Respecting the Despicable

Must I respect everyone, even the contemptible?  “Respect” is a confusing term as it mixes the ideas of earned worth and inherent worth.  The first applies to some quality that is admirable, worthy of emulation.  The second applies to how we value and treat everyone, including the most reprobate, and has no reference to their character, actions, or abilities, but is their worth based solely on their humanity.  A better term might be treating with dignity (or more profoundly, cherishing).

Respecting a person’s ideas also reflects this distinction.  The more closely a person identifies with or values an idea, the more carefully we must be in treating that idea with dignity, not because it is estimable, but because the person (including his/her ideas) deserves to be treated humanely.  This is true even if the idea is patently false (1+1=3).

Clearly, then, treating an idea with dignity has no correlation with agreeing with that idea.  We have sadly confused these two notions, thinking that the more morally outrageous or factually inaccurate an idea, the more our response should reflect this in how strongly we reject it.  If we engage with the idea in a calm and non-judgmental way, it seems that we are legitimating it in some way.

There is some validity to this idea, since the less internally reactive we are to an idea, the more likely we are to put up with it and eventually welcome it.    As Pope said so famously:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien.
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

Or as a wiser one said, “You who love the Lord, hate evil” (though I suspect he meant to hate the evil in ourselves rather than the evil in others)

It is true that the more destructive or dangerous an idea, the more reactive we should feel towards it, but we cannot reverse this correlation: my feelings of repulsion towards an idea never prove that idea to be bad.  Our fears (sense of danger) can keep us safe, but only if our fears reflect reality or truth.  Unfortunately, our fears rarely come from a deep analysis of truth, but are usually our reaction to life experiences, cultural and family indoctrination, personality, and other such formative events.  Generally speaking, the greater our emotional reaction, the less accurate our analysis and measured our response.  Fear clouds insight and crashes dialogue.

Humility and faith call us to a better way of being and interacting in which we listen and seek to understand those with whom we disagree because we may be the one who is wrong or because they have some powerful and key insight hidden in their otherwise mistaken view or simply because we need to learn to love better than we do now.  We have nothing to fear from a greater understanding and empathy of one another.

However, if the discussion circles around an area of our own wounding, we must take care of ourselves, often by simply avoiding such interactions or people.  We are like sick patients in a hospital that must gain strength before being exposed to the germs that are safe for the healthy.  And we must keep in mind that others with whom we interact may also have deep wounds around a topic that can be inflamed by slight touches.  We are all broken people whether we recognize it or not, so walk gently.

And walk humbly.  Sometimes 1+1=3 as any couple with a newborn can tell you.


I Am the Orlando Shooter

Daily we suffer violence–verbal or visual or vicarious–our own and that of others against us.  We live a tragedy and in our fear we grasp for the safety of power, power against others, which is just another word for violence.  In our reflexive self-defense, we actually increase our own vulnerability by intensifying the struggle for control.  And as we make power the key player on the chessboard, we forfeit other pieces in its place–forgiveness, negotiation, withdrawal–and trading off other alternatives leaves us dependent on force, an ever deepening addiction to a cycle of fear and reaction.  Against our deep assumptions, power over others does not bring freedom, but bondage.

I am repeatedly guilty of this failing.  Just yesterday a friend on Facebook posted a meme declaring the ungodliness of those who believe as I do, and I left a sarcastic comment, passive aggression.  That sort of response typically yields polarization and antipathy, heat rather than light: sides are drawn, camps solidified, villainization and attacks ensue.  Emotions carry us forward, tromping over fairness, insight, and empathy.  Anger runs in my blood, in my genes actually, and though I usually keep it caged, I feel its hot breath clamoring to be loosed whenever I am crossed.  Multiply that through thousands of thoughts and interactions spread across the whole of our society (with the help of the web) and you have today’s social maelstrom.

And as a contributor to this seething caldron, I am in part responsible for the Orlando shooting.  Perhaps this is my most valuable lesson to take from this tragedy–to reflect on how I myself breath life–or rather death–into the antagonisms of our age.  I am shocked at how we use Christian beliefs to defend our gun culture… until I see how quickly, reflexively, unthinkingly I turn to emotional self-defense as I reject the other and grasp for power.  As a nation, we trust power above all, but that only keeps the war going.

Jesus showed us a different way, a holy way, a frighteningly difficult way that is only accessible by faith.  We had but two responses to threat: flight or fight.  Until Jesus showed us the only redemptive way–to absorb antagonism rather than counter it or flee it.  Absorbing is quite different from yielding.  It is not passive acquiescence but active engagement; it is not being pushed around, but holding ones ground while giving only grace; it is accepting anger, hatred, and malice and returning empathy, kindness, and understanding.  “Bless those who persecute you, pray for those who mistreat you,” Jesus said.  We overcome evil with good.  It is the way of the cross.  It is the only way I know to be part of the healing of this land rather than its demise.

Why Are You Upset with Me?

A week ago a friend dumped me on Facebook because I was “too abrasive and divisive.”  He didn’t unfriend me, just dropped me from his newsfeed, assuring me of his love as he waved goodbye.  He blocked me after I wrote a post admitting my own ungracious thoughts and encouraging us all to be careful with our words.  Why would that be the final straw?  Wasn’t I promoting his point?  I searched my last month of entries for sharp edges, but was left clueless since he refused to discuss it further.

I know I can be hurtful, so I felt only sadness about his accusation, but his refusal to discuss it felt like rejection, and it made me defensive and a bit angry at first.  Perhaps his withdrawal was best, however, because it pushed me into deeper reflection than just sorting it out inter-personally.

I have mulled often over this issue of how to reconcile prophetic challenge with grace and gentleness in my words.  For instance, how does one express outrage over injustice while showing understanding towards the unjust (and those who support them)? Or how does one sound the alarm to wake the sleeping without frightening the timid?  I marvel when I see it done, but can’t pull it off myself—I still have a learner’s permit. Preferring frankness, I lack both the inclination and the insight to speak as the gentle do, though I strive for it.

I’m always open to suggestions and insights, but my friend was himself unclear: “A healthy or unhealthy debate is like pornography,” he said.  “Hard to describe the elements in a clear way… but I know it when I see it.”  That doesn’t really help me. In my straightforward perspective, I have always seen harshness in speech as easily identifiable: belittling, name-calling, pigeon-holing, shaming, distorting, being dismissive or arrogant or skewed. When I ask for more grace in a discussion, I can point out specific faults: “When you say, ‘that is stupid!’ or ‘grow up!’ you belittle the other person’s perspective or person.” If we can’t name it, I’m not sure how we can fix it… or even discern if there is something to fix.

Just as I see clear guidelines for speaking graciously, I see clear guidelines for listening graciously: don’t assume or jump to conclusions; disagree with a viewpoint rather than condemn a person; stick to the actual words instead of projecting motive, reasoning, or conclusions; don’t affix guilt by association. The responsibilities of speaker and listener seem clear and distinct to me, and boundaries between the two seem especially important, so that if you break the rules of respect (say, by jumping to conclusions) it is on you, not on me (and vice versa). What I state plainly should be taken plainly, and if you’re in doubt, ask for clarification.

All neat and tidy, clear and fair. This would work if everyone followed the rules of engagement, but add emotion to the mix and everyone’s perspective goes screwy. In practice I’ve tried to show and invite mutual respect by focusing on the rules, but that doesn’t work anymore because the whole atmosphere is negatively charged. The last few times they heard that position it was conveyed with words that were arrogant, antagonistic, and spiteful, so that tone will be overlaid onto everything I say. The default reading voice in our heads is now Oscar the Grouch.

This is a fresh insight for me. Until now I have divided writers into those who are clearly rude and those who are not, and carefully kept myself in the last group. When I failed, I would apologize and try to do better. With all this effort to follow gentlemen’s rules, to be thoughtful and careful, I was offended when others attributed to me attitudes that were not mine, lumping me in with the snarky. When I respectfully disagreed, I was called mean; when I asked for clarification, I was accused of making false assumptions. Wait! This is not fair! I didn’t belittle your ideas or judge your intelligence. Why am I the bad one?

I asked Kimberly to read over my posts and look for what might offend.  She pointed out a post where I linked to a first-person account of gun violence in school.  My only comment was, “Wow, just wow!”   Aren’t we all shocked and troubled by gun violence in school?  Is that somehow controversial?  But these three words could apparently be read in all sorts of negative ways.  I am truly flummoxed.

I see now that I have to come up with new rules that take into account our social fracturing and assumed antagonism—perhaps start out each statement with an assurance of good faith or denial of bad faith. I now realize that simple frankness is the new rude, that I must deliberately set a tone or it will be set for me. In other words, being gracious—which was already a struggle for me—just got harder still.

Spiritually Homeless

When I was in college and grad school, the conservative leaders in both politics and Christianity with whom I was acquainted had a calm demeanor, respect towards those with whom they disagreed, an openness to information, and an acceptance of the secular nature of our government. My father was a good example of this. Conservative Christians divided into fundamentalists and evangelicals, and we evangelicals tended to see fundamentalists as angry and confrontational, suspicious of academics, inflexible, and authoritarian (i.e. using power to control others).  In retrospect, I think they also tended towards apocalyptic thinking (fear of imminent demise) and dare I say, racism (e.g. the anti-miscegenation of Bob Jones).  The “fighting fundies” in turn judged us as being ungodly from their perspective. Regardless of how accurate or inaccurate our perceptions, these were clearly demarcated “camps,” and Billy Graham (an evangelical leader) was a touchstone of the “second-degree separation” issue that made fundamentalists denounce him.

Strikingly, one of the leading individuals today who seems to represent that harsh and aggressive tone and perspective is Billy’s own son Franklin Graham. For many of us, the distinction between the two of them is very palpable and painful, and it has no relationship to a divergence in their stated theology or morality, but in how they perceive society and relate to it. (If you see no real difference between Billy and Franklin Graham, or you see a difference and prefer Franklin, you may not benefit from reading the rest of this post.)

Perhaps that clear divide I saw in conservative Christianity never existed, or perhaps the distinction has broken down, but I feel myself at a loss to know how to personally relate to this new face of a consolidated conservatism.  I feel an urgent need to distinguish and distance myself from the one variety of conservatism while connecting with the other kind.  But if they steadfastly hold together–in the same churches, organizations, and institutions–I find no way to connect to community, but only one-on-one.  This need to distance myself from strident Christians (as I experience them) rises from several important values I hold.

  1. Personal Integrity.  The groups with which a man publicly identifies communicates his outlook on life.  It is disingenuous (i.e. lacks integrity) to be an anti-gun member of the NRA or a pro-choice supporter of Right to Life.  This is especially true 1) the closer a group is identified with a particular viewpoint or attitude; 2) the more central that viewpoint is to their overall outlook; 3) the more vocal and pervasive their message is regarding that perspective; and 4) the more exclusive they are about their view (i.e. rejecting alternative voices).  So I face a deep personal conundrum in locating my group identity.  Some might suggest I find commonality in core theological beliefs and relegate other matters to the periphery, but that only holds if “all other matters” truly are treated by the group as peripheral.  No Jewish organization has anti-Muslim principles in its charter, and yet some are known chiefly for that.  Groups have a wide range of conscious and unconscious norms, fairly consistent characteristics and viewpoints, brand values that define them to the public, and such a context can turn peripheral matters into their most identifiable markers.  Regarding the evangelical brand, I ask myself: “Are these characteristics and viewpoints true of you and what you believe, of what you value and want to promote?”
  2. Theology of Grace.  I deeply value the virtue of grace as applied to our relationships.  Grace, the highest expression of love, is my most core and cherished value (as it is in Scripture, I believe).  However, my point here is much more fundamental than a matter of Christian behavior.  Grace, or unconditional love, is essential to the very nature of God himself–not just the way he relates, but who he is.  It is the very ground from which creation and salvation spring.  It is the quintessence of the gospel, our message of life to the world.  How our message is communicated often trumps the message itself in importance, but in some cases the timbre of our words actually contravenes the message.  Just as some apologies morph into accusations and some commitments end up betrayals in the fine print, our rendering of the gospel of reconciliation may come across as outright rejection.  The method denies the message, like pacifists taking up arms to enforce their views.  I feel morally obligated to distance myself from that rendering, especially since the gospel message is our most crucial moral and spiritual consideration.
  3. Social Responsibility.  As grace is my most cherished value, I feel responsible to make its progress in society paramount.  And as grace is fundamental to the nature and work of God, of how he relates to us and calls us to relate to him, I see it as essential and core to every facet of society.  If I am to promote grace, I must resist all that contradicts grace, whether in myself or in others.  Discerning ungraciousness and determining one’s response to it can be quite subjective and individual, but if grace is a core Christian value, we must confront what undermines it in as gracious a way as we can.  I am flawed in many ways–morally, intellectually, perceptually–so I will make many mistakes in this delicate balance of trying to graciously distance myself from ungrace, but I feel obligated morally, spiritually, theologically, socially, and relationally to resist ungrace.
  4. Internal peace.  Because of my own weaknesses, I often do not have the emotional resources to stay in a harsh context.  I must do my best to determine where my greatest responsibilities and usefulness lie and live in such a way that my limited energies are invested wisely.  So for very emotionally and spiritually pragmatic reasons, I find it necessary to distance myself from too much contact with those who pull my spirit down, primarily those with the characteristics I have described as “fundamentalist” or I will sap the energy I need for personal growth and strategic life investment.
  5. Communal connection.  In the same way that I need to protect my own spirit, I need to support my own spirit by connecting deeply with those who strengthen and encourage my heart, who love and accept me into being honest, brave, vulnerable, faithful, and all that grounds me more deeply in myself, in God and in his world through love.

I have floundered in my search for such a community.  What I seek is not a perfectly gracious community, which does not exist, but one which values the grace of God as its primary end and means, however faulty those efforts.  Conservative churches are staunch in their beliefs, affirming all who agree regardless of the spirit in which they express those beliefs, as though arguing that God is love is far more important than showing that God is love.  Normative theology is a membership requirement, graciousness is optional, even if valued.  I am not suggesting that most conservatives are ungracious, but that they routinely embrace and welcome the ungracious as long as they have the right theology, and this profoundly shapes the whole community (and its perception by the world).  My inner conflict is not with the theology or even moral positions, but with the spirit.

In spite of this, I feel a great deal of compatibility and connection with my spiritual heritage–its devotional warmth, biblical commitment, and God-centered worldview–so that my dislocation feels like homelessness.  I offer here a painful family critique, not an outsider’s rejection, and above all I write as a support to those who feel these things in silent suffering.  You are not alone, not by a long shot.  I pray for deep grace to flow down in abundance into the minds, hearts, and relationships of my brothers and sisters, and in me as well.  And I journey on with God as best I know how, a wandering pilgrim.

Belittling the Views of Others Is Unchristian

Gentleness and thoughtfulness are Christian virtues, and it troubles me that they seem to have hit the meat-grinder of partisan politics. Of course an emphasis on politeness can be taken too far so that disagreement is silenced altogether, but to go to the opposite end and make a virtue of being brash and abrasive is not the solution. I am afraid we have tossed the vice of censorship into the same basket as the virtue of temperate speech and derisively called it all “political correctness.” Certainly it is wrong to present a false facade to win approval or try to silence opposing views (one definition of PC). On the other hand, having an honest view that agrees with a socially acceptable position is no more “PC” than calling for respect in sharing disagreements. To denigrate either of these interactions (honesty and respectfulness) as “PC” is detrimental to us all, I believe.

In other words, an emphasis on being thoughtful and gracious in our words is a Christian virtue not a vice unless we use it as a device to silence disagreement or to be a poseur. To denigrate others for being more welcoming or inclusive, for being more careful of the feelings, experiences, and viewpoints of others as “PC,” and so suggesting that they are somehow weak or morally lax or blind is a very unfortunate direction to take and can easily turn into a justification for harsh words and arrogant (if not mean-spirited) viewpoints. Since the term “Political Correctness” has taken on such conflicting meanings, perhaps we would do best to retire it from use and choose words that are more precise and honestly engage with issues.

What Does Kim Davis Even Want?

When I was a radical, immature Bible College student I took a job on campus as a late night snack sales clerk in the dining room making and selling pizzas.  I was taking a course on Christian ethics that semester in which the point was made that we should do jobs that benefit others, not ones that hurt others–a convincing argument.  I don’t recall now whether my concern was selling food to overweight students (and so supporting their sin of gluttony) or whether it was rather a stewardship concern (snack buying was a sin of indulgence when that money could support the hungry).  Perhaps it was both.  As an act of moral integrity, I quit the job.

Kim Davis is not taking this simple approach to integrity.  I can only conclude that her intention is not primarily to protect her own integrity, but to challenge cultural mores and legal decisions.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach, and she has shown personal courage in facing prison in an effort to challenge these laws, but I think it is disingenuous for anyone to pose this as an issue of religious persecution versus freedom of conscience.  She has perfect freedom to leave her job and so save her conscience.  Even such conservative voices as the National Review do not stand by her in this After suggesting various compromises she could have taken to keep her job and save her conscience a National Review staffer wrote: “What, one has to wonder, is her ultimate end here: Is it to protect her conscience, or to nullify the law?”

I think this approach to combating the law is misguided, and I am not sure what end is envisioned.  Kim no doubt wishes for others to join her in defying the laws that conflict with their morals… as long as their morals agree with hers.   It is unlikely that she would approve of Muslim government officials denying voting rights to women or Hindu FDA officials forbidding the sale of beef.  Individuals over-riding the law with claims of personal moral conviction sounds like chaos. She would no doubt claim we are a Christian country (even though the founding fathers refused that path, having been burned badly by the church-controlled government of England).   If we are to have a “Christian” nation, whose Christianity is the true Christianity and who decides?  After all, many liberal Christians find it morally incumbent on them to fight for LGBT rights.  Some conservative Christians are so disturbed by current moral trends in America that they wish for a revolution… but if they got all they wished for, how would they organize the new government?  Instead of a democracy (in which a majority of current citizens would likely vote for gay marriage), would they set up a church hierarchy to decide moral issues like the state church in old Europe?

Power has the seeds of corruption, so the early church reaction to an immoral society was not to fight it, but to separate from it, leading to the monastic movement.  Independence from immoral power structures is a sound means of protecting one’s conscience.  Many traditional communities such as the Amish still follow this route successfully in this country.  “Come out from among her and be ye separate” used to be a rallying cry for fundamentalists in my youth.  I’m not sure what happened to that strain of moral direction, but I fear for any spirituality that tries to enforce its morals on those who disagree, especially over those outside their own religious community.

Perhaps we need a discussion on how to live with one another in the context of conflicting moral visions.  How do we make room for everyone’s moral conscience to be freely exercised without interfering with the conscience of others?

Being Right Is a Dead-end Road

As a point of reference, a vantage point from which to see, I have myself.  I cannot see Wards Road unless I am on Wards Road (and still I only see the part where I sit and from the direction I am looking).  The same is true psychologically, spiritually, relationally, and in every other way that I am conscious to the world.  I am the default center of my universe.  I certainly can gain perspective from others, but the more different their view from mine, the more difficult it is for me to truly understand them clearly and acknowledge the validity of their views, so that (as a second-level default) I tend to hear and agree with those who are closer to my perspective.  When I connect with others in my group, instead of my viewpoint being stretched, it becomes more certain and inflexible and gives me less reason to hear sympathetically the viewpoint of those who disagree with me.

The problem is not simply that I disagree with others, but that I fail to even understand them because I cannot see things from their perspective.  I see the accident on Wards Rd from the backside and they from the front, and though we are looking at the same crash, we see a very different scene.  It is true that either of us could be misunderstanding what we see (confusing onlookers with victims or blaming the wrong driver), and when our views are very different, we suspect the other of simply being wrong, of misunderstanding the situation, but we are actually each factoring in completely different elements of the scene based on our vantage point.

I tend to assume that I see and know everything that they do, and so I can dismiss their view, but until I am deeply and sympathetically invested in seeing things from their perspective, I am choking off the truth, even if they are totally mistaken (a rare situation indeed), because an important part of the truth is knowing how and why they see things as they do (including how they see me).  And I want to know this not so as to refute them more precisely, but so that I can know them and love them as they are… well I want this to be my goal even though it’s often not.  I also want to gain insight into myself and a fuller perspective of the whole.

Let me confess it openly: so many times in a discussion my primary goal is to get my view across, to convince the other person of my take on the issue.  I’m all on send so that even my listening is less receptive than tactical maneuvering, looking for weaknesses to exploit.  And from such a position, I can learn from no one.  I recognize this tendency and work hard against it because I know it harms me as well as my relationships.  I try to understand sympathetically from another’s perspective, I try to understand how they hear my words, I try to understand myself more with this new information, because in the end, being a better person is more important to me than being more accurate, and being a friend is more important than being a fixer.

When Sins Stop Being Sinful

I misspoke in my last post with too much meaning in too few words.  I said, “Let me begin by saying that if the Bible condemns something even once, that is sufficient for me to call it a sin.”  That simplifies the matter so grossly as to be obviously false on its face and suggests that mapping the Bible’s morals is easy and straightforward.  There are many, many actions the Bible condemns–eating pork, marrying a foreigner, refusing to give a loan–that I don’t consider a sin for me today, and an even greater number which are unclear.  Let me offer a list of reasons to hesitate condemning what the Bible condemns, especially in others.

1) The Bible’s condemnation (or affirmation) may not be directed at me, but someone else.  The Bible speaks to many different individuals and groups, and I may not be its intended audience.  A great deal of confusion and even harm comes from ignoring this dynamic–claiming promises that are not rightfully ours: “I will give you this land”; or assuming commands that are not directed at us: “sell all that you have and give to the poor”; or condemning actions not concerning us: “do no work on the Sabbath” (which, by the way, is Saturday).  The Bible directly addresses individuals (Moses, Peter), nations (Moab, Israel), groups of people (Gentiles, Pharisees) categories of people (priests, women).  Most of it is not directed at humankind generically, and it is not always clear who the intended audience is and whether that particular word applies wholly or in part to the rest of humanity.  I don’t quit and throw up my hands any more than I stop listening to my wife when I have trouble understanding her, but it does call us to humility, latitude, and a lessening of our dogmatism and certainty.

2) Deriving principles not directly stated in a Bible passage may be problematic.  Assuming why my wife Kimberly is upset with me is a dangerous game to play, especially when I go beyond what she specifically said.  I can pick up on a look or tone of voice or memory of similar events–those can raise questions, but should not answer questions.  For answers, I ask.  I need specific statements to validate my hunches because I can even misinterpret my own wife whom I know very well.  “Whoever is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus says.  Does that mean no one ever has the right to punish law-breakers?  Or no one has the right to judge or hold others to account?  I must not “cast the first stone,” but what does that mean?  Let me suggest that I am much more responsible to decide what is wrong for me than to decide what is wrong for you in a given situation.

3) Applying truths from Scripture to specific situations can be very complex.  Even when the general truth is clear, deciding that it applies to this situation and these people at this time in this way is uncertain.  “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth.”  Okay, but who decides what is wholesome or unwholesome?  Surely it is wrong if my words damage others… but who is to decide that the fault lies with my words–maybe she took it the wrong way?  And what constitutes “damage”–sometimes pain is the necessary precursor to healing.  And what if my words are true… are all true words automatically wholesome?  What if my motive was good even if the outcome was bad?  Life is a journey and many of our moral choices are not black and white, simple and straightforward.

4) “Proof texting” or finding one or two verses to back my position is problematic.  The less Scripture says about any one moral command or prohibition, the less confident I can be about my moral stance because the fewer the words, the more easily misunderstood.  It seems that those truths God considered most important he repeated often in many contexts with different illustrations and ideas to be sure we did not miss his point.  So many considerations can affect a message and lead to its misinterpretation.  A passage can be taken out of context so that its original meaning is distorted.  We can take it out of literal context (divorced from the wider text) or out of cultural or historical context (because their culture and history are different from ours).  We can wrongly translate words or their nuances–think about the slight but very significant moral differences in our English synonyms “brag” vs. “praise” and “praise” vs. “worship.”  Whenever there is widespread disagreement between folks who are equally committed to God and his Word, humility is the better part of wisdom.

5) Offsetting truths in the Bible make for difficult conclusions.  Sometimes Scriptures place competing ideas right next to each other.  Proverbs 26:4 & 5 say “Do not answer a fool according to his folly,” and then “Answer a fool according to his folly.”  Jesus says, “Judge not” and “Judge with righteous judgment.”  When we take the whole sweep of Scripture into consideration, it adds so much color and contrast and complexity that we would do well not to insist on our view as being the right view in condemnation of those who fight for an alternative perspective.  Among those of us who love God and want to know and follow his ways, we must be especially cautious about condemning those with whom we disagree.

6) Theology is Progressive in Scripture and Christologically Centered, so certain morals have become obsolete.  There are many Old Testament laws that have been set aside by Christ and the New Testament.  This is quite natural since the context has so dramatically changed.  The Old Testament was written in the context of a political theocracy, so that there was no distinction between religious, moral, and civil laws. Clearly, when Israel is no longer a nation and the whole world is invited into a covenant relationship with God, everything drastically changes.  This is especially true regarding Jesus who not only became the supreme interpreter of the Old Testament, but its successor, setting much of it aside by his teaching (such as the food laws) and much of it by his sacrifice (the ceremonial aspects of the law).  It is hotly debated among conservative scholars as to how much of the Old Testament “laws” are directly relevant to us after Christ has come, but all agree that the New Testament overrules the Old Testament.  Christ is now the glasses of truth through which we understand the whole.  Any moral teaching which appears only in the Old Testament carries less weight, after all, it is the Christ of the New Testament that separates Christianity from Judaism.

I have personally discovered that starting with the fundamentals of the faith–Christ and the gospel–and working out from there gives me the grounding I need to flow more naturally into living the life of the Spirit.  To be honest, I often still assume that I am right and the other person is wrong, so I still have a long way to go on this road to humility, gentleness, and respect.  None of us has arrived, so we will all need to be patient with one another.

Is Homosexuality the Great Moral Calamity of Our Day?

John Piper laments the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, his article filling my Facebook newsfeed with “likes.” He says this legal approval of homosexuality is a calamity of historical proportions regarding a sin unique in its evil. It is unique because it is the one sin that is celebrated in society today rather than denounced like other sins such as theft and adultery (further details here).

As a young man I was deeply blessed by John Piper’s book “Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist” which proclaimed God’s commitment to our happiness. He has had a positive spiritual impact on many lives, so my disagreement here is not personal, and I’m not even challenging his position on the sinfulness of homosexuality. Let us concede that point for the sake of this discussion because I have a different and in my mind a bigger concern. To put sucinctly: truth wrongly balanced can be as harmful as untruth.



If I spend all my effort building a bunker for my children against the potential of world collapse so that I don’t have time or money to invest in smoke alarms and brake repairs, health insurance and college savings, I may ruin my family. It is true that the world could fall into chaos–the problem isn’t that fact, but that emphasis. My suggestion is that we not only find truth in Scripture to follow, but we also find the balance set in Scripture. If we don’t take that into account, consciously grounding ourselves in the priorities of God as given in his Word, we are very likely to be caught in backwaters of irrelevance–not only to society but to God–pulled there by our emotions, history, misperceptions, culture and the like. And yes, the cultural influence can come from the right or the left (our current American polarization), and it can pull us to acquiesce or push us to react.

I believe we could save ourselves from a great deal of spiritual, relational, and political turmoil and harm by focusing on Biblical priorities. Identifying those priorities is bigger than a one-post discussion, but I think we could all agree that two key elements are the amount of time devoted to it in the pages of Scripture and the focus given to it by God’s full and final revelation in his son Jesus.

Let me begin by saying that if the Bible condemns something even once, that is sufficient for me to call it a sin. [after consideration I modified this in my next post] I am not even debating here the issue of whether homosexuality is a sin, but only how great a concern it is in the Bible. In a list of sins, how high does it rank in ‘badness’? We first notice that it does not make an appearance in the ‘big ten’ commandments. If we search the Scriptures for everything it says condemning some form of homosexuality (including rape), we find a total of 20 verses (Gen. 19:1-13; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9, Jude1:7, 1 Tim 1:10). In the two places where it falls in a list of sins, homosexuality is not underscored in anyway, but is listed alongside sins such as lying, stealing and coveting. None of these verses come from the gospels because Jesus himself had nothing to say about homosexuality.  So how high a priority is it for God?

In contrast to this, if we pick a topic which seems central to Scripture, such as poverty and wealth, there are hundreds and hundreds of passages all through Scripture. If you know the gospels well, just take a moment to think of all that Jesus himself taught on the corrupting power of wealth. It was a major focus of his ministry–in the beatitudes, the Cleansing of the Temple, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich young ruler, the final judgment (“as much as you did it to the least of these”), and on and on.

This contrast between a major and peripheral focus of Scripture to me is remarkable and telling, and it makes me wonder how Piper can come to the conclusion that homosexuality is the one sin that we celebrate in this society, and the sin that will destroy us. Our admiration, celebration, and emulation of the rich in our society is far deeper, more pervasive and unquestioned even by the church (in a remarkably bipartisan way). In fact, the cultural value of greed is so deeply ingrained and validated that it has become the cornerstone of our economic system, and far from fearing it, we champion it. And unlike homosexuality, this desire is not restricted to three percent of the population.

I think our fear of homosexuality is partly driven by the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah and it’s destruction. But I’m not sure the major message of that story is the evil of homosexuality. I think if Lot’s visitors had been women, and all the men of the city stormed his house to gang rape them, God would have still been fairly outraged. Sodom became a byword for great evil, but that evil was wide and deep, not reducible to one sin. Even Ezekiel in comparing Israel’s sins to Sodom had this to say, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister, Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor or needy” (16:49). If this is Sodomy, I agree that it is a very serious sin.

Gay Marriage Is Not My Fight

No, the U.S. government is not subject to the laws of God or the Bible or Christian orthodoxy.  We have never been a Christian nation.  In fact, we specifically, consciously, and vocally voted down any efforts to that end.  We learned from the British experiment (and all of history from the time of Constantine), that wedding the church to the government is deadly both for government and for the church, and we decided to keep the church–it’s theology, power structure, and religious commitment–outside of the political process.  We opted to become a democracy in which each citizen of whatever religion or non-religion has the right to vote, to express his or her opinions, and try to sway fellow citizens to bring change in the way each sees best.

This is my major disagreement with the stand taken by Christianity Today and the hundred evangelicals who signed a response to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage.  It reads in part, “no human institution has the authority to redefine marriage any more than a human institution has the authority to redefine the gospel.”  It is this kind of confusion of political and theological constructs that leads to all sorts of mischief.  Most clearly and definitely it is the responsibility of the government to define a social construct (marriage) that impacts literally thousands of laws and policies impacting all citizens.  As a private citizen, each of us may support or fight that particular definition, but to suggest that such a definition is outside the purview of government is to largely misunderstand the nature of a secular democracy.  The content of the gospel has no such role in government policy–everyone acknowledges that it is entirely a religious matter.

When I say that confusing politics and theology leads to mischief, I think gay marriage is the perfect example of this. A great part of the problem comes from identifying holy matrimony with government sanctioned marriage.  They are (or should be) completely independent statuses.  The church has every right to determine the kinds of relationships in society that it will sanction and those it will not, that is, sanction as a church, religiously.  It is when we try to take over control of the political mechanism to enforce this on others that they cry foul.  “Sure,” they say, “marry whomever you wish, but in return let us marry whomever we wish.”  If we as a church think their marriage choice is a bad one (morally or any other way) we may deny within our religious context the legitimacy of that marriage–that is the free exercise of our religion.  But to deny them the exercise of their religious convictions outside our religious context is to usurp the whole meaning of the first amendment.  We in essence are saying, only our own religious convictions are legitimate and yours are not.

Interestingly enough, this same principle plays out in theology as well.  In a secular democracy, we cannot force others to believe as we do or to live by our religious convictions.  At most we can sanction them with reference to our religious hierarchy (excommunicate, impose church discipline, remove them from membership in our theological society, refuse them our services).  We cannot (thankfully) jail them or burn them at the stake because the roles of church and government have been separated.

Naturally our theology informs our legal convictions, and we may as individuals try to pass laws upholding these convictions, but in a secular democracy, we must allow that same right to those who disagree with us.  We cannot trump them legally because our beliefs are from the Bible (would we really want a church-run government as this would entail?).

Pragmatically, if you disagree with gay marriage, may I suggest that instead of trying to control the meaning of “marriage” and take on a losing fight, you allow society to define it as it decides and simply begin to see that social institution as an otherwise secular description of a legal partnership unrelated to your conception of marriage.  If we do not wish society to define marriage for us, then the best option is not to try to coerce them to agree, but to simply recognize that what the church sanctions has little to do with what the world sanctions–a legal marriage has no necessary connection to a church marriage.  After all, if you are married in a church but do not file a government marriage certificate, you are not married in the eyes of the law.

Let us use our religious convictions to guide our own lives and fight for our right to those convictions without the easy assumption that if I believe it strongly enough, I should try to legislate those convictions on everyone.  Living by my convictions and forcing others to live by my convictions are two very different belief structures that have divergent foundational arguments, and if you believe in a secular democracy, the scope of the second will be far smaller than the first.