Thursday, January 12, 2017

What is Love (Baby, Don't Hurt Me)

We've talked a lot about the need to love on this blog. We've talked about how love is at the heart of all of scripture and is at the root of what it means to follow God, and conversely how the absence of love is sin. But we haven't worked on a careful definition of love itself.

Assumptions about Love

We use the word love all the time. We love clothes and food and cars and pets and children and friends and family and partners. But how can something as varied as that be the same thing? Ancient and modern people alike have attempted to solve this by using different words. The Greek words for love denote brotherly love (philos), sexual attraction (eros), and pure or idealized love (agape). The bible, of course, is most often referring to the idealized love, to agape. The problem with that is that we don't have an external definition for agape.

Most often agape is defined as unconditional love or pure love and if any example is given, it is the love that God has for humanity as shown through Jesus. This borders on tautological. God is love and love looks like God. This leaves us with our personal definitions of God to define what love looks like. If our view of God is one of tough love, punishment that refines, and uncompromising standards, we might want to express love towards other in similar ways. If our view of God is one of warmth and acceptance, grace that welcomes, and easy forgiveness, we might want to express love towards others in a similar way. When we try to follow God's commands to love we have an incredibly difficult time knowing if we are being successful because our definition of love is so rooted in our own estimation of God. In effect we are saying that the way to be more like God is to be more like what we imagine God to be like, which will change and shift based on the person doing the imagining. This isn't a particularly helpful definition of love.

So a definition of love that is helpful in determining how much we love ourselves, people, and God must be divorced from our personal views of God, but if this definition is to help us learn to obey the greatest commands, it has to also encompass all of the behavior of God and Jesus who are the biblical models for love. So love cannot be merely grace and mercy, because God is wrathful in the bible. Nor can love be entirely harsh and uncompromising because God forgives freely in the bible. 

Grace and Truth

There is one place in the bible where God describes himself. God is often described, and in the oracles of the prophets, spoke about himself to his people, but in all of scripture we only have one place where Yahweh-God, in his own voice, speaks about himself: 

Exodus 34:5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the Lord by name. The Lord passed by before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”
We see both of these aspects of God play out throughout scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. God is gracious and compassionate, but also just. God is forgiving, but also stern. God killed thousands and ordered the deaths of thousands more. God sent his people into exile as a punishment and a lesson, but he also redeemed them out of captivity. Jesus confronted and condemned the Pharisees and drove people out of the temple with a whip, but he also made time for the outcasts and marginalized and sinners.

Any definition of love, that encompasses the totality of God's actions in the bible, must encompass these dual aspects. There are echoes of Exodus 34 in John 1 where Jesus is described as God in the flesh who "came from the Father full of grace and truth" (vs.14). Grace and truth or justice and mercy are these dual aspects and, I believe, the core of what love really is.

Appreciation and Needs

There are two main ways that we tend to show love. We appreciate things about each other and we act in ways that show that our needs matter to each other. So I can show love by offering a compliment or holding open the door for someone with full hands. I can also do the unloving things of offering an insult or taking from someone what they need. A perfect expression of love would say that everything about someone is appreciated (celebrated, adored), and every need of theirs is valued. The perfect opposite of love would be when everything about someone is despised and none of their needs are valued. 

Appreciating is whenever you like an aspect of someone or something. In this sense you can appreciate anything. You can like the taste of food or the appearance of a car. You can like the appearance of a person or their sense of humor. You can like some things but not everything. You can like the way a car looks, but not its performance. You can like the appearance of a person, but not their sense of humor. Increasing appreciation can happen through both depth and breadth. You can work to appreciate more things about someone, we often call this 'getting to know' someone. The more options there are available, the more chance we'll have to appreciate some of them. We can also increase the depth of appreciation by learning more about one aspect that we appreciate, like going to a concert with someone. We tend to like someone or something when more than half of what we know about them we appreciate. Feelings of love appear when we appreciate almost everything we know. In this way we can love things (I really appreciate red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, like in every possible way), but hold that love for people is greater than love for things while still being on the same continuum. There are far more things to know about a person than about a cupcake so while I can appreciate nearly everything about a cupcake, I will never be able to appreciate as much in total as I can with a person. It also helps to explain how I can love a cupcake more than some people whom I know nothing about. 

Valuing needs is when you weigh the needs of the object or person against your own. Devaluing is taking from the needs of the object or person. I value my cupcake by carrying it in a box and carefully protecting that box from being crushed. I would devalue my cupcake if I tossed the box into the bottom of my bag and threw books on top of it (the horror!). Cupcakes don't have many needs though, so there's not a lot of range for expressing love to them. People have many more needs and needs that can compete with my own. My need for an income can compete with your need for an income if we are both applying for the same job. My need for privacy can compete with your need for connection if you want to spend time with me while I want to be alone. Cupcakes are nowhere near as complicated! So for people it's important to specify that we weigh the needs of the person against our own. Perfect application would be to say that the needs of the other person are equal in weight to my own. The closer I get to that goal, the closer I come to the ideal of valuing their needs completely. The reality is that I usually place my needs above everyone else's, but for the people I like I consider their needs more carefully. Think about getting a pizza with other people. With strangers you'll just order what you want and they can deal with it because you're the one who ordered the pizza (only their need for food is considered). With co-workers you might get a cheese, pepperoni, and a combination because you value their needs enough to not want to hear about it when they don't get the pizza they want. With friends you might go halfsies on a pizza with plans to share some of each other's half. With family or a partner you might swap off having the kind of pizza you most prefer (I use a lot of food analogies; I like food). 

Weighing of needs becomes far more complicated when we have to decide which city our family will move to based on competing job opportunities or when we want to meet the needs both of a recovering child abuser for housing and the needs of children for safety. Boundaries then become the limits on how we weigh our needs against someone else's when there is competition. The boundary puts a limit on how far down our needs can be pushed when in competition with someone else's needs. For someone I don't know at all they don't get to threaten my needs in any way. If my balance were to go negative at any point, if they were to take from any of my needs physically or emotionally, they would be violating my boundaries. For someone with whom I have fewer boundaries my needs can go unmet for a time to help meet their needs for a time, with my consent, and with the goal of ultimately returning to balance between needs. So if my friend doesn't have money for coffee, I'll pick it up this time. If he gets coffee next time or I buy twice then he buys three times in a row then I buy, it all evens out. Or, on a much larger scale: I'll put off continuing my education so that my partner can pursue her career. While that would be a much longer term sacrifice of needs, it should always be with consent and with the goal of finding balance in the future. The more trust we have with someone and the longer we've committed to be around them, the greater the need imbalance can be and for a longer time, as we wait for things to return to balance. Parents are willing to sacrifice their needs for decades to raise their children. But if needs are never returned to balance or there is no expectation of that balance in the future, then the relationship starts to become toxic as the perpetual imbalance communicates a devaluing of the needs of one person over the needs of another.  

As You Love Yourself

When Jesus was asked the greatest commands his response included that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:39). I think a key reason for this is that we cannot appreciate in others what we refuse to appreciate in ourselves and we cannot meet the needs in others that we are unwilling to meet for ourselves. Our capacity for loving others is limited by our capacity for loving ourselves. The more we learn to appreciate ourselves, the more we can appreciate in others and the better we are at recognizing and meeting our own needs, the better we will be at doing so for others. 

So the beginning of love is learning to say to ourselves, "Everything about me is worthy of appreciation and every one of my needs is worthy of being met." If you're like me that's something you'll need to repeat to yourself often as you work to erode the fear and shame that says there is nothing in us worthy of appreciation and none of our needs are worthy of being met. I'm working on it. I'm learning to appreciate more about myself and to fear less that I won't be appreciated. I'm learning to name and express my needs and to take practical steps to meet them. But there's still quite a ways to go before I feel like I can appreciate everything about myself or that all of my needs are valuable. 

The better I get at appreciating the more I can appreciate (wasn't someone just complaining about tautologies earlier?). What I mean is that appreciating is a skill. They talk about acquired tastes, and it's true. You acquire the skill of appreciating something, whether it's fine wine or senses of humor or jazz. Sometimes the best way to start learning to appreciate something is to watch someone else appreciate it. When you see the joy that a joke brings to a friend that makes the joke funnier, when you see the enthusiasm of your partner for a new band you're more likely to listen to appreciate (and if it's your arch-nemesis that introduces you to a band you're more likely to think it's garbage because you dislike the person). But all of the practice starts with appreciating ourselves. We learn to appreciate by doing the hard work of liking the way we look, the way we work, the way we play, the jokes we tell, the things we create. By doing that we open ourselves up to appreciating the same in others. 

The Elasticity of Worth

Most of the world considers worth or worthiness to be an elastic concept that is related to the worth of the individual. Worth is equated with honor, success, or goodness and the better a person is, the more worthy they are of being appreciated and having their needs valued. The worse a person is, the less worthy they are of being appreciated and having their needs valued. And the centerpoint* of good and bad on this continuum is our own personal sense of worth. If we think we're good and that goodness earns us worthiness to be appreciated and our needs valued, then someone who is better than us is more worthy and someone who is worse than us is less worthy. The worse a person gets (i.e. the further from our own sense of goodness), the less about them that should be appreciated or the fewer of their needs valued. Based on this idea a murder deserves to rot in jail and be abused by the other prisoners. A celebrity (or athlete or author or whomever is at the top of the scale on which you compare yourself) deserves their success and all of the good things that happen to them.

In this way our own sense of worth limits our ability and capacity to love. If some people deserve to be appreciated more and some people deserve to have their needs valued more, then others deserve it less. If our worth is tied to our performance or to the accident of our genetics (i.e. physical beauty, athletic or artistic talent, ethnicity, etc.) then we won't ever be able to give or receive complete appreciation and complete valuing of our needs. We will always hold back some part of ourselves from being appreciated or some need of ours from being valued. We will love ourselves less which reduces our capacity to love and be loved. But if we say that there are no goalposts, we proclaim that everyone is worthy of love (i.e. to be appreciated and valued) without having to earn it by performance. 

Loving God

One of the problems I have had with the tautological definition of love (God is love, love like God) is that it doesn't give me a way to know if I'm loving God. But if we see love as appreciation and value, we can evaluate how much we love God (or anyone or anything). The more I work to appreciate God, his creation, his word, the more I am engaging in loving him. The more I work to value God's needs, that is doing what he has asked me to do, the more I am engaging in loving him. I can grow in my capacity and ability to love God. 

God, who loves us perfectly, appreciates everything about us, our appearance our thoughts our creations, they all delight God who calls us chosen, masterpieces, saints, children. God also values our needs completely wanting every person to have a full, eternal life (2 Pet. 3:9).

Now it's important to differentiate between valuing needs and meeting needs. When we love someone we value their needs, but we don't always meet those needs. Valuing a need means wanting that need to be met in the best way possible. Someone can love me and value my need for sex, but not everyone should meet that need! My friends can ask about my sex life, offer advice (if requested), and genuinely care about my needs, without meeting those needs themselves. God can value our needs completely without necessarily meeting them himself. 

The issues become more complicated when the needs of God are placed on balance with the needs of not just one person, but every person. Add to that mix the fact that not everyone is trying to do right. There are many people who are seeking to improve their own sense of worth and worthiness by devaluing the needs of others and despising their attributes. They are being unloving, sinning, by taking from others to meet their own perceived need to be richer, by despising others to meet their own perceived need to be appreciated. They are seeking a sense of appreciation and value, but doing so at the cost of others. So, if God loves us, why doesn't he stop this? To do so, God would have to take away someone else's need for personal autonomy, for self-determination, and that is the absolute last resort when someone is taking from the needs of another person. It is, essentially, the question of how much suffering by one person is worth taking the life of another person? That question is awful on either side. No one should be made to suffer. Neither should anyone be killed. But when those needs are in competition there must be a choice. Because of this I believe that the need of God that we can directly address is to make space for others to love and be loved. 

Here's the logical train that I used to get there: first Jesus sums up all of the law and prophets in the commands to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. God's commands, the laws, the revelation of what he wants his people to do is all summed up in love. Those we see God punish or kill in the bible are promoting idolatry (the appreciation and value of not God), are preventing people from loving God (e.g. The Flood, the Ten Plagues), or are harming people for their own gain (e.g. Sodom and Gomorrah). God uses the ultimate boundary setting, killing people, only to preserve the ability of people to love and be loved. The laws in the bible and God's use of wrath are both in support of boundaries that protect the ability of people to love God, to love themselves, and to love each other. 

What's Next?

This definition for love is my best hypothesis based on what I'm observing. I still have a few loose pieces to fit into my model (e.g. Nadab and Abihu), but overall I'm happy with the way that it defines love as something that is measurable and understandable, it incorporates both God's mercy but also his justice, it makes space for needs and boundaries without seeing them as limits to love, and it locates all of us on a continuum of loving and being loved. It also gives precise meanings to phrases like 'worthy of love and belonging' which I can further define as having the inherent value to be appreciated in all your attributes, to be valued in all your needs, and to be in a community willing and able to fulfill that appreciation and valuing. It also allows us to define shame and vulnerability in terms of appreciation and value. Shame is feeling like we should not be appreciated and valued, while vulnerability is feeling like we are able to be appreciated and valued. The more I close off sharing my attributes and needs out of a sense that they are not worth being appreciated and valued, the less I have the opportunity to be valued and appreciated. The more I am willing to risk sharing my attributes and needs, the greater the chance of having them appreciated and valued.

How does this definition strike you? Does it seem helpful? What have I not fit into this model?

*Our estimation of our own worth and value actually tends toward the upper end of the continuum of our personal views. We tend to view ourselves as better than average with some space below us on the continuum for people who are good, but not as good as us, but the point still holds that when we equate worth for being loved with our performance, that external judgement of worth for others is inextricably tied to our internal feeling of self-worth. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

There Are No Goalposts

First, let me apologize for the lack of posts. Both Ty and I have been extra busy with other projects. That doesn't mean we've forgotten about this one. For my part I have been doing a lot of thinking about how love, as the central theme of scripture, plays out through everything. Including how we treat ourselves.

Honor/Shame and Success/Failure

In the ancient world (and in many other cultures today) the functional value system was based on accruing honor and avoiding shame. Doing or saying things that are honorable brings honor upon the person who did or said them and upon their family or tribe. Likewise, doing things that were shameful brought shame upon both the individual and the group. 

The West has moved more towards a success/failure value system that is also more individualistic in its application. Saying or doing something that appears successful brings a sense of pride to the individual while failing brings a sense of shame. The success or failure can extend to the family, but doesn't usually go past that (especially not with the lasting force experienced in honor/shame societies). 

What both of these value systems have in common is that they categorize actions and words as reflecting the value and worth of an individual or group. You become more worthy and more valuable if you do the things that are honorable or successful. You lose value and worth if you do things that are shameful or fail. You become honorable or shameful, successful or a failure. 

Love and Success

The first time I came across the idea of disinterested love I rejected it. I was reading On Job by Gustavo Gutierrez and he developed the idea of Job having a disinterested love of God. That is Job didn't love God because of his interest in success or honor or health, but rather loved God without interest in what God could do for him, just because. My professor asked us this question: "Would you still love God if there were no promise of heaven?" Of course not, I thought, why would I? The whole idea of a disinterested love seemed like what they make you talk about in school because they have to talk about something, sort of an intellectual Zen koan akin to asking whether a tree makes a sound when it falls and no one is around to hear it. 

Fast forward several years and I started looking at the idea of disinterested love in more detail, this time as it relates to my wife. It was in one of the many, many conversations that we have had about our relationship and we got to the point where we were wondering why we loved each other. It's not that we doubted that we loved each other, we were just thinking about why. Did I love her because she's pretty, funny, kind, thoughtful, graceful, and generous? What would happen if I found someone prettier, funnier, kinder, more thoughtful, graceful, and generous than her? Would I love that person instead? No. Of course not! And that meant that those weren't the real reasons why I love her. 

I don't love my wife because of her success or her honor. I don't love her less when she fails or does something shameful. I realized that I have a disinterested love for my wife (that's some romance for you, folks; I'll sell the greeting cards and make a fortune!). Now, that's not to say that I don't sometimes equate love and success. When I'm tired or emotional I can, in the moment, feel less love if she has done something that contradicts my ideas of success or I'll feel more love if she does something that agrees with my ideas of success. But those are fleeting feelings and not the real reason why I love her. The real reason is far more simple and complicated than that. 

Love and Value

I love my wife because she is herself. Not because she does anything for me or in spite of what she does that I don't like. But I don't have the same feelings for everyone, so how can it not be because my wife is intrinsically better than everyone else?  They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so maybe my wife is just better to me than anyone else (she's not, but that doesn't make me love her less). I love her, and the more that I get to know who that person is, the more the feeling of love grows, not because she's becoming more successful, but because I'm better able to see her inherent worth and value.

We have subtly flipped the order on so many things so that they seem right. Love and value are connected, but we have flipped it so that love is earned through value instead of love being a response to value. We have said: "I love you because..." rather than "Because I love you..." and the order makes all the difference. My wife's beauty, humor, kindness, thoughtfulness, grace, and generosity are ways I can appreciate her value, not why she has value.

We all want to feel loved, that is to have our worth and value celebrated by someone else (Note that this is a very simple definition of love. I'll expand on this idea more in another post, including differentiating between romantic love and platonic love). But when we make love the reward for having enough worth and value we force ourselves to earn the love we so desperately want. We try to be more honorable, more successful so that we can feel the love that we think should be given as a reward, or if that doesn't work, we can try to make others into shameful failures so we have value by comparison.

Moving the Goalposts

There's a common logical fallacy called moving the goalposts. Basically it's when you change the rules of the game to suit how you're playing it rather than changing what you're doing to comply with the rules. If an argument is about the price of peanut butter and you feel like you're losing your side, you can just move the goalposts to an argument about the deliciousness of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead (it might be time for me to eat lunch). 

This happens in relationships with people too. We base our worth and value on being smart, but then we find someone who is smarter so we move the goalposts: "Sure, she's smarter than me, but I'm nicer." When we base our worth and value on a comparison we will, inevitably, lose. The smartest person in the world won't always be. The prettiest person won't stay that way. 

Moving the goalposts from honor/shame to success/failure or from one definition of success to another doesn't address the underlying problem: our value can't be created or destroyed by what we do. 

But wait, you say, bad people do bad things and good people do good things. That's in the bible!

You're right, to a point. Jesus talked about good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit. I'm not disagreeing with that. Rather what I'm saying is that piling a bunch of fruit underneath a tree doesn't tell you anything about that tree. You can't hang grapes on a vine and make it into a grapevine. The point Jesus was making when he talked about bad fruit was that it was a way of identifying people who claim to be doing good but are lying. 

Love Your Enemies

Doing good things does not make you, or anyone, more worthy of love. Jesus told us to love everyone, our neighbors (even the people we don't want as neighbors), even our enemies. Love should not be contingent upon performance. Moving the goalposts is pointless because there are no goalposts. No matter how much honor you accrue, no matter how much success you have, no matter how much shame you feel, no matter how many times you fail, there is no more or less worthiness for love and belonging. 

Sure, when someone is doing good it's easier to love them. When someone is nice it's natural to be nice in return. We like to reciprocate good for good (and bad for bad). But that's not, ultimately, what makes a person worthy of love. 

Instead of trying to get enough honor or success to be worthy of love, we should work on knowing ourselves and allowing ourselves to be known by others. Working on creating healthy boundaries, expressing needs, seeing our own worth and the worth of others. The bible says that every single human is made in the image of God and is worthy of love and belonging. All of us. 

You can't earn your worth because you already have it. You can't lose your worth because it is who you are. You can only hide your worth and ignore the worth of others. Or, you could recognize your worth and the worth of others. There are no goalposts. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless anyone who takes his name in vain" (Ex. 20:7 NET Bible).

The Ten Commandments include, as the third commandment, a prohibition against taking the name of the Lord in vain. Most often I've heard this applied as a law against swearing by saying, "Oh my God" or "Jesus Christ!"

The Name of the Lord

The first misunderstanding about this commandment is about the name of the Lord. Ironically, this misunderstanding arose because the Jewish people were trying to obey this commandment. 

The name of the Lord is Yahweh (or YHWH or יהוה‎‎), not "God" or "the Lord." But, because the Jewish people wanted to be careful to never take the name of Yahweh in vain, they avoided saying his name at all. When reading the Hebrew scriptures (even today) Jewish people don't pronounce the name of Yahweh but instead substitute the word for "lord" which is Adonai. As that substitution continued it affected the Jewish and Christian people of the first century so that the Greek word for "lord" became synonymous with the Hebrew word for "lord" and was used to proclaim that Jesus is Yahweh (i.e. Jesus is Lord). 

Most modern English translations of the Old Testament will indicate where the word Yahweh is being translated as "lord" by using all capital letters (i.e. LORD). But the New Testament writers were so accustomed to knowing the difference between lord and LORD through context that they didn't differentiate the words in any way. 

The name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Father of Jesus is Yahweh. It is the name of Yahweh that should not be taken in vain.

Taking the Name of Yahweh

In the ancient world a name held much more significance than modern people tend to give it. The name of a god or a king was tied strongly to their authority and rule, but also to the allegiance of the person swearing by that name. The Hebrew people were commanded to swear oaths only by the name of Yahweh (Deut. 6:11). 

To take the name of Yahweh, in vain or otherwise, is to claim allegiance to Yahweh and alignment with his teaching. So a vain oath could be either one without allegiance to the oath or to Yahweh. It would have been taking the name of Yahweh in vain to swear an oath by his name while having no intent to keep the oath, it would have also been taking the name of Yahweh in vain to swear an oath that contradicted the values of Yahweh. 

For the ancient world there was a dearth of hard evidence. Most information was passed along orally and so trust had to be rooted in the person. If someone was unknown or the trust couldn't be established by the person alone, they could swear an oath upon something with unquestioned trustworthiness. For the Hebrew people that was Yahweh. 

The Purpose of Oaths

All throughout Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) he contrasts the old law with his new teaching. "You have heard it was said... but I say to you..."

This contrast isn't to undermine the law, but to show how the law was meant to shape the hearts of people. Rules didn't produce a good life, only being good people could do that. Jesus wanted to show how loving God and loving neighbors is an extension of the old law. He wanted to show the purpose of the law in how people were to be changed. 

So, when Jesus taught about oaths, he was addressing the purpose of not taking the name of Yahweh in vain. 
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not take oaths at all—not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one (Matt. 5:33-37 NET Bible).
 Oaths aren't what prove our trustworthiness, being trustworthy is. Swearing by Yahweh isn't the guarantee of our oath, keeping our promise is. Oaths were meant to be an external sign of an internal reality: that Yahweh's people do what they say they'll do and they take responsibility for their actions.

Dragging Yahweh's Name through the Mud

The heart of the bible is love: loving God and loving our neighbors. God's identity is love. Yet many people who wear the name of Christ are hateful. They hate people of different religions. They hate members of the LGBT community. They hate people with different political views. They hate people from different countries or ethnicities. And they do all of that under the name of Christ who is love. 

Far more than a prohibition against saying "oh my god," the third commandment teaches us to respect the power of Yahweh's name and the meaning of that name as a symbol of love, justice, and peace. Jesus teaches us that we don't get to co-opt Yahweh's identity by using his name, we have to show the love, justice, and peace of Yahweh in our actions as well as with our words. 

Tying the names of Yahweh and Christ to misogyny, to racism, to xenophobia, and to homophobia takes their names in vain. Hiding personal hatred behind the names of Yahweh and Christ avoids the personal responsibility and transformation that Jesus called his followers to. 

If you choose to identify by the name of Christ, you are taking his reputation and adding your actions to it. Jesus' reputation was of love, of acceptance, of welcoming the sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers. Jesus was known for his love, for his justice, and for his peace. If you wear his name you should be known for the same things. If you don't want to be known for love, then don't wear the name of Christ. If you don't want to stand up for justice, then don't take the name of Yahweh. If you cannot stop hating and being unjust, at least do so in your own name and stop taking the name of Yahweh in vain.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

Acts, The Good News, and Gender Identity

This is a repost from Please comment there or on Facebook

Acts is, in many ways, the story of God's kingdom expanding into all the world. Jesus' final words to his apostles were, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NET). We see that theme progress throughout the book as the apostles spread the good news in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), persecution scattering the young church throughout Judea (8:1-3) and Samaria (8:4-25), and, through Paul, all across the Roman Empire (9-28).
But to see the words of Jesus and the events in Acts as a purely geographical movement misses something critical in the story.

Philip and the Ethiopian

After Philip spread the good news to Samaria but before Paul is introduced in the story we see Philip sent by the Holy Spirit to have an encounter with an Ethiopian (8:26-40). This was no normal Ethiopian. First he was a God-fearer, that class of people who were not Jewish by birth but still worshiped Yahweh. Second, he was the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia who had made a trip to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. But the most scandalous, most shocking thing about him was his lack of gender.
He was a eunuch.
We don't know the circumstance that led to his castration. We do know that in the ancient world eunuch were used as servants to women in high positions. It's possible that he was castrated as a child to give him a chance to obtain work, perhaps because of the poverty of his parents.
We also know that the Mosaic law prohibited eunuchs from being a part of the congregation of Israel (Deut. 23:1) making the Ethiopian treasurer that much more scandalous. The holy irony of the reading that the Ethiopian was struggling to understand, Isaiah 53, is that just three chapters later Isaiah prophesied that God would welcome the foreigner and the eunuch (Isa. 56:3-7).

Gender Identity

Today there are debates raging in state legislatures, school boardrooms, college campuses, and church offices about how to treat those who are transgendered. Specifically, the debate is about restroom requirements and who is allowed to use what room to relieve themselves. There is fear that abusers will hurt children. There is fear that perverts will spy on the vulnerable. There is fear that privacy and decency will be lost.
There is fear of another sort that is being ignored in many debates: the fear of the transgendered among us.
I don't know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for a person to be born with one set of sex organs and to feel as if they should have the other. I don't know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But I do know that the Ethiopian boy overcame a great deal of fear, not to become the treasurer of a powerful nation, but to walk into the temple in Jerusalem.
The temple was segregated by both race and gender. The inner court was only for Jewish men. The next court only for Jewish women. The outer court, the one where Jesus taught and where the first Christians met, was for the rest, the leftovers, the Gentiles and ungendered, for those deemed unworthy to step any closer to the mercy seat of God. That Ethiopian treasurer stepped into the temple, bought a scroll from the Hebrew scriptures, and desperately wanted to understand how he could fit into God's world.
Imagine the fear of a transgendered person who might dare to walk into your church. Imagine the great hope and great terror that must war within them. For reasons most of us will never know they cannot accept the sex of their birth. If it were so easy they would not risk bullying, beatings, mocking, and even death to live as a different gender. Beyond that they have stepped into a place that, historically, has been the forefront of hatred and oppression against them. Imagine the knots in their guts. Imagine the rapidity of their heartbeat. Imagine the desperate, reckless hope that they must have to dare such a thing. Hope that they might finally find a respite from bullying, from beating, from mocking, and even from death. Hope that the love that Jesus spoke of might be evident in the people who wear his name.
Imagine what they will find in response to that terror and that hope when they dare to walk into your church.

Good News

Acts is the story of God's kingdom expansion, not just geographically, but ethnically and socially. Acts tells us of the shocking, scandalous inclusion in God's kingdom of the hated Samaritans. It tells of the deep racial divide that made the inclusion of the Gentiles a constant struggle for the Jewish Christians. And it tells us of God fulfilling his prophecy through Isaiah and making a place within the kingdom for an Ethiopian treasurer.
This is what the Lord says,
“Promote justice! Do what is right!
For I am ready to deliver you;
I am ready to vindicate you openly.
The people who do this will be blessed,
the people who commit themselves to obedience,
who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
who refrain from doing anything that is wrong.
No foreigner who becomes a follower of the Lord should say,
‘The Lord will certainly exclude me from his people.’
The eunuch should not say,
‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree.’”
For this is what the Lord says:
“For the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths
and choose what pleases me
and are faithful to my covenant,
I will set up within my temple and my walls a monument
that will be better than sons and daughters.
I will set up a permanent monument for them that will remain.
As for foreigners who become followers of the Lord and serve him,
who love the name of the Lord and want to be his servants—
all who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
and who are faithful to my covenant—
I will bring them to my holy mountain;
I will make them happy in the temple where people pray to me.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar,
for my temple will be known as a temple where all nations may pray.”
(Isa. 56:1-7)
I don't know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But he was and God welcomed him into the kingdom, despite the scandal.
I don't know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for people to be transgendered. But they are. Will you welcome them, despite the scandal?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Training the Heart

Let's take another road for a moment. The heart of the Bible is not just about one "issue" but about every aspect of our lives in family and society. There has been a lot of controversy about the deaths of unarmed black people (and other minorities) at the hands of police at a much higher rate than whites. While you and I might disagree about the nature or existence of the problem, I think I can explain the internal processes at the heart of the conflict and propose a heart-centered approach to developing a Godly view of the situation.

How Interracial Conflict Works on The Non-Racist

Let's be clear about how race is most often at play in instances of unnecessary death of those of minorities: there are not a lot of racist police officers. Most of those who kill unarmed people of other races do their best on an everyday basis to treat everyone the same. It just so happens that the people they are encountering are not "like me" in some very visible way. Enculturation into our national (and world) societies teaches us to sort by race, which our minds perceive as sorting by family or tribe.

This causes a racialization effect on a societal level and has the effect of infrahumanization on an individual level. Infrahumanization causes our subconscious minds to weigh the thoughts and feelings of the members of "outside" groups as if those people were enemies; it makes us perceive them as having feelings of less intense quality and prompts us to give more weight to guilt than innocence. Infrahumanization also has a distancing effect that protects us from the full effects of empathy when people outside the boundaries of "us" experience pain (which I think is the primary psychological purpose for the effect, with potentially violent tribal interactions as a close second). When there is a large majority of society experiencing the effects of infrahumanization, the society experiences a racialization effect: discrimination by society as a whole that does not have its roots in individual racism per se.

I would be very surprised if the officers involved in this and most of the other instances were acting out of conscious racism, they just did not see the people they were shooting as fully human due to a psychological mechanism of which they were unaware. There are few likely routes to diminish the problem on the individual level; the set is too large. The effects of racialization --the societal and police-force level effects-- however, can be combated by updating field procedures to favor non-lethal responses and to update training to bypass the instinctive prejudicial response caused by infrahumanization. Indeed, the effect has been "pre-judicial" action, allowing police action to bypass the judiciary entirely and execute the untried.

Christian Disciplines of the Heart

A heart-centered spiritual discipline that will help us approach our own infrahumanization processes would ask us to set aside a period of time to go over the stories from the past several years. Look at the pictures of the people killed and imagine each one as a child we love with all our hearts. Love those dead children like they are your own and then ask "did they do enough to protect my child?" Ask yourself, "What lengths do I want the police to go to to protect my children?" Then ask yourself about the police officers, "If this officer was my child, and he (I don't remember any fatal shootings by women in this mess) killed this child I love, would I be proud of him? Would I be able to look him in the eye and say, 'you did everything you could to protect your brother and sister?'" Ask "what training and tools could this child who is a police officer have that would save my suspect son without getting the officer killed too?"

When you have done that, if you cannot imagine a better way, I will entertain your negative comments and your support of the current state of the system.

If not, then join the rest of us: flood the community with ideas. Shout from the rooftops. Write every political figure you dare. Weep and pray and scream out loud out to God for justice and protection for the children he loves, in public and in private, day and night, because these are your children, they are my children, they are his children.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Romans 1 and Homosexuality: Some Possible Interpretations

Not Long ago, Ty (my collaborator on this blog) wrote up some thoughts about Romans chapter 1. He proposed a reading of Romans 1 that takes into account the context of the book (literary) and the context of its writing (historical). Ty's interpretation (which I like), makes more sense once you know the context of other interpretations of the passage.

But first...

Why Focus on Romans?

We've already looked at some of the challenges to studying homosexuality in the bible. But among the challenging passages, Romans is probably the most challenging of them all. 

Leviticus is Easy(ish)

In Leviticus there are two condemnations of male-male sexual acts (18:22,29 and 20:13). There is very little context or explanation to those rules (or to any of the other rules listed in Leviticus which includes kosher laws, prohibitions against getting tattoos, and rules on how to treat slaves). So you can make a case (as many do) for throwing out all of Leviticus as normative for Christian living since large chunks of it have already been thrown out (we no longer keep kosher, practice religious circumcision, or prohibit tattoos).

I propose that such a reading of Leviticus is shallow and misses the point of its inclusion in the bible, but that's for a later post. I think it's important for us to know what the laws of the Israelites were, but also to know why they had such laws. The three possible explanations are: 1) God made up some random rules to test the obedience of the Israelites; 2) God gave specific rules to a specific people for a specific time which are applications of eternal, enduring principles; or 3) God gave eternal, enduring rules for all time. 

Paul, in Galatians 3 points out that the law was given to convict people of the sin that was already going on and to point to the promise of relationship with God that already existed. That automatically rules out options 1 and 3 from above. If the law was given to reveal sin that already existed, then the rules could not have been random, and if the law was given to reveal sin, yet the law was no longer necessary after Jesus, then the law cannot contain eternal rules. 

So, the law (i.e. Leviticus) was given to show how the Israelites were sinning (that is violating the eternal principles of God) within their specific context, which included instructions about food, circumcision, and tattoos. We don't know exactly what was going on around them due to a dearth of archaeological evidence, but we do know that God was (and is) opposed to the worship of idols. It's the first commandment (Exodus 20:3), and the Greatest Command (Matt. 22:34-40). And we do know that some of the idol worship in Canaan involved what they called "sacred marriage" which required priests and priestesses to have sex to compel the good will of the gods. It is likely that many of the prohibitions in Leviticus are related to unknown or little-known religious practices of the Canaanites, including the prohibitions against male-male sex acts. 

Corinthians and Colossians are Easy(ish) Too

In both mentions of homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul uses an invented Greek word that modern translators render as "homosexuality" or "homosexual acts." That word is a compound word of the two Greek words used in Leviticus to refer to male-male sex acts. Since Paul was well-schooled in the Hebrew scriptures, it makes sense that his understanding of that specific sin would be inextricably tied to Leviticus. And, since both Corinth and Ephesus were centers for idol worship in the first century, it makes sense that Paul would refer back to idolatry practices in his list of sins. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul goes from his general list of sins to the specific sin of having sex with a prostitute (6:12-20), which, in Corinth, likely meant temple prostitution. 

Whether or not Paul had temple prostitution in mind as he wrote 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, it is clear that he had Leviticus in mind, which was given in response to the historical context of the Israelites in Canaan, which likely referred to idol worship through acts like male-male sex and tattoos. 

Leaving Romans

So if the two passages in Leviticus are related to the two non-Romans passages in the New Testament, then the same explanation and interpretation for Leviticus applies to them all. It is difficult, at best, to argue that Leviticus offers instructions for all people for all time, especially since the bible itself rules out at least some of the Levitical law (kosher rules and the sacrificial system).

But Romans doesn't call back to Leviticus. It doesn't even call back to the Hebrew scriptures. Rather, Romans 1 calls back to creation and to its self-evident revelation about the attributes of God that leave people without an excuse (Rom. 1:18-20). So, for Paul, there is something different about Romans chapter 1 and its reference to homosexual acts as a sin (both male and female) requires a much more thorough look.

What Romans 1 Might Mean

Similar to how Leviticus can be viewed as arbitrary laws, eternal rules, or culturally specific instructions, Romans can be viewed in the same way. In my opinion, attempting to divorce scripture from the culture into which it was written is tantamount to arbitrarily deciding on what the passages mean. If we don't look at the culture into which the bible was written, we miss hugely important points about its message, and we reduce the interpretive framework to our own reactions to the text in isolation. 

The Church in Rome

As Ty pointed out, the Roman church to which Paul wrote had a problem: they didn't know how to play well together. There were Gentile Christians who had developed their faith without Jewish Christians there (because Emperor Claudius kicked all of the Jews out of the city; Acts 18:2). But when the exile of the Jews from Rome was over, the Jewish Christians found a Gentile church that they were not comfortable with at all. Gone were the practices of avoiding food sacrificed to idols and celebrating Jewish holidays (at least, Rom. 14). So the Jewish Christians were uncomfortable and caused a fuss. The letter of Romans is Paul's response to that issue, namely, answering how people are saved in Christ. 

No One is Righteous

Before we start to look at where the interpretations vary, we should look at where they are consistent. There is no doubt that Romans 1-3 establishes one, simple fact: no one is righteous on their own merit (Rom. 3:19-31). Paul then goes on, through the rest of Romans, to establish how Jesus has united both Gentile and Jew in his church (and how a united church ought to treat one another). 

Romans 3 states that all have sinned, both those under the law (code for the Jews) and those not under the law (code for the Gentiles). Romans 2 points out the the Jewish Christians in Rome that their confidence in the law, and their understanding of the law, is insufficient to save them from their own sins (2:23). And Romans 1, after the introduction section, points out how Gentile Christians are not righteous based on their own merits (1:32). 

Possible Interpretations

First, many people think that Paul is using his own thoughts to condemn both the Gentiles (1:18-32) and the Jews (2:17-29). So the condemnation of male-male sex and female-female sex (1:26-27) reflects Paul's condemnation of those acts and, as an inspired writer of the bible, also reflects God's condemnation. This view is a more traditional and literal reading of scripture and at the heart of much of the church's opposition to homosexual acts and to the inclusion of homosexual Christians. 

Ty suggested that Paul was not giving his own thoughts (in 1:18-32), but quoting the words of the Jewish Christians in Rome who were opposing the Gentiles there. The rhetorical device would be to start with something that the audience agreed with, and then use it to point out their own shortcomings (not dissimilar from the way the prophet Nathan confronted King David, 2 Sam. 12). The agreement of Paul with the passage is immaterial, in this view, to the effect of the passage on his audience, namely personal conviction. 

Some, like John Boswell, have suggested that the homosexuality in view in Romans 1 is not committed, adult sex, rather same-sex acts by those who are heterosexual -- which would be against nature. It was common for men, especially men in positions of power, to physically humiliate other men as a means of subjugation (e.g. soldiers raping a male prisoner), not because of any physical attraction, but because it would demean and humiliate. This view, however, does not adequately explain the prohibition against female same-sex acts which are in view in Romans 1. 

Another view, held by Robin Scroggs, is that Paul was not condemning committed, monogamous, adult same-sex relationships, but the Hellenistic practice of pederasty where an adult man would take on a boy as a lover. But that also does not explain the female-female sex referred to by Paul. 

Still another view, held by Victor Paul Furnish, is that the idea of homosexuality as an orientation was inconceivable to Paul since it has only come to light in the Western world during the last century. Since Paul could not have had in mind those who know that they were born with homosexual desires, it is impossible, according to this interpretation, that Paul could be condemning those acting on such desires. Those who oppose this view, like Kevin DeYoung, assert that the ancient world knew not only about pederasty, and exploitive same-sex acts, but also about committed, long-term, adult relationships.

It is also important to note that the heart of the passage (1:18-32) is a condemnation of idolatry as the source of all of the sinfulness (Schreiner, pg. 90ff), especially sexual immorality, but also including every other type of immorality (Rom. 1:29-31). While Romans 1 has same-sex relations as a prime example in this list of sins, it is still just one item in a list of sins (similar to 1 Cor. 6 and 1 Tim. 1).


As promised, these interpretations aren't given to try to convince you one way or the other, but to give you the tools to convince yourself of what you think is right. So, in a sense, this isn't a conclusion where I'm going to tell you the "right" answer, but it's the end of this post so you can begin to work on what you think the right answer is. 

I'll leave you with this: 
Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things (Rom. 2:1). 
The point of Romans 1:18-32, according to Paul in Romans 2:1, is that none of us have an excuse when we judge another because we "practice the same things." We may not be practicing homosexuality or idolatry or murder or greed (all in Paul's list), but we are practicing the root of sin which is denying God's righteousness and claiming that we can, through our works, attain righteousness on our own merit. We're all guilt of that when we judge the sinfulness of others without admitting fully to our own.


Which of the interpretations of Romans 1 are most compelling for you? Which are easiest to dismiss? Why?

If you were writing Romans 1 today, with the purpose of uniting divided Christians, what examples would you use? Which groups do you think are most divided?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Bound to What? Loosed from What?: A Warning(?)

The Church as a Means of Grace: Exclusion as Damnation

In Matthew 16 and Matthew 18 Jesus uses some odd language to describe the relationship between the actions of church leaders and "metaphysical" or heavenly reality, but the implications of what he says are important for understanding what is at stake in the actions of church leaders vis-à-vis people in their care. While I could survey the data of the many articles written over the last forty years, I think most people will find a discussion of the immediate scriptural context more enlightening and convincing as a method of revealing the meaning behind Jesus' words.

The Church as the Context

In both cases, Jesus (or the author) makes it clear that he is talking about something that is happening in the church. In Matthew 16 Peter has confessed that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah and Jesus responds with something that would translate roughly as, "you are 'Rocky,' and on this 'bedrock' (the confession that Jesus is Messiah) I will build my church. He then segues into this seemingly unconnected section on giving the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter and says that whatever Peter limits here will be excluded from Heaven and whatever he allows will be included.

The Connection between Earth and Heaven

In Matthew 18, Jesus talks about people handling their interpersonal sins beginning with personal confrontation, escalating to bringing witnesses and culminating in a confrontation before the gathered church which, if repentance is withheld, results in exclusion. In this context, Jesus again talks about the connection between what is allowed and banned here and what is included and excluded in Heaven, speaking this time in the plural to indicate that anyone who participates in this process of facing interpersonal sin is doing something that has "metaphysical" results.

While the first text is harder to understand, the second is pretty clear: the church is a means of Grace, banning something in the church is a serious thing with consequences that can include exclusion from Heaven. I think this should be read as a warning to be careful what we decide is worthy of pursuing to the point where the church must intervene since the result can be more serious than life or death.

What about Matthew 16, is Peter special in holding the keys? I understand that if you are a Catholic, you have to say "yes," but I don't think that is what is happening here, I think Jesus is warning Peter personally that he will be in a position to allow people access to Heaven or to exclude them from Heaven. In context, Jesus makes it clear that the limit he is setting on entrance into the church is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, but that Peter will be in a position to turn away (or invite) others based on his own set of parameters.

What is God Making Clean?

I think we see the reason for that warning in Acts chapter 10 , when Peter is called to the house of the Gentile, Cornelius. Peter experiences three repetitions of a vision when is is hungry of many unclean animals being offered for him and God tells him to butcher them and eat, but he refuses again and again because it is against his religious beliefs (and probably because it is disgusting). Each time God ends the vision with “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Eventually, Peter finds himself in the position of welcoming Cornelius into the church and later defending that decision against the people with whom he had agreed before his vision.

Conclusion: When is Excluding Others Christlike?

If I am correct, this is what Jesus was warning Peter about, but, along with the passage in chapter 18, it serves as a warning to every Christian that the decisions we make have big consequences. If we close the doors to the church on someone who truly confesses that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, we had better be sure that we are making the right decision because our exclusion has the potential to result in their exclusion from Heaven.

Before the vision of Acts chapter 10, Peter was pretty certain about who was banned from Heaven, but he was wrong. Could it be that you and I hold beliefs about who should be excluded that are not what God wants us to believe? Basic humility leads me to question any boundary beliefs I have, and if I have doubts, I think it far more like Christ to include those who my feelings would lead me to exclude, if I can find any reason to doubt my conclusion, than it would be for me to exclude anyone about whom I have doubts.