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).

Conclusion-ish

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.

Conversation


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.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Hardest Part: Understanding Romans 1

Hang in There!

First, thank you all for hanging in there with me through this project. I am approaching it with prayer and seeking to speak from peace and hope rather than fear and disillusionment: that takes time for me. My experience says that any connection to a conversation like this one puts me in danger of losing a lot: the respect and approval of people that I respect, the peaceful interactions I have with friends and family, any potential jobs as a minister or teacher in a Christian setting, and my home in my local congregation; some people even receive death threats over such things. Furthermore, I hate to be wrong publicly (or at all, for that matter), so I try to check and double check to make sure I am not missing some obvious flaw in my research or reasoning. Finally, I have a natural desire to agree with others and I am not naturally suited to making waves, a tendency which I have to fight every step of the way to act with integrity on this.

The Hardest Passage

When it comes to the issue of homosexuality in the Bible, I have struggled for many years with Romans 1.* I felt it was my greatest support for denying a place in the church to married gay couples, but I had a sneaking suspicion that something was amiss, and for a long time I couldn't put my finger on what it was. I was left in the awkward position of having to ask myself, "in a situation where we have been wrong so many times about interpretations, does it make logical sense for me to base exclusion of an entire group based on only one clear passage (where I am getting the feeling that I missed something) among many passages where the meanings, upon serious investigation, cannot hold a lot of weight?" While I plan to talk about why these other passages fail to convince later, I think it best to deal with the best arguments first, so, Romans it is.

Something Sounds Different

Just recently, prompted by various discussions, I spent a great deal of time mulling over the passage, reading it again and again in Greek and occasionally in English versions, I realized what it is that bothers me about this section of Romans 1: it does not sound like the following section, or even like the rest of Romans. The easiest element of this strangeness to quantify is the difference in vocabulary; words used only here in the book of Romans are far more dense than in other parts of Romans (excluding OT quotations), to the point that if I found any other passage of comparable size so dense with "unfamiliar" words, I would expect it to be a quotation. But it isn't only that, there are things I cannot easily measure, like the way it sounds in comparison with the surrounding sections, if you read it aloud, even in English, you will find that this difference is so great that it even shows through in most translations.

Paul then spends the next section of Romans (after a brief connecting section) balancing out this section featuring Gentiles by presenting a section about Jews and culminating in the 3:10-18, where "None is righteous." Why might Paul use a quotation that condemns Gentiles and then create his own section on Jewish failure?

A Message to Paul

Let me tell you what I think is happening: Paul is writing to the Roman church because he has gotten word that Jews and Gentiles are not getting along in the Roman church. I think he received a messenger who told him about the situation and brought a letter about the situation. I think that it went something like this (I am not going to go to any concerted effort to avoid anachronism at this point in the hope that more familiar language will make the idea the central focus rather than the flaws in my reconstruction):

Grace to you, Paul... We have heard of your work among the Gentiles and we hope that you will clarify some things that are troubling us. When we began to believe in Christ, we heard the Good News through Gentile Christians and we knew only Gentile Christians, as the Jews had been expelled from Rome for a time.
We believed that those of us who had been Godfearers had actually been granted full membership in Christ. When the Jewish believers returned to Rome, we found ourselves pushed to the margins, put back into the same place we used to be before we heard of Christ. When we protested the situation, we were told that Christ was given first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.
At first, we resisted this idea and asserted our equality in Christ, but the opposition made a devastating argument that, because the wrath of God is standing in opposition to Gentiles due to the idolatry in our heritage, Gentiles can never have the same relationship to God as those to whom were entrusted the 'very oracles of God.'
Not long ago, a piece of the argument appeared anonymously and has proven so convincing that we have not been able to effectively argue against it:
'God chose long ago to reveal Himself to His Children, the Jews, choosing them above idolatrous men in the surrounding world, and giving them the primary position and relegating the idolatrous men to an eternally inferior place.... For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth...' [Romans 1:18-32]."
I would like to dismiss this as a nasty piece of invective, but it makes a good point about idolatry in our age, more than that, it speaks to the deep-seated feelings of our Jewish brothers and sisters, who feel great pride in being "Children of God," as well as to the shame Gentiles feel concerning the idolatry in our past. Can you clarify things for us?...

A Collective Rather than an Individualistic Reading

If that is the case, then the audience to whom Paul writes would already understand this section as anti-gentile polemic rather than an attack on individuals. This would make sense of the  section on judging in chapter 2, where the Apostle seems to say that anyone who judges is condemned by his or her own failures to do right, yet it then goes on to speak of individuals (signaled by "each one") who do not suffer from these failures. What does this mean? Are there individuals condemning individuals, but those individuals who condemn are only wrong because they happen to be guilty, unlike the individuals in 2:7? Would those individuals in 2:7 be allowed to judge others? I think context makes sense of this jumble, specifically, the first section (Romans 1:18-32) is the "judgement" about which he is speaking here. That means that the word translated "another" would take a slightly different translation (See Liddell's ἕτερον, headings II & III), perhaps "a person who is different from you," "another type of person" or "another group" (i.e. Gentiles). This would then become a condemnation of prejudice against a group rather than a system for determining when it is appropriate for one person to judge another. This interpretation fits perfectly with the following section where there are two groups without a reason to judge: Law-Following Jews and the Law-Less Gentiles.

Conclusion: The Boundaries of Christian Ethics

If I am correct about the purpose of Romans 1, Paul's use of the quote does not indicate agreement with the content (or disagreement with the content) but it is intended to illustrate a form of reasoning taking place in the Roman church community that Paul believes is outside the boundaries of Christian ethics: group discrimination. Paul opposes the individual model to this passage and then he shows how Jewish exclusion of Gentiles based on their idolatrous heritage clearly falls into this category due to the Jewish failure to perfectly follow the Law.

*There is a great deal that others have already written about the focus of this section of Romans 1 on idolatry and its punishment as the cause of shame through the violation of the social norms rather than the focus being on the particular violations. Some have also explored the difficulties for understanding the situation caused by the negative evaluation of women in general and the way that perceptions of homosexual intercourse at the time were linked to this perceptual framework. Anyone who wants to take this subject seriously should track down and evaluate these arguments as well, but due to the usual attention span of those reading blogs, I think it best to limit this entry to my own insights.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why does Leviticus Seem to Contradict Itself?

Literary Form

One of the most helpful tools for understanding scripture is knowing that ancient cultures included a phenomenal amount of information about the meaning of the things they said or wrote in the forms which they used in speaking or writing them and learning as much about those forms as possible. It is as important as knowing the implications of tone of voice, body language, or facial expression for determining what is sarcastic in modern speech.

Inclusio

Most people think (wrongly) that the the entire stretch of Leviticus 19-20 is one unit defined by a type of literary bookend called "inclusio."

Ancient authors, expecting their primary audience to hear rather than to read the words, used easily understood literary devices to clue every one into what was going on in the literary work. Inclusio is the inclusion on a similar beginning and ending to a section so that hearers would know that that section was about the bookends. Additionally, material at the center of the structure often illuminates the purpose of the section. 

A Wrong Turn

In this case, the section opens with 18:1-5,  you might think that it closes with 20:22-26 or 27, but you would be wrong. The confusion lies in the structure of the book: either Leviticus was written in a stacked or descending ring structure with a clasp between the first and last chapter of the book and the opposite side of the ring in chapter 19, indicating that it should be read again and again, or it is a set of sets with the introversion in chapter 19 (cf. Milgrom). In either case, chapter 19 is not related to either 18 or 20.

A Match

So then, the inclusio for chapter 18 matches  24-30 That matches the opening to Leviticus 20:1-9 with 20:2-27.

Since we look between the passages of the inclusio to clarify the meaning of the section, if we miss the fact that 19 is unrelated, then we group the laws in chapter 19 with 18 and 20 and we end up thinking that these are just random laws and either have no thematic cohesion or we apply some theme that does not fit.

Interpreting the Hard Stuff by Understanding the Easy Stuff

Now, let's examine the content of chapters 18 and 20 to clarify the meaning or reasons for the laws:

The "Easy Stuff" 

Chapter 18 continues after the introduction by speaking of specific Egyptian actions with which God takes issue: incestuous relationships (I am going with Milgrom's interpretation of "uncover the nakedness" as a euphemism for sexual contact of any kind). If you know Egyptian history, you know that incest was the natural theological result of having a divine kingship. Because the false god of Egypt (Pharaoh) was considered divine, his family was also considered divine, and to preserve the divine bloodline this family had severe limitations on potential mates, to the point that the daughters of pharaoh were given no choice of mate but to their fathers of brothers. This section further outlaws taking the wives of close relatives while their husbands still live, which is the same as usurping the place of that relative in the hierarchy of Egyptian religion (and had similar connotations for Canaanites).

Chapter 20 begins by talking about Molech and then moves on to the practices of pagan magic. It then proceeds to mirror the section primarily on Egyptian religious sexuality with a section that more closely resembles the sympathetic magic through sexual activity in which the Canaanite tribes (and other surrounding peoples) engaged. We don't have a complete record of these practices, but we know that sex using representatives of the deities was part of the outline (cf. http://claudemariottini.com/2006/11/10/canaan-in-patriarchal-times-part-2).

The Hard Stuff

Now on to the sections in question: Leviticus 18:19-23 and the parallel passage in 20:10-16.

Here we run into less well known territory. Why is Molech (the idol who demands the lives of children) related to menstrual intercourse? How is that related to bestiality? What do those things have to do with mediums or necromancers? I think the best clue lies in a place where two texts seem to conflict. In this case Leviticus 15:19-24 says:

19 “When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. 20 And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. 21 And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 22 And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 23 Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 24 And if any man lies with her and her menstrual impurity comes upon him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.

Why would the death penalty apply in one instance and not the other? The answer, I think lies in sympathetic magic. In sympathetic magic, one enacts representative actions on Earth to request divine actions by analogy, so a male and female have intercourse in the names of deities representing the fertility of the earth to beg for a good harvest or animal fertility, or one dresses enemies up like women to take away their maleness on a metaphysical level. In this case a practice I have not yet found in the literature, a man having sex with a menstruating women (a logical outgrowth of magical thinking because blood represents life and sex represents fecundity) is condemned, while private sex simply causes uncleanness because blood causes uncleanness. 

What Does it Mean?

Considering all of that (and more that I thought redundant), I think it is reasonable to conclude that chapters 18 and 20 of Leviticus are not about general sexual behavior, but about avoiding the religious superstitions of the Egyptians and the magical thinking of the peoples of Canaan. Though that does not say that any of these types of actions is right, if I am right about the meaning of the prohibition, it does mean that this passage should not be used as a reason to condemn them either.

An Easy Way Out?

Now I want to ask, "What if we do come to the end of our study of the passages that people relate to homosexuality and we find nothing that specifically condemns monogamous homosexuality? Does that mean that we have to accept that it is right? Does an absence of evidence mean that we must affirm the practice?"

Yes, Yes, and No

The answer depends on whether we find evidence that leads us to believe that such relationships would be allowed under biblical principles. If the evidence is simply negative, then the practice is at the discretion of the church leadership, and for my Christian tradition, at the discretion of the elders. If we can find evidence of principles that would tend to support monogamous homosexuality, then it becomes even trickier and church leaders may be leading others astray by binding on Earth was Heaven has not bound. What I am trying to say is that there may be no way church leaders can "play it safe" on this subject. If they find strong evidence that God opposes these relationships, they to must reject them, if they find evidence of principles that tend toward acceptance, they must accept them. Only in a case where the leaders find an absence of direct condemnation and fail to find principles that tend toward affirmation or condemnation may they take comfort in the knowledge that they are free to decide.

A Parallel Problem

This becomes all the more important when we note that this situation is parallel to the inclusion of gentiles in the church: the common understanding was that they were rejected (because of impurity), it was only through a radical re-framing of scripture through the lens of Jesus, and the conclusions reached in the tumult that ensued, that salvation was able to reach those to whom we now believe God always intended to include.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Why We Struggle Even When God Speaks Clearly

God chose to reveal himself in various ways. Sometimes God chooses a historian like Luke to do Spirit-Guided research, sometimes he chooses poets to speak to Him so that we can listen in, and sometimes God seems to speak directly to a prophet who then speaks words that have been written down for our benefit, and there are other ways that we can either see in scripture or that we might guess at from what we know.

For the moment, I want to set aside God's less direct communication and talk about the most direct form it takes in the Bible: words reportedly delivered from God directly to a person like Moses. The following is something I've been working on that some people might find helpful.

The Word of God as Infinite and Eternal 

I would like to use examples from everyday life to make it easy to understand the complications involved in understanding God’s word as eternal and absolute rather than temporary or relative without distorting the evidence we have, but I have been unable to do so. It is too important to choose something that really describes it for a poor example to suffice, and the reality of God’s direct interaction in history is too far removed from daily life, as I know it, for me to find a fitting parallel. So I must make the best of the situation and explain something that is not fully comprehensible to the human mind using a subject very few people understand well as a starting point. So, I am going to try to explain God’s interaction with man in the framework of Geometry; fortunately, this explanation requires very little in the way of technical expertise and depends more heavily on visual and imaginative abilities.
Figure 1.1: The tangent plane of a sphere





Let’s assume that God is more complex than our universe, I think most people will agree with this assumption. Now, in order to talk about something more complex than one’s own universe, one must picture it as something closer to one’s own situation and imagine one’s own universe in terms that are less complex. The observable parts of our universe are three dimensional, so let’s imagine our universe as two dimensional, a plane, in geometric terms. A plane is like an smooth surface that stretches on forever but has absolutely no thickness. Now let us imagine God as a three dimensional object: a sphere. So, imagine a ball full of everything that is God and imagine a shadow on a piece of paper that is full of everything that makes up our universe.


If the ball wished to communicate in terms shadow people could understand, it would have to interact on the terms of the universe of the shadow people. Shadow people are made to see in every direction on two axes, so they might be able to see (the outside of) anything in the shadow, but asking them to look “up” and consider the sphere as it exists in its entirety is beyond the realm of the possible: they would have to be "ball" people to see the ball as it is.


The ball cannot be reduced to shadowness, a ball of clay or steel or glass or gold could never be squashed to the thickness of a shadow. If the ball shaved off the smallest piece of itself and squashed it down to a thickness of a single molecule, a single atom, it would not fit in shadow world, and if it were possible to crush it further and further until it approached the thickness of the shadow, it would take up the entire area of the shadow and crush the shadow people from existence and still overflow the dimensions of the shadow universe.


If God were to shove the tiniest bit of his being and timelessness, as it is in its fullness, into our universe it would have room for nothing else. I can hear you objecting that he did just that in the person of Jesus. Let me clarify, I contend that Jesus was a point of contact between God and our universe rather than an insertion.


In other words, if the ball wished to make contact with the shadow, it must be content to make a point of contact, a place where it touches the shadow and affects the shadow without trying to insert it’s substance fully into the shadow. In the case of Jesus, the point at which God contacted the universe is a baby, who grows into a man and is, in all dimensions of our universe, human. The belief in the divinity of Jesus is at heart an assertion that if it was possible to observe the dimensions above our own, we would see that point (Jesus) which appeared to fit in our shadow land is part of a being who is eternal and possesses greater “dimensionality,” greater being than we shadow people can comprehend.


Now we have established that God must interact with us in our own terms, which are incapable of fully comprehending or representing his eternal being and fullness. Because God’s timelessness cannot fit within our universe, at the point of contact between God and our universe, God must act within the framework and laws of time to allow the universe to continue to exist (which is not to say he cannot bend the rules, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion).


Let’s imagine that it is a little bit like an astronaut looking at the surface of the Earth (only God can see the whole thing, not just half a sphere). The astronaut falls in his craft toward a specific point on the earth and lands there. At the point where contact is made the astronaut can no longer see the edges of the Earth, for contact keeps him from keeping his poin of view, binding him to the laws of the shadow universe while not diminishing his eternal nature but, in the case of God, he does not become disconnected from his being in eternity just because one point touches our universe and plays by its rules.


In fact, at the point where God touches our universe, the “now” of his intervention, the future loses its fixed aspect for him and could be construed as “in motion” as a result of his actions because his actions change the future. So, what is prophecy? It is not God looking at a fixed future, though it may contain elements of prediction since God is obviously more capable of predicting the future based on the present than we. No, prophetic revelation represents a promise on the part of God to follow through on certain actions and is often contingent on the response of the hearer (see the story of Jonah).


This complicated situation leads to some interesting interactions between God and man. God meets with Moses and has determined to destroy the Children of Israel and raise Moses up to take their place, but Moses appeals to him and God changes his mind. If his timelessness were in effect, he could not do this because the future would already have been complete in his view and any such decision would be merely a pantomime, mimicking a change of mind to conform to the future he observes, but his timelessness is necessarily limited by his very act of making contact and allows us to understand his change of heart as an honest representation of God.


In the life of Jesus we have another interesting event: Jesus is God, yet he can grow “in knowledge and stature and favor with God and People.” If he had full access to the greater aspects of his divinity, he could not grow in knowledge for he would already have access to all knowledge.


Now, let us imagine that the Law of God is eternal, a part of the very being of God. God’s law in this fullness is beyond full expression which our shadow universe allows. As it comes into contact with the time-bound moment where God and Humanity meet, it must necessarily be expressed in time-bound forms. Therefore, at each moment during which God’s Law is revealed, it is truly the eternal law of God, but it is expressed in the moment of divine contact without being truly disconnected from its fullness.


So then, if one were to compare these moments of revelation with a naive eye, one might conclude that God’s Law is changeable or inconsistent and neither divine nor eternal at all. On the other hand, if one recognizes that the Law as we see it in the moment is a gateway into the Law as it exists in the heart of God in all his eternal fullness, one might hope to gather the clues that would would allow one to trace the shape of God’s eternal law as it exists in the given moment.


What is it we are looking for in the law of God as revealed in the past which might tell us about his law in the now of the present moment? In common terms we would call this a search for the principle, that is the “why” or “spirit” behind the law. We trace the way in which the historical law impacted its time to try to determine the reason why it took the form it did so that we can hope to live according to the spirit of the law in our present situation.

That process depends on two rather imperfect processes: discovering why the law was delivered as it was in past revelation and determining how that principle can be lived out now. We call the results of these processes interpretation. The lack of perfection involved in the constituent parts of the process make the interpretation an imperfect science and various legitimate interpretations may result from the same data. This is not to say that all interpretations are legitimate, that the law itself is relative, or that there are no situations in which a single interpretation overshadows all others in apparent validity. On the other hand, if we are experiencing conflict over our interpretations, the chances are that the positions taken by the different believers represent honest attempts to understand and interpret God’s law.

Friday, July 24, 2015

How can Love Require Death?

God is love (1 John 4:8).

Yet, God commanded this Israelites to kill men, women, and children (1 Sam. 15:3). God personally killed thousands, if not millions, of people (Gen. 6:7, Gen. 19:4-5, Ex. 12:29, etc.). God gave the Israelites laws requiring capital punishment for offenses like witchcraft, homosexuality,* cursing one's parents, adultery, and idolatry (Ex. 22:18, Lev. 20:13, Lev. 20:9, Lev. 20:10, Ex. 22:19).

So what are we to do with the seeming contradiction between a God who claims to be the embodiment of love and yet has commanded and perpetrated acts that, by modern standards, appear to be evil?

First a caveat, this is a blog post. I won't be able to fully explore such a complex topic. If you want more to read on this I highly recommend C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain and John Mark Hick's Yet Will I Trust Him.

Throw out the Bible

Perhaps the most common response to the seeming contradiction between a good, loving God and the evil in the world is to reject the source of the contradiction. If the bible says that God is good and that he killed people for making fun of a bald person (2 Kings 2:23-24), then the bible must not be a reliable witness, goes the line of reasoning, either a good God would not do such things or God is not good. Countless atheistic apologetic websites detail the horrors of God's actions -- especially in the Old Testament -- as "proof" that the God of the bible is self-contradictory.

Throw out the Old Testament

Another tack taken in dealing with the problem of a loving God killing people is to place the loving God as the one from the New Testament and the vengeful God as the one of the Old Testament. This solution is so prevalent that it cropped up in the middle of the second century -- just over a hundred years after Christ's death. Marcion of Sinope believed in Jesus, but not the Old Testament. His followers were called Marcionites and they created the first cannon of scripture -- removing the Hebrew Scriptures and anything from the New Testament that portrayed the Old Testament in a positive light. 

Marcion and his followers were quickly condemned as heretics and the church defended the inclusion of the Old Testament and the New together (though the cannon wouldn't be made official for nearly 200 years after that). However some of Marcion's teachings still persist today, namely the rejection of the God of the Old Testament and the idea of dualism.**

It doesn't take much time in church to hear something like, "The Old Testament was nailed to the cross." Or, "Jesus did away with the Law." Which is, in part, an attempt to reconcile the notion of a loving God and the mass killings of the Old Testament. 

Live in Fear

If one is not willing to throw out the Old Testament, then the temptation is to redefine the love of the New. Proponents of this view often cite the discipline of a loving father (Heb. 12:5-13) as evidence that love can be expressed through unpleasant means and yet remain loving. The argument is that God's actions and commands in the Old Testament were ultimately loving, even though they produced suffering in the moment. 

While that reasoning is not necessarily flawed, it often leads to the conclusion that God is ready and willing to smite anyone at any time. Sinners must beware the wrath of the vengeful God who killed the disobedient. 

In my church tradition we often heard the story of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu. They were serving in the Tabernacle and "presented strange fire before the Lord." For that reason God struck them down (Lev. 10:1-2). The story was used as one of warning to any person who suggested adding something to the worship service that was not expressly commanded by God. 

Learn to Love

While I take some issue with the conclusion that we ought to live in constant fear of God smiting us, I do think that it's important to define love well before we use it to say that God can't cause pain or death and still be loving. Love can be expressed through discipline because love isn't simply wanting the other person to be happy, but for them to be healthy. 

The Goal of Love

If you are a connoisseur of romantic comedies or Sheryl Crow songs you might think that the goal of love is happiness. That's what we see, more often than not. A romantic relationship is evaluated based on how much happiness is generated. While happiness is a part of love -- both romantic and platonic -- it cannot be the goal. 

Happiness is fickle. Happiness can be self-destructive. Happiness can hurt others. Love is none of those things. 

Instead, the goal of love is what's best for the other person. What's best may or may not make someone happy, but it invariably makes them more healthy. A drug abuser won't be happy about an intervention. Someone suffering from depression may not be happy about therapy. Yet the loving thing, the healthy thing, can sometimes require less happiness (in the short term) instead of more. 

Loving Everyone

The equation of love is fairly straightforward when there are only two people involved, but things get much more complex as the numbers increase. If the actions of one person are harmful to another, then what's the most loving thing to do? Do you work with the one harming or protect the one being harmed? What if the one harming is unwilling to stop? What if the one being harmed is unable to get away? 

Our world has faced that terrible choice too many times. One of the most clear-cut was played out in World War II (not that it was simple, but as an example it is one of the simplest). Hitler was killing innocent people. He was not going to stop. So the Allies fought the Axis, in part, out of love for the ones being slaughtered. The most loving choice, at that point, was to kill some to save others. 

Cleaning up the Mess

It's clear, from the bible and from history, that things have changed drastically for humanity over the last 3,500 years (roughly the time since traditional dating of the writing of Genesis). I believe that shortly after the fall (Adam and Eve eating the fruit), humanity was the worst it has ever been and has been steadily improving ever since. 

In ancient times the world was a violent, awful place. Murder, rape, torture, and human sacrifice were rampant. The cults of the ancient peoples worshiped death and pain. They sacrificed infants by heating a bronze idol with fire and then placing the babies on the red-hot, outstretched hands of the gods until they died in agony. Women were seen as little better than cattle and even called deformed males

Today there are more people living in safety than at any other time in human history. Today women and children are safer and have more access to education than ever before. Today the infant mortality rate is lower than it has ever been. Today there is food, shelter, and medical care for more people -- and a greater percentage of the world's population -- than ever before.***

Baby Steps

For humanity to go from a global version of Lord of the Flies to the international community we have today (which, for all its flaws, is far better than what we've had in the past), is a massive shift. Were it to have happened over the course of a few decades or centuries, humanity would not have been able to keep up. 

For evidence of this, simply look at the non-Western areas that struggle with democracy. In the West, democracy has been brewing for over a thousand years. The Greeks and Romans pioneered the concept, the people demanded equal treatment under the law (via the Magna Carta 800 years ago), the Europeans took up the classical ideas during the Renaissance, and finally, through numerous wars and revolts, democracy came to the West. But when those same ideas are imported to other regions that haven't gone through the cultural shifts over a millennium, democracy often falters, not because the idea itself is flawed, but because the culture isn't ready for it. 

Loving the Whole World

So if humanity was utterly awful, people were not just killing each other, but torturing each other, selling each other, and taking delight in it, and God chose to act out of love, what would he do?

One option might be to kill the ones who are causing the most harm. If there were people who were so vile that they were hurting so many others, it might be the most loving thing for the most people to kill them (Gen. 6).

But as God is trying to redeem humanity, he might need to step back more and more over time to allow people to learn and grow on their own. That wouldn't immediately remove all of the vile people hurting others and enjoying it. So, for humanity to continue to progress, and for God to love everyone, he might command those faithful to him to kill the wicked ones (1 Sam. 15:3). Then, as humanity progresses further, God might step back again and stop commanding his people to kill others, but instead command them to love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).

Reconciliation

I know my thought process may not be satisfying for everyone (or anyone). It doesn't seem loving for God to kill or command others to kill (especially when he also commands them to not murder, Ex. 20:13). But neither is it loving for God to allow wicked people to harm others. I don't envy God's position in figuring all of that out.

I believe that God created every person to bear his divine image. I believe that sin entered into the world and corrupted that divine image. I believe that ever since that time, God has been working to reconcile humanity to himself and to restore his image to us. And, I believe that the bible tells the story of that process, not a one-time, instant fix, but a gradual process over the course of millennia that has yet to be fully realized.

What do you believe?

Do you think God's love and his killing of people are contradictory?

If so, how do you respond? Did I miss any options in dealing with the apparent contradiction?

How do you give and receive love?  


*Note: the word 'homosexual' wasn't coined until the 19th century, so the biblical prohibition against male same-sex acts prohibited in Leviticus 20:13 may or may not have any bearing on the modern understanding of homosexuality as an orientation. Further blog posts will take up that matter in detail.
** Dualism is, in short, the belief that there are two natures to the universe: matter and spirit. Spirit is good while matter is evil. This belief is not original to Marcion, but it was one of the hallmarks of his belief system. Other groups such as the Gnostics and Neoplatonics are dualistic as well. 
*** In no way do these advances obviate the continued suffering in the world. There are still awful things that happen to people. Children still die, women and men are still raped, people still go hungry. The fact that there are fewer of them does not excuse the fact that there are any who suffer. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How Can Christians Exclude People?

The way you read the title of this post is all about tone. Some will read it and hear a tone of exasperated wonder. Others will read it and hear a tone of desperate longing. Still others will read it and hear a tone of competent instruction.

Excluding People is the Point

For that last group, the title of this post evokes the idea of setting boundaries, determining who is in and who is out. While there are many, many Christian groups who want to find the best ways to define their membership -- and who's not in -- the impetus to exclude is far from being a Christian-only thing.

Exclusion Culture

To be sure there are positive benefits to exclusion. When we know who is out of the group, we also know who's in. 

In my church tradition I can go nearly anywhere in the world and bank on my inclusion to gain me acceptance. The relationships I've formed within the tradition allow me to play the game we affectionately call: "Do You Know?" We keep swapping names until we settle on someone that we both know and then we're suddenly much more comfortable. 

But the same could be said for a member of the Freemasons or a labor union or a national sorority or even for fans of the same sports team. In many ways our society is built around affiliations with groups (which must also exclude those not in the group). 

Anyone who has lived in Hawaii knows the word kamaʻaina. It literally means "child of the land" but it has come to refer to anyone who lives on the islands. Most restaurants and tourist attractions have special discounts for kama'aina. The ones who are inside the group get special treatment while those excluded are charged a higher rate. 

We exclude others to help define ourselves. If we know who is not one of us, then we can know who we are. It feels more comfortable to know who we are and who we aren't because then we get to offload a lot of mental tasks. We don't have to think about evaluating the trustworthiness of each person, we can trust the evaluation of the organization. If we're both in the same fraternity, the secret handshake vouches for us. The reverse is also true, it allows us to avoid wasting time on people that may not be worth the effort. If they aren't in the group already, then we can know that we don't want to have anything to do with them. 

We also do this in formalized ways. If a lawyer hasn't passed the state bar exam, we won't hire them. If a teacher doesn't have credentials, we won't let them teach. If a realtor doesn't have a license they can't sell a house. 

Christian Infighting

For a thousand years the Christian church presented a united front to the world. That's not to say that there weren't many variations within Christianity during that time, but all of those differences were considered to be under the auspices of the one Church. But about a thousand years ago was the Great Schism when, because of reasons, the Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the Roman Catholic Church. 

After that it only took another half millennium for the Protestants to break off from the Catholics in the West. Once that happened, divisions between Christian groups dominoed to the point where, by some estimates, there are over 33,000 denominations today. 

Nearly all of the denominations started when there was a major disagreement. The Great Schism was, in many ways, about who had authority over the Church. So too was the Protestant Reformation. But it gets all the way down to the point where some of the splits occurred over arguments about church buildings or paid staff or whether it was appropriate to use grape juice in communion.

For whatever reason, all of those debates became intractable. The participants refused to concede and so started a different denomination instead of working through the conflict. That dynamic, with its benefits and problems, is at the heart of American Christianity. We fight each other and when we can't agree, we often exclude those we consider to be wrong. 

Excluding People is Wrong

Those people who read the title of this post and question why Christians would ever want to exclude people tend to focus on the love and acceptance of Jesus. For those inside the church who feel this way, any type of rule or standard that allows some to be members while excluding others is dismissed. For those outside the church, the bible is often dismissed for its exclusive claims (like Jesus saying, "No one can come to the Father except through me" John 14:6).

Jesus for Everyone

Those traditions that place no limits on who can or cannot be considered a Christian place a high value on inclusion. They place great stock in verses such as 2 Peter 3:9, "[God] does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." And dismiss verses like John 14:6. The most extreme form of this position is Universalism, which claims that in the end everyone will go to heaven.

No One Needs Jesus

On the other end of this spectrum are the people who reject Christianity altogether because of its exclusive claims. They reason that if God was really good he wouldn't create a system that unfairly punishes people who have never heard of him or Jesus. So since the bible claims both that God is good and that Jesus is the only way to God, then it cannot be true.

Inclusive Exclusivity

The final response to the title of this post, "How Can Christians Exclude People?" is one of both wonder and exasperation. The wonder is at how it's possible for groups to place rules around a free gift. The exasperation is at how misunderstandings can push so many people away from God. How can be something be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time? Let's just say that Jesus has never been afraid of a good paradox.

I'm going to sketch out some of my personal ideas on dealing with this conundrum. Take them as that, my personal ideas. Critique them as that. But also consider them, because they might be helpful.

Inclusive

 God really does want to include everyone. He wants every person who has ever lived or will live to be "saved." Well, then we need to define what it means to be saved. Most Christians consider themselves to be saved because they were baptized into the church and that gives them access to heaven when they die.

Instead of focusing on what happens after we die, I like to focus on why we're alive to begin with. In an earlier post I suggested that humanity exists as image-bearers of God to love and be loved by God and each other. When Jesus taught his followers to pray (Matt. 6:9-13), he tied the idea of God's kingdom to God's will being done (on earth as it is in heaven). We were made to love and be loved, the whole Law and the Prophets are summed up in the commands to love and be loved. So heaven, where God's will is done, is a place of loving and being love. God's kingdom, where God's will is done, is a place of loving and being loved.

[Warning: I'm about to say some things that might make you feel uncomfortable. If you disagree, tell me. Challenge me. Help me grow. If I'm wrong, I want to know it.]

It isn't necessary to have read the bible to be saved.

The bible itself says so. Abraham had never read a line from the bible. Neither had Noah or Enoch or Joseph. Even by the most traditional estimates, the Israelites were God's chosen people for over 400 years before a word of what we consider scripture was penned.

Paul also wrote to the Romans that God is evident in nature itself (Rom. 1:18-23 -- note that this is also one of the big-six passages about homosexuality in the bible). According to Paul, those who don't love God from the evidence in creation are just as culpable as those who don't love God based on the writings of scripture.

If it's not necessary to have read the bible, or to have heard of Jesus, to be saved. Then what is necessary? What keeps this from being a universalist position?

Exclusivity

Love is both our purpose and our constant challenge. Believe it or not, it's difficult to love some people -- or most people. People are annoying and mean and rude. They can hurt each other, deride each other, abuse each other, and kill each other. They can do all sorts of awful things that are the furthest from loving. 

But people, all around the world, can also be beautifully loving and self-sacrificial. Muslims show love to Christians. Christians show love to the LGBT community. Buddhists and Hindus, atheists and agnostics, Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses, all of them have the potential to love and be loved. Regardless of if they've read the bible or not. 

To put it in theological terms, God's kingdom is not subsumed within Christianity; Christianity is a part (though not the whole) of God's kingdom. God is not constrained to work only within Christianity. 

The exclusivity of the bible is not that one must be a part of Christianity, but that one must be a part of God's kingdom. Though it might seem redundant, if one is a part of God's kingdom now (i.e. those that do his will on earth), then one will also be a part of God's kingdom in the future (i.e. those that do his will in heaven). 

In my, personal opinion,* following Jesus isn't about belonging to a club with the right name on the door so I can know who's in and who's out. Nor is it about following a set of arbitrary rules of behavior that should induce feelings of shame when broken. Nor is it about doing enough good things to outweigh the bad things and so earn a divine reward. 

No, it's much more difficult than that. To follow Jesus I must truly love myself as one created in the divine image, and as worthy of love and belonging. I must truly love others as image-bearers who are also worthy of love and belonging. And I must love God with not only my thoughts, but my actions, and my emotions. That's the life that Jesus lived, that's the life he commanded others to live, and that is the way in which Jesus is the only path to the Father, because he showed humanity what it means to love God and love each other.** 

Hope for Everyone

I get why Christians (and nearly everyone else) want to be exclusive. It's easier. If I don't have to figure out how to love the person who's different from me, it's easier. If I don't have to wrestle with loving those I find reprehensible, it's easier. If I don't have to struggle with loving someone who think's I'm wrong, it's easier. If I don't have to fight to love someone that I think is wrong, it's easier. 

But love isn't meant to be easy. It's not meant to be without struggle or cost. We were meant to learn and grow together. We were meant to wrestle and fight to know and be known, to love and be loved. We were made to look like God. We were made to give and receive love. 

Christians, can we give up trying to decide who's right and who's wrong? Can we stop trying to do God's job of determining who is worthy of getting into heaven? Can we stop drawing lines in the sand that Jesus never drew? We have enough work to do learning to love and be loved. Why don't we let God handle the judging and we'll work on the loving. 

How has exclusivity hurt you in your life? 

How has exclusivity helped you in your life? 

How can we both include everyone and still hold Jesus' exclusive claims to be true? 


*Which doesn't reflect the opinion of my denomination, my congregation, my co-author, or anyone else.  
** I do think that the bible and Christianity paint the best and clearest picture of what it looks like to love and be loved by the creator. Since the root of nearly every other religion is the concept of right-deeds earning an afterlife reward, practitioners of those faiths would need to reject that basic premise and engage in loving God and loving each other. But, then again, most Christians need to reject that basic premise themselves, since it has infiltrated much of Christian thinking too.