If Paul Wrote “The Love Chapter” Today

handheart
If I speak Christianese, but do not have love, I am just an annoying advertising jingle for Jesus. And if I have a big blog following, and three best sellers, and if I run a big church, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I become a martyr for evangelism or social justice, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 

Grandstanding is not love. Smarm is not love. Love does not belittle the beloved’s anger. Love does not gaslight, tone-police, or tell victims to reconcile with their abusers. Love does not shrink from conflict, but calls all parties to act like mature adults.

 

Love does not bear all things, because it rejects that which diminishes the image of God in self or others. It does not believe all things; it rejects bullshit, because it is neither naive nor gullible—it rejoices in the truth. It can endure much, but it cannot endure “love the sinner and hate the sin.” See above. Love treats others with the compassion, respect, and dignity we want for ourselves.

 

The internet will end. Politics will end. Blogs, books, and religion will end. Right, now? All this stuff is a pale reflection of the love and justice God has in store.

 

When I was a toddler, I thought “sharing” meant that you give to me. I thought “love” meant you defer to my wishes. I thought Christian paternalism and pity were love. But I grew out of that.

 

I’m not perfect, of course. I’m still capable of self-deception. I’m not as mature as I will one day be, but one day we will all know God’s love inside and out.

 

Sure, faith is important. Hope is important. But you know what’s more important?

 

Love. Mature love.

 

(1 Corinthians 13, for comparison)

The Love Chapter (Dave’s Paraphrase)

Not to be confused with an actual translation:

If I speak in the languages of humans and of divine beings, but do not have love, I am white noise and static, distortion without melody. And if I have a huge blog following, and can read Greek and Hebrew, and have written best-selling books, and if I can quote whole paragraphs of the Discipline, and if I am just generally more religious than you, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my stuff, and die like a martyr in an inspiring story, but do not have love, I gain diddly.

 

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not condescending or paternalistic or patronizing or rude. It does not employ disingenuous rhetoric: religious code words, race-baiting, gay-baiting, ad hominem attacks, scapegoating, or mansplaining. It does not insist on its own privilege; it is not fearful of science or of being proven wrong; it does not indulge in schadenfreude, but rejoices in the good of others. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 

Love never ends. But as for policies, they will come to an end; as for institutions, they will cease; as for the internet, it will come to an end. For we do things only in part, but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was immature, I threw tantrums and argued like a child; when I became an adult, I stopped that sort of thing. For now we see dim reflections of our world, our selves, and our God, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. So three things will outlast all this temporary, immature stuff: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

A Scandalous Rhetorical Reading of Romans 1 and 2

In debates about homosexuality and the church, people who want to maintain that homosexuality is a sin often quote Romans 1:26-27. I do not think this scripture supports their views. In fact, I think it undermines them.

The following is a rhetorical reading of Romans 1:8 through 2:29. I have paraphrased it, updated it, and made it as scandalous as it might have been to its original hearers. It is not meant to accurately reflect all of the nuances of Paul’s original argument, but to highlight the fact that the whole first chapter is, in fact, a parody of exclusivist Christian thinking. It is a prologue. The second chapter is where he brings the hammer down.

There will be people who read the following paraphrase and won’t get it. They will accuse me of twisting Paul’s words. But maybe (I hope) they will get a taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of Paul’s hyperbolic rhetoric. I believe this reading is far more true to his argument than their use of a handful of verses ripped out of context.

If you’d like to follow along, open Romans 1:8-2:29 in a new tab.

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First, I thank God for all of you good Christian folks, because the whole world knows how faithful you are. I want nothing more than to come and be with you in person, good religious people, so that we can encourage each other. I would love to share with you the same kind of experience I’ve had among the non-religious and the pagans, who have been coming to Christ in record numbers. I’ve been helped in my work and taught by both civilized people and savages, philosophers and fools. That’s why I’m so eager to come and share the Good News with you good Christian folks in the big pagan city of San Francisco. (1:8-15)

Sure, both religious people and pagans want me to be ashamed of this Good News that I share with both the cultured pagans and the religious minority. But I’m not ashamed of the Good News, because it’s the power of God for everyone who has faith, to the religious minority and also to the pagan elites, because the Good News reveals God for who God really is. If you get it, then you really get it. (1:16-17)

Look, I know you already know this, but it bears repeating: God is furious with everyone who would suppress the truth. The kinds of hellfire and brimstone you have preached to the pagans is true: God has already shown everyone, Christian and pagan alike, who God really is: you can see who God is through the beauty and awesomeness of nature. (1:18-20a)

So these non-religious people around you have no excuse: these pagan elites, the agnostics and the culture worshipers, because although in their hearts they probably already know God, they are ungrateful and irreverent. Their brains have become clouded. Even though they believe themselves to be smart and hip and wise, they are really dolts, and they choose instead to worship idols and mascots: supermodels and superheroes, gods of sex and money and power and death. (1:20b-23)

So God lets them. God lets them turn themselves into a joke, because they worship creatures rather than the Creator. They become sexually promiscuous and perverted, believing that to be cultured means to indulge themselves in a buffet of pornographic delights. Their emperors lead the way (and some of them, like Caligula, were killed by the boy toys they kept in bondage). Their women are no better. They all swap partners as if every body were just a set of interchangeable orifices. They treat people as sexual objects to be used for personal gratification. The most important thing in their universe is their own pleasure. You’ve seen reality TV, so you know what I’m talking about. (1:24-27)

And since they chose to ignore God, God let them fill themselves with perversion: greed, petty rivalries, envy, murder, violence, lying, gossiping, racism, bigotry. They created a culture of cynical antipathy, live-and-let-die, contemptuous of family, or religion, or civic-mindedness. They know such things are wrong and lead to the death of everything good, but they not only do them, but they make heroes of people who celebrate these values of the culture of death. (1:28-32)

So, by now you’re nodding along with me, because I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. But here’s the kicker:

You ain’t any better than the pagans you rail against. (2:1)

You are also without excuse, because you yourselves are no better and yet you stand in judgment of them. You religious-types say “God will send them to hell.” Do you imagine that when you judge them for doing these things, and yet do them yourself, you will escape judgment? Or do you fail to appreciate what the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ really means? Don’t you realize that the repentance you should be most concerned about is your own? But because you are judgmental and self-righteous, you are making your own personal judgment day that much worse. (2:1-5)

Everyone is going to get what’s coming to them: people who humbly do good will be treated well, and people who are self-righteously wicked will truly understand the hell they preach toward others. You want to talk about hell? Self-righteous sinners will indeed experience hell, but the religious hypocrites will have a front-row seat. The self-righteous pagans will follow. But the same is true of heaven and the reward of the kingdom of God: Good religious folks will lead their righteous pagan brothers and sisters into their reward. Because God shows no partiality. (2:6-11)

Sure, all who are wicked without religion will die without religion, and those who are wicked and religious will be judged by the faith they supposedly hold dear. Because it’s not those who hear or parrot their religious precepts who are judged righteous by God, but those who actually do good. When non-religious people instinctively do good, they show that they have God’s religion written on their hearts. And on the day of judgment, it’s their hearts that will matter to God. (2:12-16)

But if you call yourself a Christian and rely on your religion and your heterosexuality and the fact that you don’t rob banks, and you brag about your relationship to Jesus, and if you are sure that you are the bright spot of civilization in a world of darkness, and you’re going to bear God’s message to all of creation, will you not hear it for yourself? You already know the stereotype of religious people: They are embroiled in scandals about money and sex and pyramid schemes. They police other people’s bedrooms, but they spend more money on porn than anyone else. It’s even written in the Bible: “religion” and the name of God is practically a cussword among the non-religious because of you. (2:17-24)

For example, your heterosexuality or your straight marriage is indeed a great thing if you actually follow the Bible. But if you don’t do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, the virtue of your heterosexual marriage in God’s eyes is a sham. So if gay and lesbian persons actually follow Jesus better than you do, won’t their marriages be virtuous in God’s eyes? For a person is not a Christian who is one outwardly, nor is true marriage something about your genitals. Rather, a person is a Christian who is one inwardly, and real marriage is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual. Such a person may not receive praise from others (or from you), but they receive it from God. (2:25-29)

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?

Give Me that Old-Time, Watered-Down Religion

Wine Barrels

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets…” (Matthew 5:17). Have you ever noticed that Jesus sounds a bit defensive, here? Jesus launches one of his most powerful speeches, the Sermon on the Mount, by acknowledging the criticism of his opponents. For him to start this way means there must have been people saying, “Jesus is abolishing the Law and the Prophets!”

I think I can imagine what some religious people were saying about the new Jesus movement. “They’re just preaching Judaism-Lite,” they said. “These Jesus-followers set a low bar for discipleship: you don’t even have to cut off your foreskin! And you know what they forbid you to eat? Nothing! You can eat whatever the heck you like! What kind of religion is that?”

This new Jesus movement preached a message to Gentiles, of all people, and told them “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Choose your yoke- heavy or light?

Of course, everyone knew that “yoke” and “burden” were metaphors for how you interpreted religious law. When the big debate over whether or not new Christians would have to be circumcised broke out, Peter turned on the Pharisees and said, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Then the church leaders composed a letter to the new Gentile converts: “…It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well’” (Acts 15:28-29). Anyone who read Jesus’ words about yoke and burden knew what he meant: “Hey, you Gentiles—you can follow God without cutting off your foreskin!”

With such a light set of requirements, critics of the new Jesus movement had a field day. The theology of this cult was designed to please humans, not God. They were watering down the Bible, teaching their followers dangerous things that would alienate them from God.

This is why Jesus starts off the Sermon on the Mount with a defensive statement, and why Paul constantly has to defend himself to churches. Make no mistake: A good portion of the New Testament was written not to potential pagan converts, but to religious traditionalists who were critical of the liberal theology of the new Jesus movement.

This is why Paul is so defensive in Galatians: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10). He also sounds defensive in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

The people who were trying to make Paul ashamed of his gospel were not secular pagans, but Christian Pharisees who insisted his Gentile followers should be circumcised, abstain from pork, and celebrate Jewish holidays.

So when I preach about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons or against religious exclusivism, I expect the same reaction from religious conservatives that Jesus and Paul faced from their critics: “You are watering down the Bible!” In fact, I might go so far as to argue that if you are *not* getting this kind of criticism from Christian traditionalists, you’re probably not actually preaching the gospel.

In response, both Jesus and Paul shifted the charge back onto their Pharisee critics: YOU are the ones who believe in human tradition more than the Bible (Matthew 15:1-20). YOU are the ones who are playing to the desires of the flesh: the desire to dominate, to divide, to conquer and possess (Romans 2:1-5, Galatians 5:14-24).

Jesus goes on to contrast his followers with the Pharisees throughout the Sermon on the Mount. He tells his liberal followers that they must outdo their traditionalist critics; out-pray, out-give, and out-live them in their spiritual lives: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Jesus ups the ante. Though his followers have heard religious language about how to live their lives, his requirements are actually more stringent: “You have heard it said you shall not murder—I tell you don’t be angry. You have heard it said don’t commit adultery—I tell you don’t lust.” How would he preach this today? “You have heard it said love the sinner but hate the sin—I tell you don’t hate at all. You have heard it said give a tithe—I tell you give it all.” Yet he considers this discipleship an easier yoke than what his critics offer.

Jesus-followers claimed that their “watered-down” religion was actually more intense about things that matter. Even though their yoke was easy in one way, they were still obligated to conduct themselves with strict personal moral discipline, making it clear to others that this new community would be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. This new teaching was not for the traditionalists who already felt they knew and owned God—it was for all those alienated from God who needed Good News. Jesus compared his message to new wine, which you cannot put in inflexible, old wineskins. If his Good News offended you, maybe it wasn’t for you.

Viewed from this perspective, Jesus’ first miracle at Cana (turning water to wine) was a tongue-in-cheek jab at his critics: you may think this new teaching is “watered down.” But it may be too strong for you.

I am thankful that more and more Christians are waking up to a gospel that is fully inclusive of all people. And I am thankful that I have met more and more folks who hold traditionalist values who also understand that this new wine is not for their church, but needs a new church, a new wineskin, to hold it.

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.