“Would You Agree the World is Getting Worse?”

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“No, I wouldn’t.”

The lady who had asked me the question looked appalled, like I had just belched in her face. She and her friend had shown up in our yard to share their faith. It was not the answer she was expecting. Nor, in fact, was I. I had planned on simply giving my usual “I’m not interested in a theological conversation” answer (which isn’t technically true—I’m almost always interested in having a theological conversation, one which involves me asking my questions, too).

I think her statement reflects one of the biggest problems I have with many theological and political perspectives—they assume that we’re going to hell in a hand basket. Now, I don’t think we’re marching happily toward utopia, and I don’t put my faith in human progress. But I don’t know many people who would trade living in 2015 for living in 1915. Cancer, polio, or heart disease? Sorry. Women’s suffrage? Out of luck. Jim Crow and segregation? Here to stay. Child labor? It’s a free market, baby. War? The world’s three most deadly decades are still in front of us.

So, no, I don’t agree that the world is getting worse. We have some formidable challenges in front of us: economic inequality, systemic racism, gun violence, and climate change, just to name a few. An extinction-level event due to climate change may be unfolding in front of us. But if you offer me a time machine to pick any decade from the past in which to live, would I choose any time but now?

Not likely.

Her question inspired me to pick up and reread some of Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. I still think God’s invitation to join God in a salvation project for the world is the most exciting Good News that Christians can spread. In the resurrected Christ, the future is radically open, and the horizon between God’s impending kingdom and our present is always shrinking. It’s not something we build with our own effort, but we anticipate and participate in what God is already doing. The Kingdom is among y’all, says Jesus. It’s like a portal to the dimension of love and justice, and it’s leaking into this world and contaminating it with grace.

Reading a Pro-slavery Sermon from 1863

Family_of_African_American_slaves_on_Smith's_Plantation_Beaufort_South_Carolina

Family on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and learnnc.org

This is an excerpt from a sermon given at Christ Church in Savannah in 1863. It is a pro-slavery, pro-Confederacy sermon. I’m sharing it, with my commentary, because I think it illumines contemporary rhetoric about race, history, war, international politics, and the South. I’ve added emphasis where I think the rhetoric is particularly interesting.

Preachers need to understand preaching history because we often replicate the rhetoric of pundits and politicians in sermons. Churches soothe the moral conscience of parishioners by repeating the talking points of our dominant culture. But how do you know when you are preaching the gospel, and when you are preaching Empire? How can you determine when you are preaching prophetically, and when you are accommodating the culture?

It’s important to learn from the past, to watch the dance of rhetoric and ethics that preachers have done every Sunday for centuries. It isn’t surprising that white Southern Christian preachers justified both slavery and war. Some of their talking points sound awfully familiar.

This preacher (Stephen Ellis) preaches a sermon to encourage the young Confederacy. At 24 pages, it was probably at least an hour long. It is verbose, in the way of 19th-century homileticians, who were well-educated and thought it important to speak in a way that fit their class. He quotes Greek philosophers, contemporary statesmen, and news reports. He refers to the Greek language. He comes off as smart and well-spoken.

The scripture is the story of Samson getting honey from the corpse of a lion he killed. There is no exegesis of the text. It’s simply a jumping-off point for the speech that follows. Out of a strong conflict will come something sweet.

He touches on some familiar themes: the danger of appeasement, the difference between a just peace and an unjust peace, the horrors of war, and endurance through trying times. He uses flowery language and long, image-heavy descriptions.

But delightful as is the word [peace], and attractive as are its associations, we should not be seduced by them to yield up either right or truth or justice for its attainment. It would indeed be a great burden rolled from our hearts if we could take our children to our bosoms, and feel that they indeed had a country–if we could look upon our noble sons and rejoice that they were freed with honour from any further conflict with foemen so unworthy of their steel–if we could glance around our hearthstones and be satisfied that no rude trumpet would again disturb their peace, no roar of cannon drive us from their shadow–if we could enter the temples of God and sing the angels song of peace on earth, good will towards men.

White men, that is.

The preacher has done a good job setting up the siren song of peace. He indicated early on that he is crafting this image simply to undo it. This illusion is no real peace, he says.

Missing, of course, is any reference to the lives of slaves. (Presumably, the life of a slave is all peace.)

But until we can do so with honor and with security, let us banish the idea from our thoughts. Let there be no making haste to find Peace. It will come when God sees that war has accomplished his purposes, and it ought to come no sooner. Unless we follow his guidance in this matter, we shall fall into temptation and a snare, and in grasping at a shadow, lose the substance which we have already gained at the cost of so much precious blood.

In other words, dreams of peace must be put aside, for now, or else all the troops will have died in vain. This is a common pro-war talking point in any conflict.

“Precious blood,” of course, has theological overtones—it’s Jesus’ precious blood that saves us from hell and punishment, according to penal substitutionary atonement theory.

I believe this atonement theory is especially prevalent in the South because it helped justify slavery. If you want to exterminate indigenous people and base an economy on slavery, it helps to frame sin as “rebellion,” and God’s justice as physical, painful retribution—in this life or the next. The requirement of justice is the violent death of someone—and the unjust death of an innocent man, a lynching, helps restore equilibrium. Any violence you then use to enforce social order and compliance is infinitely more merciful than social anarchy or the eternal flames of hell. For the good of the nation, the powerless must die. But their deaths are noble. Preserving social order, the Great Chain of Being ordained by God, is necessary to prevent a slide down the slippery slope into the anarchy of the savages.

The preacher also establishes that the war, a historical necessity, must be the will of God. War is a refining, purifying fire, in which the mettle of their (manly) resolve is tested.

Now the preacher turns to the political part of his sermon, justifying secession and portraying the Northern aggressors in negative terms:

We seceded from the Government of which we were once a part, because we felt that under it we no longer had a country. For what is our country? Our country is in its constitution, and its provisions were openly and shamefully violated–our country is in its religion, and its altars were desecrated by infidelity and the vilest fanaticism–our country is in its institutions, and they were threatened with total subversion –our country is in its social life, and that was covered all over with rude abuse and malignant defamation. And shall we, for peace sake, think for a moment of returning to the embrace of such an Union? God forbid! Let us learn at once the stern truth that we have no country until we make one. We can never go back to that whence we came out. We should not recognize it in its present garb of tyranny. We should not discern that once proud Republic under the mask which it now wears, with the oriental despotism that rules over it, and the oriental submission that kisses its feet. In its delirium it has lost all sense of regulated liberty–it remembers only passion and vengeance. Closing its eyes against all truth, and shutting its ears against all wisdom, it is striking at man madly in its rage, and it is cursing God who has placed the bit in its mouth, and is saying to it, “Thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

Abraham Lincoln? He’s no Christian. He’s an “oriental despot.” (Today, he might be called a Muslim tyrant.) He’s no Western statesman who believes in representative government (for white men).

The preacher describes four kinds of federal overreach—constitutional, religious, institutional (the unnamed institution being slavery), and social. In all of these ways, he says, the South was a victim. Abolitionists and the North have closed their eyes “against all truth” and shut their ears “against all wisdom.” They are examples of the “vilest fanaticism,” impugning the character of honest Southerners.

When activists recently advocated for marriage equality, they were likewise shaking their fist at God, according to Franklin Graham, and undermining the institution of marriage. They subjected their opponents to “malignant defamation” by calling them bigots, or worse.

People who support status quo inequality between white and black folks, who object to discussion of white supremacy and systemic racism, continue to complain about the “malignant defamation” that white people or police officers or America receives at the hands of activists. Advocating for justice is perceived as “vile fanaticism,” an attack upon our country and our way of life.

Yet the preacher offers patriarchal hope to his congregation:

In quietness and confidence is our strength. Manly fortitude and heroic patience will accomplish for us in due time all that we are contending for. We did not enter upon this conflict in the temper of children, who were quarrelling for some mere point of pique, but with the resolution of men who perceived that every thing which made life tolerable was trembling in the balance. Let peace come to us, and let us not forget our manhood and go in search of peace.

The preacher moves on to mourn the fact that the international community has not come to the aid of the South. He only gets around to mentioning slavery toward the end, but it forms the background of everything he says. At first, it’s only an oblique reference: “the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.”

At the commencement of our revolution… we believed very sincerely that the cotton interest constituted so large a portion of [England and France’s] manufacturing and commercial wealth, that any serious interruption of the supply would create not only great distress in those countries, but would perhaps produce revolution. Under this delusion we continued for eighteen months after our movement began, and it is not yet entirely dissipated. It will require at least two years more of British endurance to convince us of our mistake, but we are, nevertheless, learning our lesson by degrees. We are finding out that God does not permit, under his Providential arrangements, any one nation to hold in its hand the fate, or even the destiny of other nations, but that climate, soil, labor, staples, are so distributed throughout the world, that if a supply of any necessary article is dried up in one direction, its production can be forced in some other direction.

England can replace the slave labor of the South with India. Such is the law of the marketplace.

That we hold great advantages over any other portion of the earth in the growth of our great staples, no one can deny. We can defy competition, because of the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate, but we cannot rule the world as we once conceived that we could.

This line gets me every time I read it: “The peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.” Wow.

The limits of Confederate exceptionalism have become clear to the preacher. But slavery? It’s still hunky-dory:

Until within a year after our war began, many of our own people, and almost all the nations outside of us, considered the institution of slavery as resting upon a very insecure basis. They almost universally believed that domestic insurrection would accompany foreign war, and that we should find our slaves rising “en masse,” and distracting all our efforts. Those who had studied this question most thoroughly, and looked at it in the light of philosophy, and especially of the Scriptures, did not fall into this error, and were satisfied from the beginning that the institution would come out of the war stronger than it went into it. Two years of the war have rid every one of any evil anticipations upon this head, and have satisfied the United States government that if these people are to change their condition, it must be changed for them by external force. And while this quiescence on the part of our servants vindicates us from the charges of cruelty and barbarity which have been so industriously circulated against us, it is also teaching us that we can, hereafter, with entire safety, and with most excellent results to ourselves, introduce them gradually to a higher moral and religious life. They know all that is going on. They are well informed about the proceedings of our enemies, and about their pretended philanthropy, and yet what advantage have they taken of it?

One of the favorite tropes of white-privilege apologists is that anyone who stirs up conversation of racial inequality is not really interested in racism, but simply exploiting racial tension for political gain. It is pretended philanthropy. But our black folks are happy just the way they are.

Dang, this strategy is old.

When were they ever more quiet, more civil, more useful, more contented than they now are? Ignorance is really our worst enemy amongst them, and I sincerely hope that when this war is over, we shall, in token of their fidelity and good will, render their domestic relations more permanent, and consult more closely their feelings and affections…

Wow. We’ll let them keep their families together.

Of course, you could also read “domestic relations” as perpetual servanthood. And they didn’t need slavery to do that. They had Jim Crow.

Take a look at this logic:
1. Our slaves (black folks) are fine and happy.
2. If they wanted to change their condition, they would do so themselves.
3. It’s wrong for outsiders to come in and stir them up toward rebellion
4. We’ll help them improve their condition when other conditions are met.

See, it’s all benevolent. Heritage, not hate.

It belies the fact that the Southern elite were terrified of slave revolt, and had spent a century passing more and more restrictive laws to keep poor whites and black slaves from working together or colluding to overthrow the institution of slavery. The preacher himself mentions Harpers Ferry early in the sermon.

Toward the end, the preacher swells to a crescendo praising the Confederacy:

But at the war-cry of her children, “Sic semper Tyrannis,” how her rich blood has rushed back upon her heart, and startled her into life! The sound of freedom’s cry has disenchanted her, and she has sprung full armed into the arena. Her noble sons have gathered around her from her hills and from her valleys, from all her fields of historic fame, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the dark rushing torrent of the Kanawha–sons worthy of such a mother. All her old energy has come back to her. All her power of self-denial and self-sacrifice has revived within her. Proud, fearless, indomitable, she looks into the very eye of tyranny, and makes it quail before her majesty of right and truth! The mother of States, she bares her bosom to receive upon it the strokes which are aimed at her children. Hurling defiance in the teeth of her oppressors, she prepares herself to conquer or to die. She hopes, she prays, she struggles for victory, but knowing that everything is in the hands of God, she presses on, uttering the noble words of DeRanville–“If the genius of evil is to prove triumphant, if legitimate government is again to fall, let it at least fall with honor; shame alone has no future.”

And thus white supremacy held onto the notion that it would be justified by God and history well after the war’s end. It wed notions of Christian destiny, feudal honor, patriarchy, slavery, and violent atonement theory.

White patriarchy continues to use this same rhetoric. It appropriates the language of oppression and justice, hoping to turn the tables on activists by pointing out their “vile fanaticism” as a cowardly mask for political or financial gain. People who advocate for equality are “tyrants” who will oppress the majority, if they ever get their hands on political power. We fear our own sin so much that we project it onto our enemies, imagining that they will be just as oppressive as we are—while denying that oppression even exists.

We are such gentle rulers. They will be such harsh ones. That is why they must be kept in their place.

Same song. Different verse. White supremacy did not need to rise again; it was never defeated. It has been hiding in plain sight (from white Christians, anyway) for a long, long time.

I like to imagine how someone in 200 years will read my sermons. I cannot imagine what my blind spots are—that’s why they are blind spots. But if we do not study preaching history, our cosmic vision of what God is up to in the world is limited to our immediate pastoral, ecclesial, political, and social concerns. We will miss the ways that God is working with the church—and in spite of the church—to bend the arc of history toward justice.

When Not to Apologize

Don’t apologize for apologizing—these are suggestions, not commandments:

Don’t apologize for being wobbly if you haven’t been on a bike in a long time.

Don’t apologize for not being practiced at a skill.

Don’t apologize for speaking up.

Don’t apologize for not knowing something.

Don’t apologize for knowing something. For God’s sake, don’t apologize for being smart.

As Julia Child said, don’t apologize for anything you cook.

Don’t apologize for being overdressed or underdressed.

Don’t apologize for liking things that other people consider uncultured, frivolous, elitist, or passé.

Don’t apologize for refusing to accept other people’s projected insecurities.

Apologize for doing harm. Apologize for being thoughtless or careless if it hurts someone or hurts the planet. In those cases, repent and sin no more.

But do not apologize for being human. God revels in watching you grow and learn, in taking tiny steps of courage. God delights in your gloriously, messily awesome self.

Beatitudes

He said happy
are the hopeless
‘cause the kingdom will be theirs
he said happy
are the sad ones
‘cause God will dry up all their tears

He said happy
are the meek ones
‘cause God will give them all the world
He said happy
are the hungry
‘cause God will feed them ‘till they’re full

But woe to
you who are rich
‘cause you’ll find
life is a
‘bout more than your money and you may find you’re missing out, honey

We’ll be happy
with our mercy
cause we all need mercy, too.
He said happy
are the heart-pure
God will show God’s face to you.
You’ll be happy
when you make peace
reconciling humankind
and the kingdom
will be among you
if you search then you will find.

But don’t think
that you won’t get hit
They’ll drag your
name through the
shameful situation, and they’ll trash your reputation

He said happy
are the hopeless
‘cause the kingdom will be theirs
he said happy
are the sad ones
‘cause God will dry up all their tears

He said happy
are the meek ones
‘cause God will give them all the world
He said happy
are the hungry
‘cause God will feed them ‘till they’re full

A Lament for a Marriage

According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, clergy are not allowed to conduct same sex weddings or bless same sex unions. Since I am not allowed to publicly pray for blessing, I wrote this lament many months ago. I offer it here, because I know some of my UMC clergy colleagues are going to be asked to officiate. Perhaps they will choose to officiate and risk retribution, or perhaps they will make referrals. Or perhaps they will find other creative ways to resist injustice:


 

God of covenant love, host of the wedding banquet, I bring you my lament that I am forbidden to bless this union. I lament that church rules dictate that I must be like one without a wedding garment. I lament that, as in Jesus’ story about the guests who refused to attend the wedding banuet, many have cut themselves off from witnessing the joy of this moment. We pray for all those whose disapproval hurts only themselves.

Yet, Lord, I also rejoice. When Balaam was hired to curse the Hebrew people, he could not; for how can one curse those whom God has blessed? It is not we clergy who bless, but you! And I’m grateful that our Methodist movement has been a movement of laypeople from the beginning, and when the church doors were closed to John Wesley, he preached from his father’s grave. Your blessings cannot be contained by legislation, or buildings, or authority figures, and we praise you because in the relationship of NAME and NAME, we see the fruits of your Spirit already growing: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We see your Spirit at work, and like Peter when he met Cornelius, we understand that we should call no one profane or unclean, but that everyone who does what is right is acceptable to you.

I am grateful, O God, for your grace that cannot be contained, that precedes our asking for it, frees us from sin and death, and continues to grow and perfect us in love. This couple, joined in covenant love, united in mission of love and service, is a testimony to your ongoing activity to work through your church, and when necessary, around it, to bring blessing and salvation to a world that desperately needs it.

Thank you, Almighty God, that though I cannot pray a blessing for them, you have seen fit to bless us with them. Your generosity astounds us. Amen.

How White Supremacy is like Addiction

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  1. Admitting you have a problem may be the hardest step.
  2. Admitting you can’t fix it individually, on your own, is the next hardest step.
  3. Addicts often promise to change, and then don’t. Many won’t until they hit rock bottom.
  4. Everybody is afraid of “making a fearless moral inventory,” but when they do, it’s actually quite liberating. As a culture, most white folks still haven’t done this.
  5. Making amends or reparations is even scarier and more complicated, but necessary to move forward.
  6. Addicts have a hard time listening to folks who aren’t addicts. It’s hard for anyone else to call out their BS.
  7. Wallowing in guilt and shame is actually counterproductive. Addicts use self-pity as an excuse to stay stuck.
  8. White supremacy, like addiction, is a social disease. It may not be your fault, but it’s still your responsibility.
  9. There are vested interests in maintaining addiction for power and profit. Some people want you to relapse.
  10. White supremacy, like addiction, thrives in toxic family and social systems.
  11. The folks who have been abused cannot be obligated to stay in those toxic relationships with addicts. Forgiveness does not mean going back to business as usual.

Like any metaphor, it’s imperfect. In our panel discussion last night, I said psychoanalyzing white culture is not what this is about, since that puts whiteness at the center of the story. But because it’s so hard for white folks to hear about their disease without getting defensive, we need multiple ways of talking about it.

Ultimately, I believe, the goal should be to dismantle the very concept of race. But until we do the 12 steps, talking about its social construction with racists is like giving whiskey to an alcoholic.

God Cares About Your Happiness

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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.