God Shows No Partiality Promotion

My book God Shows No Partiality will be available for Kindle for free from Sunday, March 10 until Thursday, March 14 (Pi day!). If you haven’t read it, pick it up! If you have read it, spread the word and change the conversation! It’s high time people knew and reclaimed this slogan from the New Testament.

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can always come by our worship service and pick up a hard copy for free—then you can pass it on to someone else when you are done.

A free study guide (which is a work in progress) is available here.

The Red, “Red,” Red State of Alabama

Everybody knows that Alabama is a red state, but back in the first half of the 1900’s it was red for a different reason: communism.

Birmingham was a steel town in an agricultural state. The mix of rural poverty and urban labor provided the perfect soil in which communism could grow. According to Diane McWhorter’s book about the civil rights struggle, Carry Me Home, in 1934 the Birmingham Communist Party claimed 1000 members. Birmingham was called “the reddest city in the country.”

The Good Ol’ Boy network of rich industrialists knew that the communists wanted to ally poor whites with poor blacks against the steel industry. (“Black faces and red necks” had two meanings: both miners and farmers, and blacks and whites.) The labor unions and New Deal supporters represented a threat to the industrialists’ privileged way of life. The industrialists hit upon a divide-and-conquer strategy and focused on two wedge issues: segregation and red-baiting. They allied themselves with the Ku Klux Klan and used domestic terrorism (like bombing) to intimidate labor organizers.

It didn’t help, of course, that some of the red-baiting was true. Many early civil rights advocates were on the far, far, left: Paul Robeson, Hosea Hudson, Helen Keller…

Yes, that Helen Keller.

Although I sat through what seemed like months and months of Alabama History in elementary school, and I distinctly remember watching “The Miracle Worker,” it seemed that Ms Keller simply disappeared after she learned to talk. I think I vaguely remember our textbook saying that she went on to be an advocate for people with disabilities, but there was never, of course, any mention of her being a socialist. It wasn’t until I read Lies My Teacher Told Me that I understood why her history had been sanitized: our famous Alabamian had gone on to become a founding member of the ACLU and an advocate of women’s reproductive freedom.

I visited Tuscumbia a few weeks ago for a wedding, and went into the town’s excellent independent bookstore. I picked up a book by Helen Keller (titled My Religion), and had an awkward conversation with the cashier.

Her: That looks like an interesting book. I’ve been meaning to read that one.
Me: Yeah, she was a fascinating woman. Did you know that she was a socialist?
(Conversation at the coffee tables behind me stops)
Her: …Huh. I never heard that before.
Me: Yeah. She even wrote poems in praise of the Boshevik revolution. But they don’t teach that in school.
Her: …Huh.

I’d embarrassed her, without even thinking about it. I insulted a hometown hero. I’m such a doofus.

Anyway, it’s fascinating to think of how much history we attempt to expunge from our memories to fit whatever is currently socially acceptable. If we teach children that Helen Keller was a socialist, they might ask “why?” Then we’d have to talk about the fact that lots of workers were rendered deaf and blind in industrial accidents, and it was only because brave activists risked life and limb that today, workers have to be paid in real money instead of scrip, get time off, and are compensated if they get hurt. These activists were bombed, lynched, and shot because they demanded to be treated like human beings. They paved the way for the civil rights struggle that would happen decades later. (Say what you like about OSHA and various industry regulations: you wouldn’t want to work in a factory or mine of 100 years ago.)

We might also have to talk with children about the concept of “class,” and have conversations with them around questions like, “Are we really a classless society?” We might have to talk about why poor people in Alabama subsidize low property taxes for the wealthy by paying such high sales taxes, even on things like groceries. One of my pastor friends asked a state legislator if he thought it was unfair that Alabama has such a regressive tax system which proportionally takes more money from the poor than from the wealthy. The politician was incredulous. “How else are you going to get money out of the poor?” he replied.

How far we’ve come since Alabama was called “the most liberal state in the south!”

Of course, these days, even talking about such things can get you labeled a socialist, regardless of what your economic and political views actually are. Our history has much to teach us that we are reluctant to learn. Privileged folk in Alabama of the last fifty years have worked very hard to forget as much as possible, hoping that we can “move on” from our past. But as dramatic as our history is, the further you dig, the more drama—and relevance—you uncover. Red-baiting and race-baiting still go on today, of course, although their practitioners resist similar rhetoric connecting them to the Klan, or Nazis, or to the feudal landlords of the south. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll see that there’s more than one reason this state’s politics are as red as its soil.

In my next post, I’ll talk about what this has to do with the church.

Reclaiming a Forgotten Saint

Paul, Andronicus, and Junia

Junia is a relatively new name to Christian scholarship. Her name appears in Romans 16:7 alongside several other women church leaders, but she is listed as an apostle, one of the original disciples of Jesus and an eyewitness to the resurrection. It shouldn’t be surprising, since the gospels are all pretty explicit that women played an important role in Jesus’ ministry and were the first ones to witness and proclaim the resurrection, but centuries of male prejudice led translators to assume that she was a man, “Junias,” a name so unusual that it doesn’t appear in any other manuscripts of the time (while “Junia” appears over 250 times).

The recent scholarship on Junia implies some interesting things about 1) the early church, 2) Christian history, and 3) how we read the Bible today, all of which have been important themes in my own ministry.

First, Biblical scholarship and the early church has been important for my own theology. In contrast to many Christians who believe the Bible must be consistent to be true, I revel in the fact that the Bible has many authors, many points of view, and many theological inconsistencies. Like the modern church, it was made up of liberals and conservatives, authoritarians and revolutionaries, mystics as well as logicians. When we read the Bible, we are thrown into a community of believers who do not always agree with each other, much less our own notions of who God is and what God is up to in the world. This is why we have four gospels, two histories of the monarchy, two creation stories, and multiple letters. I think it’s pretty clear that the early church was an egalitarian community that believed Jesus had opened the Kingdom of God to all, and that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female were all welcome at the table. But there were also early editors who were not comfortable with women in leadership, or (gasp!) uppity slaves.

Second, Christian history has likewise been a story of reformation and counter-reformation, of new movements of people reaching back to earlier traditions and reclaiming forgotten parts of the Bible. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Mother Theresa, all created movements and changed their world because they reached back around their traditions to older Christian examples and the Bible itself. You can look at this as a big mess of conflicted history, or you can choose to see the power of the Holy Spirit leading people to deeper understanding of what Jesus’ Good News means to their generation or culture.

Lastly, when I preach, one of my main goals is to help people hear the Bible with fresh ears. Many of us—believers as well as skeptics—have been trained to miss important ideas in the Bible. I didn’t really fall in love with Jesus until I learned that he had a sense of humor which sometimes tended toward the gutter. People have managed to argue about homosexuality and religious exclusivism without ever recognizing the early church’s belief that God shows no partiality. I don’t want to ever claim that my interpretations of scripture are the only right ones, but I do think I offer people fresh theological options for engaging the Bible and understanding their world in light of it.

So for me, Junia speaks to all of those things—she is a link to the early church, a correction for the abuses of Christian history, and an interpretive lens for how we do theology today. She stands for all the forgotten saints at the margins who we reclaim from the past, and she symbolizes hope for a more just future for those who follow Jesus.

As I’ve been toying with church names for a church plant in the Birmingham area, Junia has come to mind. There are plenty of Methodist and other churches named after male saints, and there are even a few named for Saint Mary or Saint Elizabeth. But there aren’t any named for Junia.

Just a thought.

New Lessons from God Shows No Partiality

I’ve posted lessons 4 and 5 of the study guide for God Shows No Partiality. For Kindle users, the book is currently a free borrow, and on June 1 it will be free for anyone using a Kindle app for 5 days. Help me spread the word by sharing links and letting any church leaders know about this free resource.

A Writer’s Problem with the Will of God

Today I’ll be leading a Sunday school class lesson on Adam Hamilton’s Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. Lots of Christians talk about “the will of God” or even “God’s perfect plan” as though it is a script or blueprint, and that everything that happens, every event in our lives, is either a) predestined (and we cannot depart from it) or b) prescripted (and we can depart from it, though it is inadvisable).

In general, I agree with Adam’s perspective that we are collaborators with God in shaping our lives and our world. But there is one metaphor he uses with which I take issue:

Here is another objection: what is the point of life if we are merely acting in a play God has already written? If every event and every line were predetermined by God, daily life would seem to have no purpose apart from entertainment for God. Yet how could God find this entertaining–milennia after milennia watching human beings do what he predetermined what they would do, and say what God predetermined what they would say? (p. 59)

By derivative work: Tadpole9 (talk) Romeo_and_Juliet_Q2_Title_Page.jpg: Thomas Creede (Romeo_and_Juliet_Q2_Title_Page.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Every time I hear people use the analogy of a play or a novel for the will of God I wonder, “Have they ever written a play or a novel?” Both Stephen King and Anne Lamott have written books about the craft of writing that have changed my understanding of this metaphor. Writers often have the experience of writing  fictional characters for a story they have in mind, only to find that the characters themselves change the story. Good authors write believable characters who have their own personalities, and often say things like, “I thought this was going to be a story about X, only the characters didn’t react the way I expected.” A mark of bad writing, on the other hand, is that the plot seems to be on rails and the characters are stiff and unbelievable. The process of writing, or of any creative art, really, is partially about giving up control. If we think about the actual process of writing, I think the play metaphor supports what Adam is arguing after all–we are collaborators with God, characters who interact with our author, sometimes arguing, “No, that’s not what my character would do. I would do this.”

This is the way it is for human artists, anyway. If God is an artist, how much more would God’s own characters have a life of their own? Imbued with God’s own breath, maybe they would even get up off the page and walk around. I’m only stretching the metaphor, of course, trying to see how far I can bend it before it breaks. I don’t really know what the creative process would be like for the author of creation. I just think it’s worth asking any artist: Have you ever created something that surprised you?

The Geometry of Love

Dorotheus of Gaza

Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. …Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center: the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings. …Let us assume for the sake of the analogy that to move toward God, then, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. But at the same time, the closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God.

(Dorotheus of Gaza, from Roberta Bondi’s To Love as God Loves, p. 25).

Three Practical Steps for Christians Who Want to Change the World

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The following is taken from the conclusion of my book, God Shows No Partiality.

What I have found in teaching the Bible in both the academy and the church is that the people who believe in the Bible most literally are often the least literate about it. They may have memorized favorite scriptures that support their ideas of what their faith means, but they do not often take trips through the minor prophets, and they have no idea what the Babylonian Exile was. They are essentially writing their own Bibles, and the versions they come up with have little to do with the actual history and social movements that created the religion of ancient Israel or that gave birth to the church. When I press literalists about their interpretation of scripture, asking them to explain contradictions or inconsistencies in their favorite texts, they invariably will complain that I’m reading too literally, that I’m nitpicking or reading too closely.

My gripe with progressive Christians, on the other hand, is that they have often ceded the Bible and Christian history to Christian fundamentalists and literalists. They have been on the defensive, relying on generalizations and failing to engage believers with powerful Biblical rhetoric. Having been wounded one too many times by scripture-wielding exclusivists, perhaps they are reluctant to engage scripture on social issues at all.

But the history of the early church and God’s activity among us is a powerful witness. In writing this book, I have hoped to challenge progressive Christians to actively engage the Bible—not with proof-texts and scriptures cherry-picked to support a given position, but with thoughtful exploration using the best scholarship available.

Doing so will inevitably lead to resistance. There are plenty of people who believe they own the Bible, and that it is their right to clobber people with it. Sometimes these are unwinnable battles, and engaging them is a waste of time. In one well-known parable, Jesus describes hearers of the gospel as different kinds of soil (Mark 4:1-9) and the seed planted in them faces different obstacles to its growth. There are many reasons people may resist this message: demonic resistance, selfishness and materialism, or social pressure. Yet the slogan I have been promoting in this book is one the world needs to hear. By making it better known, we will transform the Bible from a sword into a plow. Perhaps instead of waging a war against sword-wielding Christians who will not be convinced, we can plant new seeds among those who are receptive to the Good News. At the end of the parable, after all, there is a harvest—thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.

If you, dear reader, are someone who does believe that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), if you look forward to the day that the powers and principalities are unmasked, there are some practical things you can do to turn the rhetorical sword the Bible has become into a plowshare that helps bring new life. Here are some practical steps.

First, Christians who believe in the salvation of the world should delve deeply into scripture. It is essential to study the Bible closely, to listen thoughtfully to what the authors say and do not say. Do not accept the pious reflections of preachers or the footnotes of popular study Bibles as the word of God. Read multiple translations, and be open to diverse interpretations. Ask how a given scripture might sound different to a white man, a black woman, or a religious or political prisoner. Ask what situations the authors faced and what voices they were arguing against. Study the Bible with people who have diverse theological opinions so you can hear with new ears. Be willing to read against the grain.

Second, if you want to resist those who use the Bible as a weapon, you must exceed them in good works. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is essentially a long discourse on how the new community should not only reject the principles of the Christian Pharisee faction, but distinguish themselves in practice. Their righteousness “must exceed that of the Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). If progressive Christians want to be taken seriously by the world, they must out-pray, out-give, out-do, and out-sacrifice their fundamentalist siblings. They may not remain, as one pastor friend describes them, “tippers instead of tithers.” They must live lives of exceptional moral conduct and generosity. If they do not, they will face two consequences: they will lose their social persuasiveness and they will become hypocrites themselves. This exceptional moral conduct is not just a matter of surface religiosity. It is about a transformation that happens to the soul (Matthew 5:44).

Third, you must spread the good news. The word “evangel” literally means “good message.” Fundamentalists tend to be evangelical because they believe they are saving people from hell in the afterlife. Progressive Christians are trying to save people from hell in this life, but they often fail to be evangelical even though I believe their good news is often more compelling and more exciting. I believe the news is just as good now as it was in the first century. If we do as Jesus instructed and spread this good news to all the earth, then burgeoning Christian movements in developing countries will not criminalize homosexuality or silence the voices of women. People in America will not be able to reject Christianity out-of-hand as intolerant and irrational—but only if this message spreads.

God Shows No Partiality

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…for you do not regard people with partiality… – Mark 12:14
For there is no partiality with God – Romans 2:11
…both of you have the same master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. – Ephesians 6:9
…there is no partiality. – Colossians 3:25
“I now truly understand that God shows no partiality…” – Acts 10:34-35
…what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality. – Galatians 2:6

“God shows no partiality” was a commonplace slogan in the early church, and if Christians had driven cars in the first century, it would have been plastered on their bumper stickers. It was a phrase well known in first-century Judaism, but it came to have new significance for the early church which admitted women, children, foreigners, Gentiles, and eunuchs into their community. In Jesus, God had been revealed as a God who shows no partiality, who was interested in breaking down barriers between male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile.

I’ve just finished writing a book titled “God shows no partiality.” My hope is that we would reclaim this slogan from our past and then proclaim it as a way of thinking about the politics of identity in our world today (especially race, sexuality, and religious pluralism). I trace the way the early church thought about religious food regulations, circumcision, and the role of women, children, and foreigners, and how those earliest Jewish Christians began to think about their relationship to their culture.

My hope is that this slogan would become well-known again, and that no argument about “how Christians should think about X” would take place without reference to this part of church history. I wish devout believers would plaster this slogan on billboards, instead of theologically questionable ones signed by God, and would wear this on T-shirts, instead of Christian imitations of corporate logos.

Here is the link to buy the book. 
Here is the link to buy the bumper sticker (or other gear).

I do not own any rights to this slogan, by the way. These are the words of Paul, and Luke, and other early Christian writers, not mine. “God shows no partiality” is the NRSV translation, but there are other ways of translating the Greek. I do hope that people feel free to take it, remix it, and post it all over the place. I look forward to seeing what kind of art others may make of it. This is a meme we need to revive, and celebrate, and push far and wide.