Nashville Noise

Jesus-facepalm

You may have seen that a few days ago, something called The Nashville Statement (click the link, if you must) was issued by some group that calls itself “The Council for Biblical Manliness and Womanliness.” Really, I’m not making this up; that’s what they’re calling themselves. It sounds like a secret club started by the Little Rascals after they grew up and the He-Man Woman-Haters Club fell apart, not for lack of woman-hating, but because, well, sex.

gimme the high sign

As silly as the group’s name is, it’s clear that it’s supposed to sound like some respected, august body of religious leaders dripping with gravitas, who, one might assume, somberly gathered together in Nashville to contribute some profound insight into a grave and urgent crisis of our time. In reality, I suspect its list of original 150 signers – which included only a scant few more women than the H-MWHC – was far less such a gathering, and much more something like Tony Perkins having simply texted out the statement to everyone in his phone’s contact list one day, and them texting him back a thumbs-up emoji.

The statement itself is remarkable – but only for its unremarkableness.

It’s really nothing more than a bunch of the usual suspects and self-appointed mouthpieces of so-called Evangelical American Christianity repeating their harmful anti-LGBTQ understanding of the faith, as if people hadn’t already heard those views ad nauseum. The group must have been thinking that they hadn’t gotten enough media coverage lately, so they repackaged their hate and ignorance in the confession format used by many religious groups who were speaking to past historic crises.

In the days since its release, there have been countless responses and counter-statements issued – I’ve read at least half a dozen, and actually signed two. I haven’t had time to offer any thoughts about it until now, because a.) I have a day job, and blogging isn’t it; and b.) I wondered, and frankly still do, if responding to these dead-theologians-walking only served to give them more attention than they deserve. Watching the massive human tragedy unfolding in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey makes me additionally ambivalent about the appropriateness responding to these theological and moral pygmies .

One of the responses that I read was John Pavlovitz’s, titled The Nashville Statement (A Plain Language Translation). I like John’s writing, and this was a good piece, but I have to admit I was thinking based on its title, the article would be more of a point-by-point translation of the Statement’s various Articles out of religious jargon and into plain language that people other than theology nerds could clearly understand. Since he didn’t go in that direction, I thought I’d try to do that now. So here goes. The original Nashville Statement text is in lavender, the definitive gay color, just to tick off its homophobic authors; the translation follows in black.

Article 1

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

[Translation] God designed marriage for the purpose of conceiving and giving birth to children – so you gays can’t have a legitimate marriage because you can’t have kids.

Don’t remind us that many heterosexual couples choose not to have children, and we consider their marriages valid. Same with heterosexual couples who can’t have children due to age or other biological reasons.

Don’t tell us that every day, we accept as valid the marriages of heterosexual couples who got married in entirely secular settings, or in religious traditions other than our own, and we consider them perfectly acceptable. We’ll plug our ears and say “LALALALALALALA!”

Don’t point out to us that the concept of an unchanging, universal definition of marriage in the Bible is a complete myth, or that Biblical characters’ marriages were completely at odds with modern American cultural norms, or that there are many Christians even today whose understanding of marriage is very different from our own. Plugging our ears again. Just stop it.

And don’t talk to us about gay couples who adopt, providing homes for the unwanted children of heterosexual procreation. Really, just don’t go there, because it’s better for those kids to grow up without loving parents than to be exposed to gay couples living in ways that will make the kids think we’re crazy when we claim that their parents’ lives are immoral and ungodly. Don’t show us the mountain of research that shows that kids raised by gay parents are just as psychologically well-adjusted as those raised by straight couples. Besides, we really know all those homos just want to have sex with those children, and recruit them into their immoral lifestyle.

Article 2

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

[Translation] Sex bad, except within straight marriage, and as we define it. Any other expression of our sexual selves – man, we hate to even say the word “sex” – is absolutely unacceptable. If we have to live our entire lives saddled with guilt because we went all the way with Tammy with the big boobs in the back seat of our car after our Young Life meeting when we were teenagers; or because we’ve been secretly engaging in sex in department store men’s rooms and out-of-town gay bathhouses in order to maintain our straight conservative religious public image, then we’re going to drag you right down into the guilt-pit with us. And while those of us who are straight at least have marriage as an acceptable avenue to enjoy sex, you gays get no such option. You are, by definition, immoral, so you shouldn’t have any moral or legal way to express your chosen lifestyle. We’re going to keep trying to get you to feel that guilt, whether you interpret the Bible the way we do or not, because we make our livings by setting ourselves up as the authority figures who must be revered and obeyed in order for us to use our special mojo with God to absolve you of all that guilt that we’ve instilled.

Article 3

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.

WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.

[Translation] Despite the overwhelming, incontrovertible scientific evidence to the contrary, we still stick our heads in the sand and believe that the allegorical biblical creation accounts first composed by pre-scientific nomadic tribesman is historical, scientific fact that tells us everything we need to know about human origins, biology, and anthropology, and God’s attitude about that in complete detail.

We refuse to accept the fact that every year, in one out of every 2,000 births worldwide, the child is born intersex, with genitals that aren’t clearly either male or female. Beyond so-called intersex cases, we refuse to accept the overwhelming positions of medical, psychiatric, and other professional organizations that affirm that gender identity is not decisively determined by physical plumbing; and that it isn’t an exclusively binary reality.

We believe that the Bible mandates a God-designed system where men are at the top of the pyramid (men must be created most in the image of God, since the Bible calls God “he”), and that women must defer and be subservient to men, and that we can treat women as unequal subordinates in countless ways; while simultaneously claiming that aren’t treating them unequally at all, just differently, and we can claim that this is treating them with dignity. We’re tempted here to use the term “separate but equal,” but that language didn’t work out well for us in a previous attempt to treat another group of people “differently.”

Article 4

WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.

WE DENY that such differences are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome.

[Translation] Even though we believe God is omnipotent and that God’s being and image transcends actual sex and gender, we believe that when setting out to create human beings in the divine image, he (see?) is restricted to only two options, despite the scientific evidence previously referred to regarding actual human sexual orientation and gender. It’s just a black and white issue, because of the whole Adam-and-Eve-is-science thing, so don’t confuse us with your so-called facts, by so-called experts who all graduated from godless, secular institutions rather than the good, conservative, Bible-based institutions we prefer.

Also, we have to say that we disagree with the belief that transgenderism is a now a biological reality different from God’s original plan in creation as a result of “the Fall”/the entry of sin in the world; and that we now need to establish new rules to lovingly accommodate this new reality.

We have to say that we disagree with this idea because we know that some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters have carved out this “Plan B/new reality” way to still cling to the idea of biblical inerrancy, while finding a way to justify being more welcoming to LGBTQ people.

In reality, though, we know that most (alleged) Christians who are “welcoming and affirming” to LGBTQ people have long since moved past that position. They’ve come to the shameful conclusion that there is nothing sinful whatsoever about people being, and living authentically, as LGBTQ; that this is simply part of the normal variation seen in the full spectrum of humanity – all of whom have been created in God’s own image. That is unacceptable heresy to us; you cannot believe this and be considered by us to be a real Christian. Refer to Article 10.

Article 5

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.

[Translation] As we said, gender is a black and white thing – and God doesn’t make mistakes. Don’t confuse us with medical reality. And don’t raise the question that if God doesn’t make mistakes, how do we explain any number of birth anomalies, and why do we routinely engage in surgery and other interventions in order to fix these things without denouncing them as second-guessing God’s will. Stop now, or we’ll plug our ears again.

Article 6

[NS] WE AFFIRM that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers. They are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus in his words about “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” With all others they are welcome as faithful followers of Jesus Christ and should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.

WE DENY that ambiguities related to a person’s biological sex render one incapable of living a fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ.

[Translation] If we have to grudgingly admit to the reality of people being born intersex, then our advice is to just do your best to be a man or a woman – until we disagree with the way you’re doing it. And if surgeons opt to give you the genitals of one gender but you end up feeling like the other, we don’t want to hear about it. Just suck it up and act as we tell you, since it’s all just a choice anyway.

We have to say that a person’s gender identity doesn’t preclude them from living a “fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ” because a.) we don’t understand that our opponents don’t even remotely believe this; and b.) part of “joyful obedience to Christ” in our eyes is you not living as LGBTQ, since we think that’s a choice that’s contrary to Christ’s teaching. As we said, it’s a choice, and a sinful one that you need to get rid of if you want to be obedient to and accepted by Christ and God, but if you just pray hard enough and live right, God will take away from you. We refuse to recognize the appalling number of suicides of religious youth and adults who, wracked with guilt over being LGBTQ, had tried to “pray the gay away” for years – and when that didn’t work, came to believe that God had rejected them, so they killed themselves.

None of that matters, because upholding our concepts of religious orthodoxy and never admitting that we might be in error trump any evidence to the contrary gleaned from human existence that contradicts our interpretation of scripture. You just have to get right with God, the way we tell you, and God will fix you – and if he doesn’t, it’s your fault.

Article 7

[NS] WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.

WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

[Translation] Yes, we know we’ve already been making these exact same points in previous Articles. But we had one stubborn person who threw a tantrum and refused to sign the statement unless we used his language, so we threw it in here just to placate him. Plus, if we have more Articles, it makes us look like our argument is more complex and thoughtful than just saying we’re homophobic and want to be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people once and being done with it.

Article 8

[NS] WE AFFIRM that people who experience sexual attraction for the same sex may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ, as they, like all Christians, walk in purity of life.

WE DENY that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God’s original creation, or that it puts a person outside the hope of the gospel.

[Translation] If you feel attraction for someone of the same sex, it’s inherently evil and you must never physically express that attraction. You can live a “rich and fruitful life pleasing to God” just like us, as long as you deny and push down those feelings and never act on them, no matter how miserable, psychologically and physically unhealthy, or even suicidal, it may make you feel.

We uphold this belief, which is at the core of all “Reparative Therapy” programs, which have been denounced by all responsible medical, psychiatric, psychological, and other professional organizations as dangerously abusive and unnecessary; and which have been banned in multiple states as health threats. We still hold this belief because we don’t really trust in any findings based on higher learning or professional expertise when they contradict our own narrow believes about the nature, authority, and interpretation of the Bible.

Article 9

[NS] WE AFFIRM that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality — a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.

WE DENY that an enduring pattern of desire for sexual immorality justifies sexually immoral behavior.

[Translation] We know that people have what we would call sinful – and others might simply call unhealthy or inappropriate – sexual urges and attractions. We choose to consider homosexuality and transgenderism as merely other forms of unhealthy, inappropriate, sinful sexual expression, because they aren’t part of what we’ve been raised and taught to understand. We refuse to consider that our ways of understanding and interpreting the Bible might be wrong, because that would create uncertainty and anxiety in our lives that would cause us to question other matters of faith that we consider essential. Without that certainty, we aren’t sure what our own lives even are, so we will force you to repress and feel guilt over your reality in order to preserve feeling good about our own.

Article 10

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

[Translation] Not only is being LGBTQ sinful, being welcoming and inclusive and approving of LGBTQ people is, too. It puts a person outside the pale of being a Christian – you simply cannot approve of LGBTQ people living full, honest, authentic lives and consider yourself a Christian, period, let alone a good Christian.

Article 11

[NS] WE AFFIRM our duty to speak the truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female.

WE DENY any obligation to speak in such ways that dishonor God’s design of his image-bearers as male and female.

[Translation] Don’t talk to us about “preferred pronouns.” We demand the right to speak to you and about you in whatever way we want, regardless of whether it offends you or isn’t the way you wish to be referred to. We will call you a he or a she, a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, based on what we believe, not what you or health care professionals say. We’ll do it while telling you we love you, and that we’re just administering “tough love.” We’ll do it, with all the smug self-righteousness of saying that we’re carrying out God’s will, and upholding God’s standards in a sinful world, because we know best. And if you don’t like it, too bad.

Article 12

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all sexual sins and to give power for holiness to every believer who feels drawn into sexual sin.

[Translation] This is another one of those places where we’re repeating ourselves in order to placate a cranky signatory. We’ve covered this territory already, but yes, to repeat, what LGBTQ people are doing is wrong, and they need to stop it, and God will change them if they just pray long enough, hard enough, and in the right way.

Article 13

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God’s revealed will.

[Translation] Really, just rehashing the same point here again. This whole thing masquerading as a confession is really just a sermon filled with red meat for our followers, and we think that the main point of a sermon needs to be repeated several times in order to drive it home, so here it is again.

Article 14

[NS] WE AFFIRM that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners and that through Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness of sins and eternal life are available to every person who repents of sin and trusts in Christ alone as Savior, Lord, and supreme treasure.

WE DENY that the Lord’s arm is too short to save or that any sinner is beyond his reach.

[Translation] And to us, every good sermon has to end with an altar call, so here’s ours. Cue Just As I Am, without One Plea. Or in this case, maybe not that particular hymn.

***

Religious people seem to love putting out these kinds of confessions and statements. Some of them are good. Some of them have been milestones in history. Others, like this one, are just mind-numbingly tired, boring, hateful, and counter-Christian statements made by self-righteous blowhards who want to pose as the defenders and arbiters of the True Faith.

For some reason, we religious folk seem inclined to name these pronouncements after the city that gave birth to them. This time, it was Nashville, a fact not at all appreciated by the city itself. In 1924, a group of Presbyterian church leaders issued the Auburn Affirmation, having been drafted at the Presbyterian seminary that existed in Auburn, New York at the time. The Auburn Affirmation was a scathing denouncement of the beliefs that Fundamentalists and Evangelicals considered mandatory to orthodox, true, Christian belief. The first of those teachings – the inerrancy of scripture – is at the root of modern-day Evangelicals’ harmful attitudes toward LGBTQ people and their refusal to consider what’s become obvious to so many others: that LGBTQ people, in the totality of their being, including their sexual orientation, are created just as much in the image of God as anyone else; that God blesses them in their sexual expression and their committed covenantal relationships equally with heterosexuals; that God blesses and encourages transgender people trying to become the people they were intended to be regardless of the vagaries of merely physical characteristics – and finally, that the beliefs expressed in the Nashville Statement are just reheated nonsense, served up by people desperately trying to shore up their relevance in a world that has left them and their beliefs behind.

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Lord, When Was It/When Will It

(sermon 8/20/17)

Karl Barth Desk

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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On the second floor of the library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there’s a big, formal, rectangular reading room. For some reason, it’s filled with an odd collection of reproduction colonial furnishings, mashed up against ultra-sleek, ‘70s-modern seating. Despite the weird furnishings, it’s still a nice, quiet space that offers a more appealing environment than the study carrels scattered throughout the book stacks. At one end of the room is the entry to a large, formal conference room; I suppose the Board of Trustees probably meet there, and at the opposite end of the room, there’s a simple, well-worn wooden desk and chair, with a little cordon between metal stanchions to keep people from sitting down at it. It really doesn’t look like anything important; you’ve probably seen nicer looking pieces of furniture in yard sales and flea markets. But people have been known to travel for miles, even from other countries, to see this desk and maybe get their picture taken next to it – because this used to be the working desk of the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth; his son donated it to the seminary back in the 1960s, and it’s been there ever since. It was largely at this very desk that Barth wrote more volumes of brilliant, complex theology than most people could read in a lifetime, and few could fully comprehend. When I was a student there at the seminary, I’d drive in from Columbus, usually arriving a couple of hours before the evening classes would start, and I’d spend that time in the library. Sometimes, I’d use the time to finish up some last-minute homework. Other times, I’d just grab a short nap. There was a nice, thickly padded loveseat that sat right next to Barth’s desk that I’d use to try to catch a catnap, but it was just too short for me. So more than a few times, I’d glance around to make sure no one else was around and I’d kick off my shoes and stretch out on the loveseat, hanging my feet out over the edge, and resting them on top of that desk. I was really very lucky; if anyone ever caught me doing that, they’d have probably dragged me out on the quad and burnt me at the stake. But I guess I can admit it now that the statute of limitations has run out.

It always fascinated me to think about that desk, and the history that it had been witness to. I imagined old Karl sitting there, and maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer leaning up against its side, and they each have a pint of beer in a mug sitting on the desk and leaving wet rings on its leather-covered top, while they hammered out the wording of the Barmen Declaration – that amazing confession of faith written to the German churches and people in the 1930s as a witness to Jesus Christ and a denunciation of Nazism, which is now a part of our own Book of Confessions. I imagine the two of them, and their other associates, recognizing that whether they liked it or not, they were living at a critical moment in history.

The ancient Greeks recognized two different kinds of time. There was kronos, which was linear time, clock time, the way we measure hours, days, months, years. And then there was kairos, which was more about the significance of a time rather than its literal measurement. Kairos represented a particularly opportune, critical moment within which some especially important things would play out.  Sometimes, it’s very clear when you’re in a kairos moment; other times it only becomes apparent after the fact, in the rear-view mirror. Working together at that old desk, I’m sure that Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly knew that they were in the midst of a kairos moment, where they had to take a bold, vocal, and even dangerous stand to confess Christ and denounce evil in their society.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus describes the final judgment, and what criteria God used to invite, or disinvite, people to inherit the kingdom of God. As he tells it, those who are invited into the kingdom seem stunned and surprised at being told that they had – or hadn’t – actually cared for God many times throughout their lives, whenever they had cared for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. Over the course of their lives, they’d been in the midst of kairos moments without even realizing it.

Well, you know where this is all going.

I think that we’re in a kairos moment right now, one that has parallels to both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s moment around that desk, and the ones experienced by the people in Jesus’ parable. For the two theologians, the society of the time was in a period of social unrest, uncertainty, and fear. That fear bred racism, nationalism, white ethnic supremacy, homophobia, and fear of the foreigner, as people looked for a scapegoat that they could blame for all of their problems. These evil views were held by many average people, and they were fed, nurtured, even proclaimed at the highest levels of their government as well. At the same time, most of the churches in Germany wouldn’t criticize, and in many cases even supported, the pursuit of these evils, all while wrapping themselves in claims to national patriotism that put the policies of the politicians over the commandments of Christ.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the very real, and dangerous, parallels between that time and our own. It is unbelievable that we’re now living in a time when we actually have to have discussions to explain why Nazis, the KKK, bigotry, white supremacy, and homophobia are evils that always deserve our unflinching opposition – and that those who are the targets of those evils deserve our unflinching support and help.

I want to be clear – for us, as Christians, here under this roof, this is far deeper, and far more important than just a political issue. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; it’s a Jesus thing. As followers of Jesus, we’re aware of the importance of caring for, and standing up for, those who are suffering. We might sometimes ask “Lord, when was it that we helped you?” but we also know the tragic truth that on the flip side of that issue, there are people continually asking, “Lord, when will it be that you’ll help us?” and that Jesus has called us to be the agents of that help.

For their own parts, Barth and Bonhoeffer responded to being in their kairos moment in very different ways. The elder Barth continued to write, encouraging the German church to turn their focus back to Christ and his teachings, and to boldly oppose the evils of their society. At the same time, Bonhoeffer took a more direct, active role in resistance, taking part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Hitler that ultimately led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution in the last handful of days of the war.

In a similar way, each of us has to listen for the voice of God to guide us in how we’re being called to respond to our moment in time. But make no mistake, every single one of us is called to respond to it in some way. We each have to discern how we’re being called to be the face of Christ. How God is calling us to resist, how to stand against the evils that we saw on parade in Charlottesville and other cities this past week. How to stand for the ways of the Kingdom of God to our families, our friends, our coworkers, our political leaders, whenever they might stray down these evil paths. We have to discern how we’re going to stand with the people who are the targets of all that hatred.

What should your response be? I don’t know – but it’s got to look like something. Maybe it will be writing good, thoughtful letters to political leaders, or letters to the editor. Maybe it will be joining together with Jewish brothers and sisters in an interfaith sign of support. Maybe it will be taking part in workshops that open our eyes to systemic and other forms of racism all around us, and help us understand a better way forward. And maybe it will be a bit bolder. Maybe it will be physically inserting yourself between a Muslim, or a transgender person who’s being abused in some public place by a bully. Maybe it will be taking part in counter-protests wherever the promoters of evil gather to spew their hate.

Our response needs to be something. Your response needs to be something, because these are truly not normal times. And it needs to look something like Jesus’ parable, recognizing that sometimes, caring for those who are suffering might look like offering a food, clothing, shelter – and at other times, it might look like chanting, carrying a sign, serving as a human shield. Because whatever the details, as people of the gospel, as the people of God’s good news proclaimed for all people, we’re called to love and serve the God who is always hiding in the face of the ones who are suffering and in danger.

Thanks be to God.

Christ the King

(sermon 11/20/16)

arson-hopewell-missionary-baptist-church-greenville-ms

Interior of the historically-black Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, Greenville MS, destroyed by arson

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”- Luke 23:33-43

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So today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be the culmination of the church year, just before we restart the cycle with Advent and our spiritual reflection and preparation for observing the coming of the Lord into the world. It’s meant to be the ultimate, full, shout-it-from-the-rooftops affirmation that God entered our existence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus’ mission in the world was successful, and that Jesus is indeed the Lord and King of all. Given that intent for the meaning of the day, this might seem to be an odd gospel text to hear. If we’re meant to focus on the Reign of Christ, the reality of his Kingship, why not pick some other passage? Why not maybe one from Revelation, with cherubim singing, and saints prostrating themselves on the ground, and Christ returning to earth riding in the clouds; something like that? Why not something that shows a King of power and might, and setting things right? No. Instead, we get this dreadful passage that details the lowest, worst moments of his earthly life. Why?

Well, I think that maybe it’s meant specifically to point out the very different kind of King that Jesus is, and the very different kind of Kingdom that he reigns over. We talked a bit about this idea of Christ the King last week, and how that should play out in our lives, and this gospel text today speaks even more to that point. Christ is the kind of King who stands for God’s compassion for the world, and all who live within it. The kind of King who upholds that message even when it’s unpopular. Even when it’s dangerous and will be opposed by the rulers and powers of this world. And I think this passage reminds us that Christ is the King of a Kingdom that will lose many battles in this world, as his own crucifixion attests. And yet, it’s those same battles that he calls us, his people, to engage in, as a part of our faithful response to professing Jesus Christ as our King.

I think that the next several years are going to be crucial ones for us as Christians in this country. I think that we may find ourselves in a serious time of crisis, one that transcends partisan politics or ideology, or any particular individual leaders or political parties. This crisis lies in many of the policies that are currently being floated as potential directions for our country – and which apparently have a large block of support within the general population. I’m talking about policies that run absolutely, irrefutably contrary to the core teachings of our faith. Policies that would bear down unjustly on immigrants, refugees, and their families. Policies that would permit our government to engage in what the world community considers torture. Policies that would harm women, people of color, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, and others.

These are all policies that must be absolute non-starters to anyone who professes Christ as King. Upholding justice, defending the weak, the powerless, the publicly scorned and rejected – these are absolute, non-negotiable, bedrock essentials of our Christian faith. This is what Christ our King teaches us. This is what Christ our King demands of us.

And I believe that standing up and speaking out, and working to stand up for these members of our society, and opposing these policies, might cause us difficulties. We might be opposed by individuals, we might be opposed by groups, we might be opposed by governmental leaders and even some in the religious community. If we faithfully stand up for these core principles of our faith, we might very well find ourselves in the same unpopular position as those who were part of the Confessing Church movement in Germany in the 1930s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of nationalism and the overreach of state authority, and who gave us the powerful Barmen Declaration, part of our Book of Confessions. We might find ourselves in the same position as those who were part of our own American Presbyterian tradition in the 1960s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of racism, sexism, and other social ills in our own country, who gave us the profound Confession of 1967. We might find ourselves in the same unpopular position as the black church in South Africa in the 1980s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of apartheid and racial segregation, and other justice issues as well, and who gave us the prophetic Belhar Confession.

In all honesty, I look at the current situation in our country, and I truly wonder if we’re on the verge of the next time of crisis that will end up producing our next major confession – or at least will lead to an energized movement of Christian witness against the popular heresies and sicknesses in our society that will make us just as unpopular as those earlier movements were when they began.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when I was at our Presbytery meeting. Before the meeting began, there was a brief presentation and discussion about the Belhar Confession, and in that session, I read again some of its closing lines. I want to read those lines to you this morning:

“We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things [commanded by Christ], even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.

Jesus is Lord.”

In other words, Christ is King.

We are currently living in strange times.

We’re currently living in a time when a successful, well-dressed, native-born Asian-American attorney driving a luxury car, living in an affluent community can be harassed and taunted by an affluent, white man at a gas station in that same community, telling the man he doesn’t belong here in this country, and that he needs to go back where he came from. We’re living in a time when a gay senior citizen in Florida can be jumped and beaten by a man who all the while yelled at him that now that we have a new President-elect, it’s OK to kill all the faggots. We’re living in a time when black churches and mosques are burned, and synagogues have their windows bashed out and swastikas painted on the walls. We’re living in a time when people feel emboldened to harm others in ways like this. These are not normal times.

I believe that in order to be faithful to our profession that Christ is King, all of us – each and every one of us – are very possibly going to have to get out of our own comfort zones and stand up to oppose these and other things, and to protect and help those being attacked, either through policies or personal attacks. I believe that we’re going to have to stretch ourselves spiritually to rise to what Christ, our King, is calling us to in these times. What we may have been doing in the past in trying to be obedient to our King may not be sufficient for the living of these days.

We may have to speak out, loudly, maybe even forcefully – even the most soft-spoken and quiet and shy among us. We may have to protest. We may have to take actions to support God’s love, and mercy, and compassion, and justice, and the other key teachings of the gospel that might not seem to be decent and in order at all.

Is this what we’re facing in the next few years in this country? I don’t know.But I do know that if it comes to that; if you and I have to take some unpopular stand in order to uphold the values of the Kingdom of God by standing up for God’s justice for all, especially for the most discriminated against of God’s people; if we face the scorn and rejection of people for doing it – whatever happens, we can remember this awful, dreadful passage from Luke that reminds us that our King suffered for this Kingdom, too. This was the way that our King modeled how we should live, even in the face of opposition, even in spite of defeats. This, according to Luke, is what we mean when we say Christ is King. And we can have hope, because yes, Christ is indeed the King of the cross – but thankfully for his sake and ours as well, he’s also the King of the resurrection.  And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

The Greatest Commandment versus the Duck Commander

At the moment, it’s hard to avoid the dust-up over Phil Robertson’s comments made during a recent GQ interview. Setting aside the questions of why Robertson would ever even want to be interviewed by GQ, or why GQ would want to interview him, his comments have unleashed a torrent of criticism, and a corresponding torrent of criticism of his critics. Robertson’s opinions led to his being placed on indefinite hiatus from participating in Duck Dynasty, the A&E “reality” show that’s made the Robertson family famous beyond merely those looking to buy a good duck call. In return, the Robertson family has said that they aren’t sure they can, or will, continue with the show if patriarch Phil isn’t part of the process.

Robertson’s controversial comments were twofold. In one direction, reflecting on his early life growing up in Louisiana, he makes incredibly insensitive and inaccurate comments about the status of African-Americans before the civil rights movement:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

 Of course, it doesn’t take Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock to notice that, if his self-described status as “white trash” meant that he was being treated more lowly than other whites – even as  lowly as blacks, for goodness’ sake – then by definition, he most certainly did see, with his own eyes, blacks being mistreated. But to be so culturally oblivious as to not understand why, as a white man in Klan-saturated, Jim Crow Louisiana, he may never have heard blacks put voice to their problems and discrimination is a bit mind boggling. Phil Robertson may or may not be many things, but he didn’t become a multi-millionaire by being stupid.

In the second troublesome direction of his comments, Robertson offered his opinions regarding homosexuality:

“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine.”

 What, in your mind, is sinful?

 “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

According to Robertson – a self-described “Bible thumper” who strongly stands for his fundamentalist version of the Christian faith – homosexuality is a core factor in the godlessness and immorality plaguing this nation, by definition in the same category with all manner of sexual promiscuity, even bestiality, along with a shopping list of other moral deficits. This opinion is hardly unique to Robertson. In varying degrees, it’s an opinion held by a large number of Christians in the world – at least, according to the official doctrines of the various strands of the faith, if not the actual beliefs of their individual members, it’s the belief of the majority of Christians worldwide.

But this is by no means the only view within the Christian faith. There is a substantial minority within the faith, both in terms of official denominational doctrine as well as individuals’ beliefs, that this traditional understanding of homosexuality has been wrong – and not just wrong, but  the cause of terrible human tragedy, the justification for the spiritual, emotional, and physical abuse of millions of gay and lesbian people over the course of the past two thousand years, inside and outside of the Christian Church. This traditional interpretation of the Bible – arising out of only a handful of verses across both Old and New Testaments – has been used to justify the shunning, public humiliation, scorn, discrimination, violence, and even the murder, of countless people merely on the basis of their sexual orientation. Even the mildest of expressions of this traditionalist view – the cliché “hate the sin, love the sinner” – really does nothing but offer this same type of discrimination, only in warmer, fuzzier terms to make it more palatable to the hearts and minds of those doing the discriminating. To tell people who are by their very nature drawn to love those of the same sex that they are inherently disordered, and therefore, in a significant way inferior in their very being to others, is a devastatingly harmful thing to claim. It isn’t just harmful; it’s an utterly un-Christlike thing, and a thing contrary to the Christian belief that all human beings, in all of our many variations, are created in the very image of God. As James V. Brownson, Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary writes in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, “[T]he emotional burden imposed explicitly or implicitly by traditionalists on contemporary gays and lesbians – not just to avoid same-sex behavior but to renounce their own persistent impulses and desires, even when those desires are not excessive, simply because they are “objectively” disordered – creates a profoundly difficult and duplicitous message of acceptance interlaced with rejection.”

Indeed it does. All that a person has to do is to sit with a group of LGBTQ people and have them share their personal stories, and you’ll hear a near-universal thread of rejection, abuse, and damage caused to them by their respective religious bodies. You’ll find that LGBTQ people are at least as spiritually and religiously inclined as the general population, if not more so – contrary to the stereotypes and twisting of scripture that paint them as godless, immoral idolaters. And in that spiritual journey, they have, almost to a person, been horribly harmed by their churches. The spiritual carnage caused in the lives of LGBTQ people by traditional church doctrine is appalling, gut-wrenching.

Without getting into the detail that a discussion of biblical interpretation of the handful of so-called gay “clobber verses” would require, the reality is that the very best of biblical scholarship today indicates that these texts that have traditionally been used to condemn homosexual orientation and action have been misunderstood – by inaccurate translation from the original languages, as well as an incorrect understanding of the historical context and actual intent of the original authors. These supposed condemnations are actually referring to a number of types of same-sex activities that were considered wrong because

  1. they were quite often forced, non-consensual situations, often between slaves and their owners, or between adults and adolescents;
  2. they were expressions of out-of-control lusts, perpetrated by those who were not by nature homosexual, but who were by nature heterosexual, acting contrary to their own nature;
  3. they were examples of prostitution, or expressions of actual worship of pagan deities or other expressions of idolatry;
  4. they were seen as denigrating the patriarchal, male-dominated society of the time in which females were seen as something less than males, so anything that supposedly made a man more like a woman was seen as shamelessly “degrading” the man and the entire patriarchal structure of their society; and
  5. the pre-scientific culture in which these writings occurred did not have the understanding that we now have, regarding the inherent and unchangeable nature of human sexual orientation.

According to contemporary biblical and historical scholarship available to us now, and not available at earlier times in the history of the faith, these few New Testament passages that Robertson and others use as a basis for their beliefs (for a Christian, the Old Testament snippets regarding this issue are so clearly no longer applicable that they really don’t even merit discussion here) are really not referring at all to the issue that we face today – that of people whom we now understand are, by nature, oriented to be drawn to those of the same sex, and, extending the issue to the question of marriage, who wish to engage in loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.

Of course, this is only the latest, but certainly not the first, time that Christians have erroneously applied scripture to a social/cultural issue and caused great harm to many people. Usually (but not always) with the best of intentions of honoring God by honoring the scriptures as they understood them, we Christians have royally botched our understanding of the meaning of scripture any number of times. Certainly, we see this in past issues of slavery, women’s equality, and civil rights, and there are other examples as well. In each of these cases, Christians have eventually learned the error and terrible harm caused by their misapplying scripture to these situations, and we have adjusted our scriptural interpretation accordingly. The current situation regarding homosexuality is just the next issue regarding which Christians are gradually learning to adjust their beliefs.

And it can’t come a moment too soon. While Phil Robertson’s form of anti-gay rhetoric seems relatively mild on the surface, it’s actually the exact same rationale used to justify laws in Uganda calling for life imprisonment for being gay. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who has beaten the crap out of, or even killed, a gay person in a hate crime. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who discriminates against an LGBTQ person in employment or housing, or even as silly a situation as refusing to sell them a wedding cake. Phil Robertson might not personally treat someone badly because of his erroneous views, but given his near omnipresence in our culture at the moment, and his general likeability, his words will only encourage those who would indeed harm others in ways small and large.

Phil Robertson’s being smacked by A&E for his hurtful words is not a limitation of his First Amendment rights. He has the right to his beliefs, and no one has imprisoned him since the interview. But he has been criticized, rightly, for the harmful nature of his words. Neither is this a battle for “the Christian point of view,” since there is no single “Christian point of view” regarding homosexuality. But related to both of those issues, hateful, harmful speech is properly subject to criticism and condemnation, regardless of whether it stems from a person’s religious views or elsewhere. I’m sure that Bull Connor justified the evil of his actions against African-Americans as part of his religious views. If he didn’t, countless Klan members, skinheads, and Neo-Nazis certainly have. In perfect parallel with the Robertson dust-up, many people in the past who were denounced for their pro-slavery, anti-woman, or anti-civil rights beliefs claimed the right to those beliefs as a matter of their religion. But that didn’t get them off the hook. Simply claiming that hate speech is part of one’s religious views doesn’t earn that speech a free pass from criticism, consequence, or rejection.

Of course, the rub here is that the Robertsons’ TV show is very popular. For my own part, I can only take the show in limited doses – I’m not a fan in general of supposed reality TV – but in those doses, I’ve usually enjoyed most of what I saw. And if I met them in person, or were their house guest, I think I’d genuinely like the Robertsons (I’m not sure about Phil himself, though; he seems to have that scary, “something’s not quite right” intensity in his eyes that you see in, say, old engravings of John Brown, for example). And I want to like a show that espouses morality and a strong sense of family, along with healthy helpings of comedy.

But despite their personal likeability, and my wish for a fun, morally healthy show, I can’t give their patriarch a pass when he espouses outdated beliefs regarding race or human sexuality, especially when claiming to base either or both of those beliefs in the Christian faith. We’ve all learned a number of things at our parents’ or grandparents’ knees that, while not diminishing our love for any of them, we’ve come to realize have been mistaken and that we’ve rejected. The same is true of some of the earlier traditions of our faith that we’d been taught. As we move forward, we discover the truths of our faith more deeply, in ways that differ from earlier understandings, and applied to situations never dreamt of by the original authors of the scriptures. And I believe that it’s quite clear that that’s the situation here. The older, traditional understanding of homosexuality in the Christian Church has been wrong, and harmful, and needs to be rejected – not because spiritual beliefs are supposedly being diluted by godless secularism, but because we simply understand more about the realities of the situation now than people did 2,000 years ago, and we can see how to apply the principles taught by Jesus himself to these newer realities. Surely, this process is occurring more quickly now, with more and more people within our own families and close circles of friends who are finding the courage to come out as LGBTQ, allowing those around them to recognize that this is not some abstract theological issue. Rather, it’s one that for most people, has a well-known name, and face. It’s a brother or sister, or aunt or uncle, or parent or grandparent, or maybe even one’s own self. And it’s obvious that the people in question aren’t godless, immoral, shameful, idolatrous, or destructive to society. And they certainly aren’t an “abomination.” Odds are, they’re just as moral, and good, and upstanding, and spiritual, as anyone else. It’s time we Christians stopped villifying LGBTQ people, and started asking forgiveness for the damage our earlier misinterpretations have done.

So people shouldn’t “stand with Phil” just because they like the TV show, or because they feel the family, or the faith, is being attacked. They shouldn’t stand with him when he says things that, even if he didn’t personally intend them as hurtful, nonetheless are very hurtful – potentially even physically dangerous – to others. No matter how likeable the show is, or the family is, Phil Robertson’s views on race and homosexuality are simply outdated and wrong. Every day, more and more Christians are coming to realize this truth. If there is any redeeming value to this whole situation, I hope that would be that even more faithful Christians would think about this issue and would come to realize that we need to reject the traditional positions of the church regarding homosexuality if we truly want to be more faithful to the teachings of the bearded man that we follow and call Lord, the one who calls human beings – not the bearded man who calls ducks.