Text of the Day 11-1-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s text is from Mark 11:28-33:

They asked, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?”

Jesus said to them, “I have a question for you. Give me an answer, then I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. Was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin? Answer me.”

They argued among themselves, “If we say, ‘It’s of heavenly origin,’ he’ll say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But we can’t say, ‘It’s of earthly origin.’” They said this because they were afraid of the crowd, because they all thought John was a prophet. They answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus replied, “Neither will I tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things.”

Religious leaders have not changed much in 2000 years. We don’t want to alienate anyone, least of all members of our congregations. We cling to the belief that in any conflict between oppression and liberation there is some third way or a mushy middle that will keep our hands clean from human fallibility or political consequences. It’s what led some white Birmingham church leaders to tsk-tsk at Martin Luther King, Jr. for “moving too fast” and “stirring up trouble,” and why his letter back to them is a classic. They could not recognize this audacious movement as a movement of God.

When our neutrality and our authority is questioned, we get butt hurt. “Who gave you this authority?” they ask Jesus. They are indignant precisely because they lack moral courage to name the theological reality in front of them.

If Jesus were a typical religious leader, the only reason anyone would ever want to crucify him is because he was boring.

“Mark’s Gospel originally was written to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about themselves. He does not pretend to represent the word of God dispassionately or impartially, as if that word were innocuously universal in its appeal to rich and poor alike. His is a story by, about, and for those committed to God’s work of justice, compassion, and liberation in the world.” — Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man.

The power to speak truth to power does not come from earthly power. It comes from God, and God is never neutral. And it’s only from this perspective, that God is active on behalf of those who are oppressed, that the good news can actually be heard.

Something to think about: the powers that be fear YOU.

Text of the Day 10-27-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s text is Matthew 16:24:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.

I think this is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied scriptures in the gospels. In Luke’s gospel, the phrase is “take up their cross daily,”and so Christian commentators speak generically about self-denial as part of discipleship.

But the cross had a specific meaning. It was reserved for rebels and traitors to the Roman Empire. If you were hung on a cross, you were a billboard for the power of Rome. It wasn’t just execution—it was advertising. Public execution is a demonstration of power. It’s meant to intimidate and terrorize people into submission.

So when Jesus tells his followers to “take up their cross,” he is essentially telling his followers, “Do the kinds of things that will get you labeled a traitor to the Empire.” Denying yourself means abandoning the selfish quest to move up the ladder of power, status, and respectability. Jesus is saying, “Kick the ladder over.”

His statement also stands in contrast to what revolutionaries usually say: “Take up your sword and follow me.” Jesus rejects violent revolution in favor of the nonviolent way of love.

When the organizers of the Civil Rights Movement began encouraging people to actually get arrested, they were flipping the script: Being arrested was not shameful; it was a badge of honor. It exposed a broken system for the sham it was. So likewise, when I see Colin Kaepernick choose to kneel rather than stand for the National Anthem, I understand he has chosen a cross to carry precisely in order to flip the script.

I believe this scripture goes hand in hand with the one I shared on Tuesday: “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” The more I have come to understand what it means to address systemic injustice, the more I realize that living under the power of authoritarian religion and coercive Empire is a far heavier burden than the cross of Christ.

Text of the Day 10-25-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

V0045282 A man carrying Holy water with his wife. Gouache drawing.

Credit: London, Wellcome Library, Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Today’s scripture is Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (CEB)

So much of religious practice seems to be about gritting your teeth and striving for something hard. People interpret “take up your cross and deny yourself” to mean that following Jesus is about doing something difficult or contrary to your deepest desire.

But Jesus seems to be saying that following The Way is not about heavier and stricter interpretations of scripture. The Way is about letting go. In Eugene Peterson’s translation, he calls it “relaxing into the unforced rhythms of grace.”

Living this Way will certainly put you at odds with the Kingdom of Busyness and Death. But there is peace and rest in it.

Text of the Day 10-20-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s scripture is 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.

“We didn’t know about it” is the excuse most of us use to ignore injustice. It sounds a lot like the hapless goats who say to Jesus, “When did we see you hungry, or sick, or in prison?” in Matthew 25:44.

The author of Proverbs doesn’t buy it.

We see that this excuse has been around for a long, long time. God holds us accountable for a basic level of social awareness. If we become aware of someone being taken off to death, we have an obligation to the one who weighs our hearts to do something about it. You’ve probably read the poem by Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the Socialists.” This passage says basically the same thing.

Recently, I watched 13th, the Netflix documentary about how our criminal justice system has continued the slave system in our country. Prisoners themselves are trying to get our attention. Because I am now aware of it, I cannot ignore it. That’s one reason I’m part of Faith in Action Alabama and will be helping to lead the District Attorney Forum on October 27 at 7PM at Sardis Missionary Baptist Church.

When you become aware of injustice, do something. God made you neither weak nor blind to injustice, but in God’s image: powerful, creative, insightful, and capable of helping on the day of distress.

Text Of The Day

Sometimes you just need a prompt, maybe a couple of times during the week, to read the Bible and reflect on it. You’re not crazy about syrupy-sweet devotionals and you want something that will tickle your brain as well as challenge you to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).

If that describes you, you can click the link below to sign up below for a SMS-based Bible study prompt.

Text Of The Day

Advent Reflection: Numbness

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

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

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

Most modern Christians do not get their norms for ethics from the Bible, and this is a good thing.

For example, as many critics of Christianity point out, nowhere do biblical authors explicitly condemn slavery. There is, of course, the whole Exodus story, and we can read it and retell it in such a way that we hear God’s sympathy with oppressed people. We can say that even ancient authors looked forward to a day of equality and freedom, when “everyone will sit under the shade of their own fig tree.” But Christian slaveowners pointed out that some scriptures told slaves to be obedient to their masters. To be obedient to God, they argued, you were supposed to accept the status quo.

The same is true for sexual ethics. Even though I really like Margaret Farley’s 7 norms for Christian sexual ethics (which are necessary for “minimal” justice), I have to admit that they are not found in the Bible: doing no harm, mutuality, commitment, none are explicitly named. Even consent is questionable. The social rules governing sexual behavior in the Hebrew Bible are all geared toward fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham: produce lots of descendents and possess the land. Even if you take “love your neighbor as yourself” as an important principle, it’s not specific enough to tell you what kind of behaviors are good or bad. (Even hate groups claim that they are motivated by love).

While the scriptures may contain all things necessary for salvation, they do not always spell out explicitly what “things” we are supposed to learn or how to apply those things to our lives. One of my favorite stories from Genesis 38 (Judah and Tamar) points out the hypocrisy of our sexual double standards, and highlights all kinds of issues that make for really good discussion of sexual ethics. But it doesn’t say, “go and do likewise.” I believe this is why we may use the Bible as a starting point for discussions of Christian ethics, but we can only find the end in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is also why when it comes to women’s rights, or children’s rights, or economic justice, or LGBTQ rights, or church management and polity, or payday loan sharks, or immigration reform, I have little patience for my clergy colleagues who either a) dismiss these things as divisive “issues” that are somehow less important than “preaching the gospel,” or b) say “the Bible clearly says,” as if they aren’t already engaged in the act of interpretation, reading things into the text that aren’t there. Again, it’s not bad to read things into the text—it’s just important to know what those things are.

When Christians deny the possibility of marital rape, or speculate that slavery wasn’t so bad, really, they are not violating norms of biblical ethics. They are living out exactly what they’ve been taught by pastors and Sunday school curricula throughout Christendom: the Bible is all they need. We mainline clergy enable this kind of thinking unless we are clearer about our sources for Christian ethics.

For Christian ethics, what the Bible doesn’t say is as important as what it does. This is why when people say, “Just stick to the scriptures,” I cringe inside. They either do not know the scriptures as well as they think they do, or they are operating on a false premise that all of our Christian ethics come from the Bible. The Bible gives us a form and a model for doing theology and ethics, but it does not do the work of theology and ethics for us.

Abusing scriptures: “Go and sin no more.”

Nicolas Poussin, from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ parting words to the woman caught in adultery are “Go your way, and do not sin again.” This is a favorite line for Christians who wish to maintain that Christian ethics demands forgiveness, but not the excusing of continued sexual immorality. It crops up with tiresome regularity in discussions about the acceptability of gay and lesbian love in church communities. (The argument only makes sense if you already agree that homosexuality is a sin). Jesus forgives the woman, goes the reasoning, but he doesn’t excuse her sin.

This is certainly one way to read the passage, and I’m happy to consider this understanding of it (even if I reject the implication that gay or lesbian love is the moral equivalent of adultery). But I find it troubling how we use this passage to construct a theological system about sin and how we approach it within Christian community. Doing so places us right back in the position of the murderous men.

A couple of preliminary points:

First, I think it’s important to point out that this story is an addition to John. I don’t think that necessarily decreases its legitimacy as a Jesus story, or as an authoritative, inspired text, but I think it’s important to point out before exegeting it.

Second, there’s a great detailed summary of the social situation of the woman in this blog post, which suggests that the title should not be “The Woman Caught in Adultery” but “Jesus and the Murderous Men.” Capital punishment by subjugated people under Roman occupation was actually illegal. Occupiers tend to frown upon native populations carrying out their own executions, which is why Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be killed. These men bring the woman to Jesus to be stoned in violation of Roman law and accepted Jewish practice, which called any council that condemned more than one person to death in seven years a “murderous” council.

If we want to figure out how “sin” is used in this story, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Jesus’ words to the woman without also connecting it to his statement to the men. They bring a woman (and not a man) to Jesus to be stoned. He tells them, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” So nobody does. They all walk away. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to go and sin no more. They leave of their own accord.

Why? Why wouldn’t they stick around to see if someone would pick up a rock? Why didn’t they engage in a discussion with Jesus about which sins are punishable by death and which ones are not? This is the usual pattern in discussions with Jesus and religious leaders. I honestly can’t imagine Christians who quote the “go and sin no more” line giving up so easily and melting back into the crowd. They would at least want to stick around and hear what Jesus said to the woman.

Is “sin no more” implied in Jesus’ words to the men? If he were to tell them to sin no more, what sin would he be referring to? To their private (and perhaps sexual) sins? To the sin of dragging a woman in front of him to be stoned? Or is their sin just sort of a generic, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) variety?

I really like Tony’s observations about the “muddy” situation that the woman is in, and that the whole violence-against-women narrative is not incidental to the story. Discussions about what constitutes sin (sexual or otherwise) and who is guilty of it are frequently tied to ways we legitimize violence. We don’t actually know her story. We accept the men’s accusations at face value. It is entirely possible that she has been sexually mistreated, married off at an early age and against her will. It is possible that she has been set up, or even raped. If so, “Go and sin no more” sounds like blaming the victim. Is Jesus complicit in a culture of rape and violence?

Or maybe Jesus means the words differently. Do we hear Jesus’ words to her in the same way we hear his words to the murderous men? Are we sure that his “Go and sin no more” is a reference to her adultery, or might it refer to something else? After all, if we’re going to let the men off with generic sinfulness, why do we assume the word “sin” refers to her alleged adultery?

Or maybe Jesus is just treating her as their equal (and equally capable of judgment and violence). Perhaps, having been cleared of her sin (“neither do I condemn you”), she is truly free from slut-shaming culture. If so then the men, it would seem, are still stuck in their sin. After all, Jesus doesn’t tell them to sin no more. Their shame keeps them from asking forgiveness from either Jesus or the woman they have dragged before him. They wander away before hearing any words that release them from their condemnation.

Shouldn’t they have apologized? Does our shame keep us from reconciling with people we have judged? It’s possible that this is not a happy ending. Her accusers go back to their judgmental ways. Are we to imagine that the crowd that had shamed her will treat her as an equal from now on, and not refer to her as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” the way we do?

I also don’t think the story is complete without looking at the ways Jesus discusses sin in other places in John. In one story, he tells a formerly paralyzed man not to sin so that nothing worse happens to him. In another, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus says, “No one.” Is it possible to put together a coherent theology of sin, forgiveness, and the divine will from these passages without doing intellectual acrobatics?

I love this story. It’s one reason I’m not content to say it doesn’t belong in John’s gospel. But I think it’s sad that we appropriate a scripture that explicitly rejects violence and inequality to legitimize more violence and inequality. It’s abusing scripture: abusing it and using it to abuse.

Dear Neutral Christians: You Have Already Chosen a Side

What I find even more annoying than the flap over Chick-fil-A —even more irritating than all of the polarization and heated rhetoric flying about—are the people who try to self-righteously stand aloof from the fray. To me, even more disheartening than the posts about standing up for traditional heterosexist values and fighting a culture war are some of the comments I’ve read like,

“Jesus isn’t honored by this arguing”
“It’s just a sandwich.”
“Jesus wasn’t interested in political correctness.”

This is the rhetorical equivalent of people who said things like

“It’s just a lunch counter”
“Who cares where you sit on the bus?”
“The church should stay out of the civil rights movement.”

I’m not surprised – not one bit – that Christians lined up outside of Chick-fil-a stores yesterday. I’m not surprised that they leapt to the defense of Dan Cathy. There were plenty of God-fearing Christians who lined up behind Governor George Wallace as well. What does disappoint me are all the “neutral” Christians who think it would all be okay if we just didn’t keep talking about it.

FYI – if you call supporters of gay marriage “arrogant,” or say that they are “shaking a fist at God,” (Cathy’s words) you are not just stating your Biblical belief. You are demonizing opposition to your beliefs. So instead of interpreting the Bible differently than you, I, as a supporter of gay marriage, become the enemy of God. Instead of seeing the world through a different lens, instead of merely interpreting the Bible from another perspective, I have a character flaw—arrogance. I take offense at such claims. It is not because I’m being “politically correct.” I am responding appropriately to offensive rhetoric. It is the same offense one might take at the CEO of a major corporation calling women or African-Americans “uppity.”

When you, as a Christian, claim I am off-base for taking offense at his words, you have chosen a side. And that makes me angry. If my anger makes you uncomfortable, I’ll also point out that I am not gay. I don’t have a right to one fraction of the anger my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters feel.

My anger comes from the fact that I am trying to build a church in which all people can know the love of Christ. I want to let people who have been burned by church and turned off by the bigotry of some Christians know that they can believe in Jesus without being a fundamentalist, that the origins of Christianity are in the radically inclusive love of Jesus for women, eunuchs, children, foreigners, uncircumcised Gentiles, and even people of other religions (like Samaritans).

I have been trying to make the case to such folks that the bigots are a loud minority of Christians. All those people who lined up outside of a fast food restaurant to make a point (what was the point, exactly?) just made my job harder.

Please do not tell me, condescendingly, that I should not be offended by the words of a self-avowed conservative Christian to a Baptist press. I have no problem with the president of Chick-fil-a stating a belief. He could believe in young-earth creationism. He could believe that only people baptized by immersion will be saved. He might believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. But if he says that I am shaking my fist at God because I don’t believe in the exclusivity of immersion baptism, or that I’m arrogant for believing in evolution, you’ll pardon me if I don’t eat at his stupid restaurant.

And if my offense at his comment offends you, or if engaging in a debate about symbols and what they mean is somehow problematic for you, or if you want to say that somehow I’m disconnected from God’s redemptive action in the world because I’m angry about it, then you can take your irrelevant gospel and get out of my face. You do not get to speak for Jesus, or tell me that Jesus isn’t concerned about what concerns me while defending the words of someone who is certain – certain! that Jesus is all concerned about homosexuality.

I will not abide that double standard silently. If Dan Cathy can speak for God, so can I. And so can any of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I will keep telling of a God who shows no partiality.

Neutral Christians, I hope your derision of the whole argument is not your attempt to stay above the fray and keep your pretty hands clean. You are just as much a part of the political world as any of us. Paul makes the same point when he addresses the arguing Corinthians. Some said “I belong to Paul.” Some said “I belong to Apollos.” But the really self-righteous said, “I belong to Christ.”

Sorry, you don’t get to “transcend” politics. Even Jesus didn’t get to do that until after the politics and the religion of his day killed him. God was willing to get God’s hands dirty in the politics of our world. Your attempt to avoid taking a position by declaring “a pox on both your houses” or saying “both sides are guilty” is not a witness to the risen Christ: it is a cynical move to side with the powerful against the weak without the courage to say that that is what you are doing.

I understand. I totally do. It is always scary when someone invites you to leave your world of privilege and side with the oppressed. Even if your sympathies lead you in the right direction, your self-preservation instinct is strong. It’s the same reason Peter didn’t wave his arms in the courtyard and say: “Wait! You’ve got it all wrong! He isn’t talking about the kind of revolution that you think!” He tucked tail and ran because he was afraid of being crucified. It’s the same reason Reinhold Neibuhr (a brilliant theologian and someone I admire) told Martin Luther King “wait, you’re moving too fast.”

When Paul said “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he did not say it to a secular world that didn’t want Jesus. He said it to a religious community that was not sure how they could accept uncircumcised Gentiles as equal members of their church. So to all you appeasers who think you are being peacemakers, I level this charge: you are ashamed of the gospel. You do not believe in the power of Christ to include your gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as co-workers in the kingdom. You have sided with the powerful against the powerless, because that’s the safe place to be.

I’m not saying you are bad Christians. Some of you are wonderful Christians. But we all make mistakes, and sometimes we do what we do out of necessity. Even Paul played both sides of the cultural arguments of his day. Though he didn’t believe eating meat sacrificed to idols would cut you off from Christ, he wasn’t going to press the issue for the religious sticklers (1 Corinthians 8:8-9). Peter likewise buckled under pressure from the religious conservatives of his day (Galatians 2:11-12). And though Paul stood up to the religious conservatives for Titus (Gal 2:3), he did not do so for Timothy (Acts 16:3). We pastors know that it is often important to buy time in the middle of social change.

But I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of Christ for salvation, for both straight and gay, for God shows no partiality. I am not ashamed to say that Dan Cathy’s version of the gospel is different from mine. I’m sure he’s not a bad guy, and he loves Christians who think like him. But, like Paul, if eating such meat offends my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, “then I will never eat a chicken sandwich again.” Because that’s what Christians do.

Church Update: July 1, 2012

On July 1, twenty-seven people gathered at our house for our first afternoon worship and planning meeting, followed by a potluck supper (because you can’t be a real church without potluck suppers!). The vision of this new church is to become a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things. “The renewal of all things” is a pretty big idea, so we try to break it down into five aspects of our life together: Worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness. Each of the five Sundays in July we will gather at 4:30 to talk about one of the five areas.

All of these flow from the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. We love God as a community through worship. We love God individually through our devotion. We love our neighbors as a community by doing justice in Birmingham and in the world. We love our neighbors individually through ministries of compassion. Binding all of them together is our witness to what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ.
We also went about the business of doing business and delegating roles. Over the next few weeks Angela and I will be talking with folks about how they would like to grow spiritually through this new church, and what they can in turn offer to others.
We are so thankful to Trinity and Canterbury UMC for all their encouragement, financial support, willingness to serve, and prayer. God is already doing great things.