Why Should People of Faith Care About Mass Incarceration?

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I just completed an essay for FaithLink on Mass Incarceration. I did a huge survey of recent research, news articles, and opinion pieces. Some of the best are below.

Why should people of faith care about mass incarceration? It is a quiet genocide. Justice demands a response. Scripture also demands a response, and is skeptical about claims of invincible ignorance:

Proverbs 24:10-12
If you show yourself weak on a day of distress, your strength is too small. Rescue those being taken off to death; and from those staggering to the slaughter, don’t hold back.

If you say, “Look, we didn’t know about it,” the one who weighs hearts—doesn’t he understand? The one who protects your life—he knows. He makes people pay for their actions.

Stats on Mass Incarceration:

Stats on Homicide Rates by Country:

Conservative Support for Prison Reform:

Causes of Mass Incarceration:

Film Documentaries & Videos About Mass Incarceration and Slavery:

Primary Sources:

United Methodist Sources:

Different/Opposing Views:

Organizations Working to End Mass Incarceration

For Further Reading:

 

Reading a Pro-slavery Sermon from 1863

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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.

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.

God’s Wrath (And Other Inconveniences)

I’m excited about starting a new sermon series this Sunday.

Does God Have a Temper Problem? from Dave Barnhart on Vimeo.

I don’t think Christians wrestle with this issue enough, honestly. Plenty of atheists are happy to point out that although we say “God is love,” it seems that kind of love is often smiting people rather indiscriminately, slaughtering entire towns, including children. Christians—people I consider my friends, even educated clergy colleagues—will often float the argument that the genocide detailed in the book of Joshua was necessary. You know, because of the corrupting influence of the surrounding cultures.

……o-kay. That’s more or less always the reason for genocide, right? Corrupting influences and the purity of the race?

One good reason for leaving literalism-which-isn’t-really-literalism behind is that it leads us to this kind of thinking: that God is the kind of God who kills kids, giving our Lord and Savior the same moral character as school shooters.

Yet historians and archeologists cast doubt on whether this kind of large-scale invasion ever happened, which points us, I believe, toward a better way of thinking about these stories. What were the original authors of these stories trying to tell their audiences? What was their lived experience of siege warfare, cultural assimilation, and persecution?

In the Noah story, I believe the author is raising critical questions about the violence we attribute to God. I think the same is true in the story of Jonah, and Tamar, and Job, and in prophets like Isaiah.

I think Jesus expresses a Jewish tradition that is highly critical (and self critical) of violence and its users. We understand the wrath of God not in plagues, floods, or invading armies that hurt our enemies, but in the cross, where we see our complicity in the injustice and ugliness of the world.

Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees

Simon the Zealot

In my last post I mentioned that there were at least four political groups of homeland Jews in Jesus’s day: Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, and Sadducees. I think modern Christians could learn a bit about their own politics from each of these groups. At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a thumbnail sketch of each group:

  • Zealots believed in the overthrow of the Roman Empire. They would not tolerate pagan idols and practices in their land. God would bring about the Kingdom with their help.
  • Essenes believed in withdrawing from the corrupt Temple system and the Empire. They would live holy lives in an alternative world until God brought about the Kingdom without their help.
  • Pharisees believed in radical personal holiness. They believed in internalizing their religious law, and that God would give punishment and reward in the afterlife.
  • Sadducees believed in the establishment. They made peace with Rome and focused on religious ritual. They believed divine punishment and reward happen in this life.

Rather than thinking of the world in terms of liberal and conservative, I like thinking about how Christians of various kinds fall into similar groupings. For example, Zealots are those social activists who are passionately committed to political action. Essenes react negatively to Zealots, warning them against putting their faith in politics.

There were also polarized parties in the early church. While we often love to talk about the unity of Acts 2, when believers were “all of one mind,” I think Luke’s depiction of the church is a bit more rosy than other evidence indicates. There were disagreements between Greek and Hebrew Jewish Christians. They fought over gender equality. They fought over food regulations. They fought over circumcision. They fought over how literally to understand resurrection. They fought over who was in charge. Of course, the most sanctimonious ones claimed they simply followed Christ.

They struggled to figure out how to deal with slavery, classism, and their relationship to a pagan government. Sound familiar? Of course, Paul’s words to the Corinthians give disputing groups some guidance on how to treat each other. Basically, if you can’t be loving, at least be civil! And while he acknowledges that some members may be jerks (what he called “body parts you do not display in public“), they may also play an essential function.

I believe our contemporary polarization is not some aberration from the ideal early church, but entirely consistent with the action of the Holy Spirit within a group of highly committed political and religious people. In any given conflict, there will be winners and losers, as there were from the debates before, and the terms of debate will shift, and we’ll be arguing about something else fifty years hence. But if we don’t look at the history of these disputes, and only focus on the rosy picture of church unity in Acts, we will never really ask, or learn, or care what God is doing, right now, in the midst of this debate. How has God acted before? Where would you have stood in the circumcision debate? In the food-sacrificed-to-idols debate? In the women-in-leadership debate? In the prohibition debate? In the civil rights debate? Are your religious and political attitudes closer to the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, or the Sadducees? We’re really good at finding prooftexts for our own beliefs in scripture. Can we also find examples of how to talk about those beliefs?

The Politics of Jesus

Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees. These were the political parties of Jesus’ day, and it’s interesting that his disciples were made up of a hodge-podge of nearly all of them.

You had James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” and Simon the Zealot, who advocated the violent overthrow of Rome. You had Levi, who had been a tax-collector—a Roman collaborator! You had Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and people like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who may have been Essenes (along with John the Baptist). Jesus was a crossover figure, someone who managed to connect with many different social and political groups. Even Greek-speaking hellenized Jews wanted to see Jesus.

Jesus used rhetoric common to several different parties. He used the apocalyptic language of the “Kingdom of God” and “the resurrection” which many people interpreted literally, though it’s pretty clear he gave it his own unique twist. He took the hot-button topics of his day, like divorce and taxes, and managed to navigate the complex policy positions of disparate political groups.

Preachers often say that Jesus is not the property of any modern political party, but they seldom talk about the way he dealt with political factions himself. I think what is impressive in these gospel stories is how deftly and rationally he handles complex political and religious issues: the competing religious schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shimmei had definite opinions on things like divorce and other matters of religious law, and Jesus takes a position on them. He does so in a way that is rhetorically brilliant and grace-filled.

But he is not a wimp. Matthew’s Jesus even uses polemic, a rhetorical full-scale assault on one’s ideological opponents. In Matthew 23 he spends an entire chapter ripping them up one side and down the other:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them!
(Matthew 23:13)

Keep in mind, this is the same Jesus who in Chapter 5 told his followers not to call someone else a fool, yet in this chapter he does that and worse.

Most readers of the Bible figure the Pharisees were a monolithic group that opposed Jesus, but actually there were plenty of Pharisees who followed Jesus. Pharisees emphasized living a lifestyle of holiness and ethical behavior in relation to God, much like the early Jesus movement. Naturally, some Pharisees became Christians. The main point of contention between the Pharisee-Christians and the others was whether or not circumcision and food regulations would be binding on non-Jewish converts.

The “liberal”-leaning early church decided that such regulations would not be binding. So when this early church told the stories of Jesus in the gospels, they made sure to include Jesus’ polemical rant in Matthew 23. It became natural to think of all Pharisees as people who “locked others out of the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s why his criticisms still sound so relevant today.

I’m not saying that the gospels cannot be trusted, or that the authors were practicing revisionist history. I’m just pointing out that polarization affected how they told the story. Although Jesus occasionally said nice things about the scribes and Pharisees (as in this story), those sayings didn’t get the same amount of air time.

We can also see polarization happen in John’s gospel. Again and again, John points out how Jesus’s words and actions divided the people around him:

Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. (John 9:16)

…For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’ Again the Jews were divided because of these words. (John 10:17-19)

For John, people either got Jesus or they did not. Those who understood the character and personality of God recognized God’s character and personality in Jesus. Those who claimed to know God but did not, on the other hand, rejected him as being from God. John attributes polarization to the character of people’s hearts.

When I hear modern people complain about polarization and hear them wish for greater unity among Christians of different political persuasions, I am reminded of the polarization that happened in the early church. Had that polarization not happened, most of us bacon-eating, sabbath-defying, foreskin-wearing (or not) Gentiles would not be followers of Jesus. These divisions were deeply theological and reflected how differently people thought about God. They also reflected people’s character: plenty of haters wrapped their hatred in holy language. Polarization can happen for either reason.

Many Christians’ contemporary political disagreements likewise reflect deep theological differences in how we understand 1) the character, purpose, and personality of God, 2) the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, and 3) the nature, purpose, and destiny of humankind and all of creation. The polarization we experience in our political lives is seldom about which policy best matches our theology or achieves our common goals: It’s about whether we have common goals and theology at all. If we do not delve deeply into our disagreements and honestly talk about what’s at stake for us in our positions, we will never have those important conversations about what our faith actually means. Of course, as I noted in my last post, I’m someone who likes arguing. I find such stuff philosophically stimulating. I even like being wrong occasionally.

I do have hope that people of diverse political opinions can come together around Jesus, just as his disciples did. When I workshopped my book, I was pleased that people of very different views could have excellent conversation around some controversial ideas. People on all quadrants of the political plane were able to have conversation about the Bible, which they held in mutual esteem. But I’m strongly opposed to minimizing those differences, and I remain committed to the idea that it is entirely possible to argue without being acrimonious, that it is important to call out dishonest rhetoric and name polemic and ad hominem attacks, to insist on data and good scholarship, and to lay all of our cards on the table. It is important to say, “This is what is at stake for me.” Only in this kind of context does the word “unity” have any meaning.

I like to imagine how Jesus would navigate the political rhetoric of our day. A lot of preachers seem to think that he wouldn’t choose sides, but I believe part of his mass appeal was about articulating a divine, paradoxical mix of common sense, unconventional wisdom, and religious zeal while he did stake out his position. How would Jesus talk about our own tax system, or health care system, or foreign policy? Is Jesus okay with drone attacks? How would Jesus deal with the woman caught in the act of abortion, or the faction of people who want to legalize marijuana? How would Jesus talk to the tea party, or to the Occupy crowd? Where would his political sympathies lie? They had “gotcha” journalism back in the day, too—how would he deal with our modern rhetorical traps?

Thank God for Polarization

In each election season, my earnest, hand-wringing Christian colleagues always want to tell people that Jesus is “neither a Democrat nor a Republican.” Jesus transcends politics, and Christians should not try to recruit him to support their own partisan positions. This is true in some ways, but it is also toxic rhetoric.

In far more rancorous, polarized times than these, imagine clergy saying these things:

Jesus is neither for nor against women’s suffrage.
Jesus is neither for nor against segregation.
Jesus is neither for nor against child labor.

All of them are true. These are not things Jesus ever talked about. But are they issues that are irrelevant to the gospel? Earnest, sincere, Bible-believing Christians came down on both sides of these issues. Were all of their positions of equal moral value? Were some of them wrong? What would be a “fair and balanced” way to talk about these issues and Christian faith?

There are people—jerks, mostly—who say things like, “You can’t be a Christian and a Democrat.” I have not actually heard someone say that one can’t be a Christian and a Republican, but I’ll go ahead and assert that there are probably some out there who believe the same. I think most thinking people would agree that Christians might hold a variety of political beliefs and come from a variety of backgrounds. This is why I think it can be condescending to remind people that Jesus is not the property of any political party. While the statement is true, its language can take some of the most important issues for theological argument off the table, and it can turn questions like “how can we best reduce poverty and do justice?” into matters of mere personal preference.

I do not honestly see how pastors who promote this view of politics can take offense when people treat their own religion the same way—as mere tribal loyalty, a private matter of preference, something that shouldn’t be talked about in polite company or among friends. 

Okay, here are my qualifying statements: First, I understand that for some of us, striving for harmony is a strength, and part of this is a personality issue. Harmony is not my strength: I would rather have an argument with a true believer who disagrees with me than share small talk with someone who wants to brush our differences under the rug.

Second, I know Christians can disagree: I have known some very faithful, kind-hearted people who are the polar opposite of me on the political spectrum, and I have known some jerks who are closer to me theologically and politically than I care for them to be. People are all over the map, and loving them can be a challenge.

Finally, I also know that yes, people can get so wrapped up in political rhetoric that they demonize their opponents.

But folks who argued for nonviolent resistance during the struggle for civil rights talked about loving their enemies too much to let them get away with oppression. When I point this out, people say “yes, but that was a different situation.” Exactly: The oppression of our day depends upon us romanticizing the past, thinking that such radical expressions of faith belong to another era for more important issues.

Jesus promised his followers that those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness would be filled, and that peacemakers would be called Children of God. But he also said that such righteousness-seeking and Jesus-following would result in persecution. Are we a-political pastors training a church to be so fearful of conflict that it will fold at the first sign of criticism? How can we expect our members to be bold about their faith if their leaders are experts at equivocation? How do we model engaging and wrestling with political conflict?

Sure, I recognize that people on the opposite side of the political spectrum could make the same arguments. I should point out that many of them are, and from the leftward-leaning side there is largely the sound of crickets and passing traffic. But I am glad that there are more and more voices resisting the slow political drift of the church. The default conflict-avoiding position of the church is necessarily conservative: “Don’t move too fast!” is what many clergy, both white and black, told Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s the natural reaction of people who want to resist change of any kind: delay, distract, deny.

Thank God someone got polarized. Everyone in the middle was fine with injustice.

Lies My Preacher Told Me: Three Ways We Censor the Bible

In my last post, I talked about the “secret” history of Red Alabama, and how that history gets sanitized. How we sanitize history is the subject of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, which argues that how we teach history affects our thinking and our politics. There is a similar “secret” history of biblical interpretation, which also affects both our thinking and our politics.

I’m doing a Bible study called “Your Vulgar Bible” on Monday nights in a local pub. I’m sharing the stories and passages that don’t get preached. These are stories that do not get shared, either from the pulpit or in Sunday schools, and so people get a skewed vision of the Bible.

I argue that there are three ways the Bible gets censored:

  1. In translation. Translators often make ambiguous passages more explicit, and explicit passages more ambiguous. When Saul calls Jonathan the “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” who is a “shame to [his] mother’s nakedness,” he is not making a claim about Jonathan’s parentage. He’s insulting him, calling him a son of a bitch. While “bitch” might not be a literal translation, “perverse and rebellious woman” conveniently hides the gist in such a way that it will not shock the people in the pews. Likewise, when Rehoboam’s friends make derogatory statements about the size of Solomon’s genitals (and thus his manliness), we can translate the phrase in such a way that makes readers think we’re talking about his waist circumference. In both cases, we’ve gone very literal in order to hide the meaning. It’s possible to censor the latter passage by going very vague. Either way, you hide the scandal of the language used. That’s censorship.
  2. In selection. Some passages simply never appear in the lectionary or sermon series, nobody talks about them in Sunday school lessons or devotionals, and they just don’t come up. This is like the history of Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, or the fact that Birmingham was once a hotbed of communist agitation. There are people who know these facts exist, and choose to avoid the topics when they teach them. If we talk about the fact that there is cussin’ in the Bible, or allusions to sex outside of marriage, then the very categories we use to think about the world get called into question. It’s easier to never talk about it than to let it challenge us. We tell only part of the story, or don’t tell the story at all.
  3. In interpretation. We can read some passages a thousand times and never pay attention to what is being said, because we skew the interpretation to be about something more palatable. When Paul talks about the church as the Body of Christ, he is likely not the first to do so. What he does with the metaphor, though, is to twist it in such a way as to make a point: “The church members you dislike,” argues Paul, “may be assholes, but would you want to live without yours?” Paul refers to “body parts with less honor” that we “cover up,” When these less honorable body parts rejoice, all the body rejoices, he says. His hearers would have known he was talking about sex.

Most contemporary church people never hear the subtext of Paul’s passage, though. Paul figured his listeners 2000 years ago were smart enough to figure it out. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Bible, a lot of preaching makes us dumber! When we never hear alternative interpretations, we are less likely to hear delightful subtext, allusion, double entendre, humor… in short, everything that makes reading fun. This is why so many nonreligious people think the Bible is full of dry-as-dust moralistic writing.

Like the story about Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, these aspects of the Bible are lies by omission. We are sold a vision of history—and the Bible—that is shaped by an ideology, a narrative that censors every voice that might contradict it. When we buy into that narrative without question, we rob the Bible of its ability to shock and challenge us. We silence the voices of its authors by setting the Bible up on a pedestal. Rather than let them speak, we talk over them, drowning out their own words with ours.

I would also argue that we silence God. It is hard for me to comprehend how white Christians in slave states in the South could have read the book of Exodus without casting themselves in the role of the Egyptians, or how child-labor supporters and anti-suffragists and Jim Crow supporters could ever read the Bible and simply not hear prophetic calls for justice for orphans, widows, the poor, and the oppressed. Yet they did.

And they do. Because of biblical censorship, people will continue to “look without seeing” and “hear without understanding.” These are the folks who claim to read the Bible literally and believe every word. Yet the Bible they believe in is missing most of its pages.

Letting God speak through the authors takes a willingness to expose ourselves to other interpretations. We have to be willing to make a claim, test a hypothesis, and admit that we are wrong. All of this happens in the context of conversation! Jewish sages have been doing this for centuries, like Hillel and Shimmei, wrangling over what it means to “honor the Sabbath.” Our faith encounter with the Bible has always been dialogical, and part of my mission is to resist attempts to turn it into a monologue.

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.