex, with ambiguous genitalia. As Jesus himself observed, “some people are born eunuchs” (Matthew 19:12.) Should intersex people be allowed to marry? Does someone born with ambiguous genitalia have to “decide” which gender they are going to be and marry someone of the opposite gender? In this case, someone may be chromosomally male, but identify and express themselves as female. If this person is also attracted to women, could we reasonably forbid her to be in a same-gender relationship? Or will our society be okay with it if she just changes clothes and acts masculine?

Transgender and queer persons continue to face marginalization because their gender expression or gender identity don’t line up with social expectations, even among gay and lesbian peers. Yet if we were to transport Jesus (as he is popularly depicted) to modern-day Birmingham in his first-century Palestinian dress and long hair, people might assume he was cross-dressing. Jesus never wore trousers. How we interpret the meaning of people’s clothes, makeup, gestures, and vocal characteristics depends not only on their gender, but on our own culture and value systems.

The Bible contains a single line forbidding cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5,) yet many Christian women who claim to be biblical literalists wear pants, vests, and ties. We are forced to ask tough questions about what gender roles have to do with Christian ethics. Is it okay for a man to wear a kilt? A toga? Since fashion changes with the times, is it a Christian virtue to be conventionally fashionable?

I think these are all good questions that challenge us to think more deeply about marriage, sexual ethics, and the things our society considers good and bad. Unfortunately, because a few anti-gay Christians have liberally used fallacious logic and hateful rhetoric, they have undermined the credibility of doing Christian ethics in the public sphere. Those of us who believe that Christian ethics has an important role to play in public life wind up doing damage control. Naturally, plenty of non-religious people have come to believe religion itself is the original sin that plagues our society. As Paul said to the religious leaders of his day, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).

Both Jewish and Christian ethics have a long tradition of reframing and reinterpreting the Bible. Jews have somehow avoided stoning disobedient children and adulterers for thousands of years in spite of the fact that they don’t believe in the Christian “new covenant.” Their history of rabbinical argument and dialogue has been a model for Jewish communities about how to read and interpret sacred scripture. When our faith seeks understanding, we leave behind childish things.

I’ve entertained this question, “Why don’t we marry mops,” because I think it’s important for thinking Christians to recognize and name the fact that we use ethical norms other than “what the Bible says.” Rejecting heterosexist or anti-gay norms does not mean we reject all norms and values, or even Christian ones. In fact, we may emphasize other norms, like consent and personal autonomy, that are more conducive to loving our neighbors as ourselves.

For more reading:

Does the Bible Mean?

A reflection on Margaret Farley’s 7 Norms for Sexual Ethics

Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

A Trinitarian Creed for Allies

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We are not saviors.
We believe God was at work
long before we arrived.

We believe in the Creator,
who liberates and cares for the oppressed,
who created us in all our diversity
to taste and see that God is good,
and to see the image of God in each other.

We believe in the Redeemer
who walked in solidarity with us,
who proclaimed release for the captives,
who spoke truth to power,
who refused to let violence and death have the last word.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who comforts when words fail,
who gives us courage when our hearts fail,
who listens for what is unsaid and unheard.

We believe God’s love is manifest
when we stop making apologies for injustice,
when we accept correction gracefully,
when we confess our complicity in violence and oppression,
when we listen with open hearts,
when we don’t hog the microphone or the spotlight,
when we use what power we have to share power with others.

We will not fear
the righteous anger of the wounded,
the manufactured outrage of the powerful,
or the decentering of our own experience
as we witness God’s unfolding story of liberation.

We believe the invitation to join in God’s reconciling work
is Good News worth sharing.
We believe we are all called to be allies for someone else.

We are not saviors.
We believe God was at work
long before we arrived.

Incarnation

Giovanni_Bonati_-_Madonna_with_the_Child_-_Google_Art_Project

God does not condescend.
God does not step down, putting on flesh.
God does not stoop to our level.
Incarnation is not demeaning.
It does not bring God down.

God lifts us up.
God steps out, taking off abstraction.
God slips from binding garments.
Incarnation is a cosmic strip tease,
ignoring our blushes and ahems.

Incarnation is God, naked.

This fragile flesh craves life,
suckles and whimpers,
inhales the warm animal smell of a stable
and doesn’t know enough
to wrinkle its nose.

God brushes aside antiseptic theology
and grasps skin with both hands.

In a body meant for touching, hurting, healing,
pleasuring, sleeping, waking, dying—
and resurrecting—
God becomes the forever in the now
and waits for us to notice.

When we see,
we gasp,
and we call our
speechlessness
worship.

The following article originally appeared at Ministry Matters.

When I ask laypeople to write prayers for worship, I give them these instructions.

Group or corporate prayer is an important part of worship. The congregation is not just sitting back and relaxing while one person talks. They are allowing a person (or group of people) whom they trust to give voice to their joys, concerns and petitions.

If you have been asked to pray an offertory prayer, a pastoral prayer or an invocation in our church, you are welcome to find a prayer online or in a book and use it. You can also modify a prayer or write one yourself.

Lots of people think prayers should be off-the-cuff and spontaneous. This is okay in some cases, but if you were bringing a petition to a king, and speaking for a group of people, you would rehearse what you would say, right? You’d probably go over it in your head a hundred times. You’d write it down so that when you delivered your petition, you would come off as a competent representative of your people. I believe that’s the way we should approach corporate prayer. We are not praying “our own hearts.” We are praying for the assembled Body.

The main parts of a public prayer are:

1. Addressing God: Any conversation begins with a greeting or an address, even if it’s just “Hi, there.”

2. Talking to God: This is the “meat” of the prayer. It could be invocation: “Be present with us today.” It could be praise: “You are wonderful.” It could be complaint: “We are tired. Why don’t you hear us?” It could be thanksgiving: “Thanks for this amazing day.” It could be a request: “Bless Aunt Mary.” Anything you can imagine saying to God in a group is appropriate here.

3. Conclusion: There are a lot of formulas people use to “sign off,” but the simplest is just, “Amen,” which means “so be it.” In a group, the congregation will often echo your amen. Read some other prayers to see how folks conclude, and find a way that feels natural to you. “By the power of your Holy Spirit we pray” or “In the name of Jesus Christ” are common ways to end public prayer. The main thing is to avoid stumbling to the end, like: “So, anyway… yeah. I guess that’s it. Amen.” That’s fine for small group prayers or private prayers, but not when you are standing in for the voice of the congregation.

If you choose to write your own prayer, here are some guidelines:

1. Short is good. A paragraph that takes up one-third to one-quarter of a page of paper is probably long enough — that would be around a minute and a half. Pastoral prayers tend to be longer because you have more needs to address, and a diverse congregation with many different needs.

2. Use “we” language. You are speaking for the congregation, so this isn’t about you. It’s about we, the church. “We praise you today,” not “I praise you today.”

3. Let the images do the work. Rather than use a lot of abstract words, think about a single image you can paint with your language. “When we see parents pushing their kids in swings at the park, we remember your motherly love for us.” “We are sad, and the ache in our chests makes it hard to catch our breath.”

4. Use inclusive language. It’s okay to call God “Father,” or use “he,” as long as we remember to balance it out with gender-neutral or feminine imagery as well at other times. Avoid saying “Father and Mother God,” because that’s just overkill. Try instead, “God who loves us like a parent,” or “God who loves us like a mother.” You can also address your prayer to Jesus, in which case it’s fine to use masculine language, or the Holy Spirit, in which case I’d prefer you use feminine language. The main thing here is not to be “politically correct,” but to give people a chance to connect with God using imagery that will help them grow spiritually. Big Daddy God is fine, let’s just not overdo it or limit ourselves to one expression.

5. Think about your own experience. The best resource you have for writing prayers is your own experience and your own spiritual journey. Think about what you need to hear from God, and craft your prayer around that. So, if you’re writing the invocation, maybe you say, “Let us hear your voice, God. Speak our names.” If you’re writing the offertory prayer, maybe you say, “Help us let go our fear of not having enough, and trust in your abundance.” Let God inspire you through your own walk of faith.

6. Avoid preaching. While it’s okay to refer to Scripture or use biblical imagery, you aren’t doing this to teach or change attitudes. Again, remember that you are the voice of the congregation.

Advent Reflection: Numbness

I’ve been kind of numb this week, walking around in a fog. While I want to be immersed in the season of Advent, preparing for Christmas, my mind won’t let go of the names of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and John Crawford. I suppose it’s appropriate, given that all of the scriptures that lead up to Christmas are calls for justice and liberation, but I’ll be honest: I’m tired. I feel small, and helpless, and that my voice is barely a drop in the ocean, and that my prayers often go unheard.

Yet Advent is about holding on to the last shred of hope, believing that a tiny light will shine in the darkest night in the darkest part of the year. I think part of faith, faith-in-the-midst-of-doubt, is the intuition that even after our faith is gone, God can still work—that God doesn’t wait on us to believe to act in tangible ways in human history. Christmas is the sign that hope can be born in the midst of our cynicism, our despairing resignation to business and life as usual, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and nothing ever changes. Our scripture and tradition says that change is already happening—and we can be part of it. In the fog and numbness and darkness, this is the hope I cling to. It is not sentimentality. It is desperation. And it is the raw material out of which God works best.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.