Homosexuality: Does a Pastor have to have an Answer?

As a minister, you get used to hearing people ask you what you believe about all kinds of different issues.  This occurs from people within your church as well as people outside your church – from Christians as well as non-Christians.  Occasionally, I’ll even receive Facebook messages from high school friends and old acquaintances asking my opinion about certain matters – anything from doctrine to politics to current events to interior design – ok, that hasn’t happened, but just about everything else has!  Most ministers become adept at navigating their responses to delicate and controversial issues in order to convey their true feelings while also respecting a diversity of thought and opinion.  Some, like Patrick Mead, even offer an ongoing “ask the preacher” kind of format in his blog. No doubt, we all have our sacred cows and find it difficult to answer both honestly and succinctly to certain matters (just ask me about militarism), but by and large, this is something that comes with the territory and the title.  We are teachers.  Those who preach come from a long line of prophets and Christian leaders.  Our voices aren’t more important than anyone else’s – I firmly believe that – but our voices are often heard by more than others.  Even those of us who preach at small churches like mine carry some degree of influence.  Thus, people are genuinely interested in what we have to say.

Generally, I truly appreciate these inquiries and am humbled that anyone cares about my opinion.  I try to be a constant student, love learning, and make every effort to be as prepared for any question or discussion that may come my way.  The older I get and the more I study and learn – the more inadequate I feel and the more difficulty I have in offering short answers to just about any question.  I find I hate yes/no questions more than ever.  And the more I change my mind about things, the less certain I become about many of the beliefs I currently hold.

And so, inevitably, I find myself asked in different ways, under differing circumstances, and by a broad diversity of people what I believe about homosexuality and correspondingly what I believe the Bible teaches about homosexuality.  I have some pretty controversial perspectives on politics and nationalism (along with a few other things :-)) but I have become more afraid of tackling this topic than any other . . . by far.

If you are like me, you have a short attention span when it comes to reading blog posts and so, if you are truly like me, you probably won’t read this entire thing, because . . . if you’re like me, you can’t write shortly or succinctly about this one, but I’ll do what I can to offer what is at the heart of my struggle here.

In response to one of the most recent inquiries into my beliefs about homosexuality and Christianity and the Bible, I hemmed and hawed and finally said, “I don’t know.”  It wasn’t a cop-out and I wasn’t trying to avoid the discussion.  Honestly, I’ve been studying and thinking about this issue pretty seriously since 1998 when I was first exposed to teenagers who were wrestling with this issue.  I was pretty confused back then, and I find it discouraging that 15 years later, I’m still really confused and unsure.

And now everyone wants to know what I think – well, not everyone, but three or four people.  As of late, it’s become an explosive topic to discuss – even more than in the past.  I’m disappointed that more high profile pastors and Christian leaders aren’t having honest public discussion about the topic.  I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised. I’m sure they’re scared to death to open this can of worms.  Sure, the boisterous voices on either the far right and far left of the issue are quick to throw out their zingers and offer their messages of condemnation or salvation, but just look at how many are really quiet.  My tradition is, admittedly, an interesting one, but we have our fair share of public figures, and I haven’t heard many of them address this topic head on.  Thank you for being an exception Sally Gary!

This post is already long, so let me get to the heart of things here.  You want to know my opinion about this matter?  I don’t know.  Honestly.  I don’t know what I believe about it.  I feel caught between a rock and a hard place in coming to terms with a theological articulation that I am comfortable with.  I’ll offer a point or two below to highlight why I don’t know, but first I want to ask the question, “Is it so bad that I don’t know?”  Haven’t we moved beyond the era where pastors and other teachers and leaders have to be “answer men/women”?  Haven’t we been wrong on enough matters to keep us from speaking too definitively on just about anything?  I know this scares the hell out of some people, but just look at the track record of the church.  We’ve been wrong . . . really, really wrong, on some crucial matters in the past.  Southern churches on slavery and later on civil rights, German Lutherans and their dual kingdom theology allowing them to turn the other way at Hitler’s rise to power . . . torture and execution of heretics . . . need I go on?

Even the Bible gets it wrong.  If you’ve never squirmed your way through some of the Old Testament passages that kicked the women out of the camp because they were on their period or that would offer a rapist the woman’s hand in marriage for a fee or read the book of Joshua and considered the countless women and children that were murdered at the hands of God’s people, you have skipped over the icky parts.  Maybe I’m overstating it to say that “the Bible gets it wrong” . . . but my point is that it’s not like this sacred book that we all point to for guidance and truth can just be picked up preached without some unpacking.

For this issue of homosexuality, there’s a lot at stake, and I understand that’s why it’s so explosive.  All wrapped up in this matter are the issues of politics, the sacredness/sacrament of marriage, equality, rights, biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), your view of Scripture, your view of the state, love, parenting, creation, the nature of God, the nature of humanity, science, genetics, and probably a thousand others I’ve overlooked.

And I don’t know what to do with it all.  Theologically and hermeneutically, I struggle to make homosexuality “fit.”  There’s a lot at stake in order for me to make it “fit,” and slowly around me some of those troubles are beginning to fall away.  However, for good or for ill, I remain reluctant to make that jump.   Experientially, I struggle to make the prohibition of homosexuality “fit.”  Friends, companions, and conversation partners I have had in the past and currently have help me struggle through their created nature.  Why would they have feelings like this?  Why would God make them like this?  What does it mean?  It is like other struggles (alcoholism, etc.) but it’s not the same.  Not by a long stretch.  And so . . . what to do?

I have a good friend who is transgendered and, whether she knows it or not, is helping me think through this as well.  When I say alot is at stake, this comes front and center in the matter of gender identity.  The first question we ask upon a child’s birth is, “Is it a boy or a girl?”  It’s the fundamental black and white question in our society.  But what about when it’s not black and white?  What about when we understand gender as more than anatomical?  When that question becomes complicated, that seems to make the point that everything is complicated.

There are so many related issues under the rubric of homosexuality and I am far from prepared to delve into even a few of them.  For now, I am prepared to let you know that I don’t know.  Many, maybe even most, will look at that as being “soft.”  A cop out.  Wimping out.  Maybe it is.  Maybe I am.  I do believe that most of what I am hearing and reading about regarding the matter of homosexuality from professed Christians isn’t helping anyone.  It’s often vitriol, judgmental, and condescending.  I know that all of it isn’t and that we are becoming more adept at public discourse regarding the issue, but we have a long ways to go.

I also know that there are many Christians who are struggling through this matter.  I know many of them are not in churches that allow them to share openly and honestly the struggles that comes with these feelings and, perhaps, being in these relationships.  I know that I don’t understand what they are going through.  I want to empathize, and try as much as I can, but I don’t understand their struggles.  I am full of my own struggles and know the temptation of pornography, short skirts, and tight shirts.  I know the power of libido and confess my own shortcomings in taking captive those thoughts to Christ.  And I know that I am not in a position of being your judge, and hope that these people can find friends and companions that will help them navigate these challenging waters.  I hope to provide some additional posts in the coming weeks into some of my struggles through this issue, but as for now, I just wanted to say to all those who want to know what I think about homosexuality: “I don’t know.”


“Let the Little Children Come to Me” . . . in the Nursery

We had a really strange experience this past Sunday morning at our church.  Our congregation is small (100 folks or so), and with the flu going around and folks traveling, etc. our crowd was especially small this week.  A young couple walked in with two small children – looked like they could have been twins – maybe two years old.  A few of our members chatted with them briefly before the service and then one of our elders introduced me to the husband.  “He was asking about the nursery,” I was told.  As we have such a small church, and so many of our families have little children, we find it difficult – well, impossible – to provide a staffed nursery for parents.  Some of our parents will take their children out of the service if their child is particularly fussy or restless, but for the most part, we try to incorporate our children into our services and generally welcome the distraction of them crying out or running around.  It can be a little hectic and often is distracting . . . but so is life.  But it’s not just because “we can’t staff the nursery,” that we don’t have one.  It’s actually pretty intentional on our behalf.

Well, in regards to the young couple, it was a little difficult for them to understand and so they slowly and quietly left – before our services ever started!  I was astounded.  They never gave it a chance.  They, like many other people who visit our congregation’s Sunday services, they were looking for an hour-long service when they can focus on God and energize themselves without the distraction of their children.  And I get it.  We’ve got three kids of our own, and I remember the challenge of the years between when they became mobile and when they could sit down quietly and be entertained.   I know how difficult that was, particularly for my wife – and nothing I am about to say is said without that very legitimate concern and realization.

There’s nothing wrong with a church offering a nursery during their services – I need to affirm that as well.  However, there is something very pure, authentic, and important about our worship gatherings being truly family-oriented.  There is something to be said for having a time for age-appropriate messages and expressions, but that can never come to dominate our structure – as if that is the rule instead of the exception.  The idea that we need to “sanitize” our services of all distractions is disingenuous to what life really is.  We fall into the temptation of making them smoothly packaged with the outcome predetermined – a far cry from the realities of life.  I know that it can be difficult for older folks to “drown the noise out.”  I understand it can make it challenging for those without children to empathize.  We should be cautious and thoughtful about affirming that to those people often.  However, again, I wonder if that should be the exception instead of the rule (that is always making concession for those people). At the same time, it is an opportunity for us to be humbled.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I think alot of this discussion revolves around the pastor’s ego.  We don’t want an entire week’s work (ie. sermon) to be “wasted” when the most poignant moment is drowned out by a screaming child.  I have been there.  I have done that.  And . . . now . . . it honestly just makes me smile.  I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously.  I think that’s what more church folks  need to do.  Most people could probably affirm the fact that a baby’s coo or a little child’s outburst is just as God-honoring and glorifying as my exposition on Ecclesiastes.  Postmodernism has knocked us off our pedestal, and we need to continue to let it due so.  Our worship gatherings should be collections of numerous worship experiences throughout the congregation.  It’s not dictated and directed by the leaders up front.  I look at it as if we are hoping to help create an atmosphere (with the guidance and participation of the Holy Spirit) where people can connect to God.  I hope that happens through the sermon, sometimes, through our worship in song, and our other public experiences.  However, I think more often, and more powerfully, those experiences are happening through side conversations, shows of affection, spontaneous prayers, a cup of coffee, and even (GASP!) unruly or disruptive children.

My wife probably had the best perspective on this event from Sunday.  A couple from our church recently adopted a baby – after waiting for several years and going through the ringer as nearly everyone who goes through the adoption process undergoes.  We prayed with them for years that this day would come.  And in my wife’s great wisdom she points out, “How can we go through those many years of praying and longing, and then finally celebrating alongside them . . . and then expect them to spend most of their time together with us . . .  out in the nursery?  That little baby is as much a part of our church and a part of each and every service as the oldest members among us.”

This is where we come to terms with being an intentional and missional church that doesn’t do things because they are “more palatable” or “attractive” to outsiders, but instead, are driven by our theology to make decisions that are holistic, God-focused, and . . . often times . . . more difficult.  Ironically, in our sermon on Sunday, we spent some time talking about not making your family your idol . . .

The HopeLESSness of Politics

Political discussions are seemingly more and more pointless as everyone seems to have such a strong feeling and we have become nearly inept at engaging in any civil discourse at all.  Regardless, I feel inspired to type out some political reflections this morning – perhaps to appease the sadist within.  Here goes nothing.  

First of all, it should be noted that I am not affiliated with a party.  Several times this past week I have been labeled as a liberal and as a Democrat.  This is a false assumption.  I have never aligned myself with a party.  While I respect Christians who do, I have strong feelings of why I think that is not helpful to the promotion of the Gospel.  I have never affiliated myself with a party, I have never joined a party,  I have never given money to a political party.  I am not a single party voter (when I do vote).  I do, however, engage in political discussions. I enjoy them.  I think they are important.  I think they are naturally connected to matters of faith – as I have stated on many occasions – I believe faith is innately political . . .  just not partisan.  My discourse on politics is my discourse on faith – those who try to separate those two have created, in my opinion, a false dichotomy. 

It is true that I am regularly more critical of conservatives than liberals.  This is not because I find liberals any more closely aligned with the purposes of God in the world.  It is the fact, rather, that I find myself in a thoroughly conservative context that makes me especially critical of conservatives.  (By thoroughly I mean white, middle/upper class, suburban, quasi-evangelical – that’s pretty thorough!) This is my context.  I would  liken it to the same way I am more critical of the Cleveland Indians’ front office decisions or Ohio State’s offensive play-calling.  I don’t care about these matters for teams that aren’t my “team.”  If I was in a more liberal-leaning setting, I would undoubtedly find myself more critical of that ideology. 

Contrarily, most articles I read and share on social media are almost exclusively from other Christians.  I don’t get caught up in the political machines through media outlets, but instead search for pastors, Christian leaders, and theologians who chime in on these important matters.  There are certainly these folks who fall across the political spectrum, but I work hard to find those who are working hard to speak of their faith first, from outside the lines the system has drawn. 

The Christian faith is undoubtedly political.  Many Christians would agree with this statement and thus justify their political involvement in the system at hand (“It’s the system that we have – it’s not perfect, but the perfect system doesn’t exist – so we pick the less ‘bad’ option” goes the argument).  This is the mirage of democracy.  I watched a Stanley Hauerwas clip last week where he compared the American election to the ancient Roman circus.  It’s something that the state encourages to distract the people from actively challenging the state.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a time in my life when this seems to be more the case.  This huge emphasis in “getting out the vote” makes it sound like it’s the most important thing you can do.  The jury is still out for me on whether or not I’ll vote this year – to be sure (if I decline, it will be a thoughtful choice and not a nod to apathy or laziness).  However, voting is the least I can do to impact society (Soooo, I guess NOT voting is the least you can do, but my point is that we must keep the “power of our ballot” in perspective – even here in Ohio)! 

My decade long stint in full-time ministry has led me to make the following observation: The single most dangerous idol in the American church is nationalism.  Most Christians are inundated with it to the point that they don’t even realize it.  For many, the difference between Gospel and Americana is blurred.  These are strong statements, but it is regularly affirmed to me in my personal experience as well as in broader observation.  Christians should have an easier time relating to Christians from other countries because of their faith – not a more difficult time because of our political allegiances.  Trying to untangle patriotism and faith when it comes to political engagement is like trying to get the gum off of your shoes with your fingers.  I’m convinced that patriotism can have a place in the Christian faith . . . I’m equally convinced that I have yet to see this kind of patriotism on display anywhere. 

With these observations made, here is my two cents on some of the more pressing issues that we’ll hear about during tonight’s debate (and, if you live in Ohio, on the television and radio for the next two weeks):

Economy: This is front and center this year, and this is, perhaps, helping show our true colors.  Essentially, Romney is running on the platform that he wants to be the CEO of America.  While the ticket certainly has opinions about foreign policy, morality, and the likes, Romney is running as a CEO.  He regularly says, “I’ve turned big companies around in the past, I know how to create jobs, etc.; I will get this big company turned around.”  Obama continues to try and twist poor economic numbers to illustrate that his government-led stimulus has stopped a bad situation from becoming horrible and that taking some more time and some additional government stimulus will continue to turn things around.  Let me be clear about what I think in this regard: You cannot make any biblically justified argument that either of these proposals are more “biblical” than the other.  As soon as you want to rally the troops around the Ten Commandments and the “right” of personal property and the emphasis on hard work in the New Testament, you are met with the overt social welfare that was built in to Israel and the most radical social program I have seen anywhere: Jubilee – where every 50 years a complete economic redistribution happened.  It was a guarantee that no one would become too rich, and no one would become too poor.  Why this isn’t brought up more in economic discussions by Christians is an absolute tragedy.  Nowhere does the Bible sanction any economic system.  Let’s be clear.  It is fine for us to have biblically-informed opinions about what resonates more with the biblical story, but we have to be honest in our assessment.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate an appropriate tax system.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that it is a sin to tax the rich disproportionately to the poor.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that it’s right either.  The Bible speaks loudly about the challenges wealth provides to the Christian. However, nowhere does it indicate that it is a sin to be rich. Some of the most prominent figures in the Bible were rich (Abraham, David, Zaccheus . . . interestingly . . . not too many in the New Testament). 

What concerns me more than the specifics of the economic perspectives of Christians is their rhetoric.  You can have your opinions that taxes are too high or that the government is too big or whatever it might be, but it is easy to shift the conversation to being rooted in selfishness “I worked for this . . . ” “This is my money . . . ”  I’m all for personal possessions and hard work and all of that but when we focus on it, it can often sound like that’s what we’re really fighting for. 

I regularly acknowledge that I’ve never had a class in economics.  I think the whole discussion is fascinating and I regularly try to educate myself further.  A friend once asked me why minister’s don’t take economics classes which I’ve thought a lot about.  I think I’ve come to the conclusions: few people would be all that excited to see the Bible’s teaching on economics.  Dave Ramsey is probably one of the best known Christian financial gurus and I appreciate the many people he’s helped relieve their debt – he’s changed more lives than I ever will.  And yet, I will forever be critical of his economic theology.  Theologically – it’s shoddy.  He uses proof texts cherry picked from all throughout Scripture to best maneuver through capitalism as a Christian and completely avoids the more socially-accountable texts.   It’s hard for ministers to talk about the economics of the Bible because few of us have come to terms with living out the teachings.  We’ve punted the discussion to economists and let them argue this or argue that – but the discussion of economics rarely stimulates serious Bible study – if it did it would scare the hell out of us, not convince us that one of these two has the economic answers.  We’re part of an economic system that works because it has always had a bottom class to oppress: whether it was slaves in the beginning, or sweat shop workers in the midst of Industrialization, or now Third World sweat shops that are overseas so we don’t have to worry about working conditions.  Maybe our struggles are coming now because our system is running out of bottom rung folks to support the rest of us.  And all of this, doesn’t even take into consideration how thoroughly individualistic capitalism is – again, a completely anti-biblical notion.  

Foreign Policy: I am strongly convinced of a non-violent message throughout the New Testament.  That violence can be redemptive is a myth that continues to carry the sway of many Christians.  “We have to have the largest military so that we can keep peace in our world.”  That is an oxymoron that continues to show itself illogical.  Our military already possesses enough weapons to blow the world up ten times over (more like a hundred times over).  God chooses the smallest nation in the Middle East to be his chosen people, he gives his Son over to die at the hands of the government, he regularly honors the youngest, the least, the weakest . . . and yet we regularly insist that the way the world works is by building bigger, more, and more . . .I can’t think of a prevailing wind of thought that is harder to justify with Scripture. 

Social Programs: The Bible provides little insight into whether or not the government is there to provide social programming.   You may have strong opinions one way or another, but please do not say that the Bible teaches the government was or wasn’t created for this and thus a purpose.  Clearly it is part of the created order and exists for providing order – but all that is included in that “order” is never laid out.  When a government houses and feeds its poorest residents, we can applaud this effort, though we must constantly inquire as to why those poor are poor and what systems keep them there.  The idea that if taxes are cut, private sector and non-for-profit agencies will suddenly be inundated with funding seems naive.  We live in one of the most affluent areas of our city (and indeed the state), and yet the social programing in this area is nearly non-existent – instead, these neighbors work hard to keep social service OUT of their neighborhood.  These folks’ taxes aren’t that high 🙂 

Morality: Here I throw the hot topics of abortion/same sex marriage/death penalty and other matters of life.  While the Democratic party has made their pro-choice stance a platform matter, we should be careful to demonize them as baby-killers and other inflammatory titles.  I have yet to see anyone wishing for a higher abortion rate.  Why can’t we begin here? There are real differences here, but I become so frustrated that the emphasis on abortion so dwarfs consideration of war, torture, and the death penalty. Our country incarcerates far more criminals than any other nation in the world (including China and India despite their huge populations), and yet, among Christians, morality continues to be defined by two issues.  Why a statement like this is linked to partisan beliefs shows how we allow the system to articulate reality.  It’s a broken record, but to me this is a clear indication of how Christians have been used by the political system.  We allow the system to articulate reality – when we should be doing this. 

There is so much more that I can say . . . and we all could say . . . and we all do say . . . caught up in our discussions of these really important matters.  I am as guilty as anyone wanting to prove my point and make my case, and I am reminding myself more and more, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.  That’s where my greatest disappointment is with Christians.  I know that by and large, most of them truly believe that in the end it won’t matter, and that we serve a power higher than all parties and politics.  However, this is often not the message that is broadcast the loudest.  When  we get sucked into conversations about the format of debates, various sound bytes and media appearances, the public “image” of the candidates, and all the other stuff that the political talk shows so often stir up – we’ve lost our way.  We’ve allowed ourselves to get sucked into the circus.  And perhaps, by publishing this post that took me an hour to pound out on the keypad . . . I’m sitting in the front row. 

Some Things in the Hopper

I follow countless blogs through my Google reader and am constantly amazed at how regular so many of the post-ers are. I try to stop short of judging them (probably not very successfully), but wonder if these folks get anything else done. It seems that the best bloggers are those who have cool stuff to say and make you think . . . but I always wonder how much they actually do. Makes me think of this anecdote I came across in my reading this week from Scott Bessenecker:

“If there is a problem somewhere” he said with his dry chuckle, “this is what happens. Three people will try to do something concrete to settle the issue. Ten people will give a lecture analyzing what the three are doing. One hundred people will commend or condemn the ten for their lecture. One thousand people will argue about the problem. And one person-only one-will involve themselves so deeply in the true solution that they are too busy to listen to any of it.” Now asking gently, his penetrating eyes meeting each of ours in turn, “which person are you?” That’s from . Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of New Friars (p. 165).

This quote has left me really asking myself where I spend most my time – we’d all like to think we’d be the one actually doing something, but more likely I find myself talking, lecturing, or blogging about it. There’s nothing wrong with talking, lecturing, or blogging . . . but there’s got to be more.

This is kind of a weird beginning to a blog post, but I’m in the process of some real internal wrestling. I remember when I was younger and finishing college I always had the perspective that I was too young to really have much to say. So I stayed in school. Got my master’s degree, was still young to have much to say, and then didn’t have much experience to say it from.

I know find myself at the age Jesus was when he was involved in his ministry pretty hot and heavy throughout Palestine. It seems like it’s a pretty good time to start having something to say . . . and, of course, more important to find something to do.

I don’t know how the coming months are going to go, but I feel the spirit of creativity and expression moving within me. I have read more books in the last 15 months or so than I’ve read in the previous five years. I’ve been filling my mind with different ideas, fostered by seminars with Fuller’s DMin program. I leave for class next week which will put me over the midway hump and into the stretch. I continue to focus determinedly on the ministry I am a part of at the Alum Creek Church.

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve got a lot to say and I just hope it’s not a bunch of crap, that it makes sense, and that it can be beneficial to many people. I’m hoping to blog much more regularly soon, and focus on writing. I’m discovering that I really enjoy writing and that have a style that’s a little unique – I don’t tend to stick to the cordiality that is so often espoused among professional writers. As a case in point, I’ve been wrestling with a blog post that would explore the theology of farts. Now there’s that youth ministry flare coming out from within me.

My biggest problem – as evidenced in this post – is that I don’t do succinct well. Teachers have always told me I talk too much, and I have always had problem staying under the maximum page allotment in assignments. So . . . I’m going to work on that.

In any case, here’s some things I’ve got in the hopper that will be (hopefully) coming to this blog soon!

* I’m polishing off my 3,000 pages of reading for my upcoming D Min class in Oxford, England. The reflections here are multifaceted. It’ll be my first trip to Europe. We’ll be in London, Oxford, and later in Paris. Seems like there will be plenty to post about from that experience. In addition, the topic of the class is “New Ways of Being Church.” The reading has connected to me in many ways and I am excited about the conversation that will ensue. Our class is small and comprises of a Canadian, a New Zealander, a Brit, a Californian, and me from Ohio. The diversity should provide great spice to help initiate a great class.

* This puts me in the beginning stages of putting together a final project proposal. As I’ve stated in previous posts, my interest remains with sports and religion. My mind has been spinning vociferously as of late with ideas of what all this would entail. I’ll be using my blog as a sounding board for various ideas. Currently, I’m thinking that I’ll be pulling ideas from a theology of the powers, sociological realities of sports, and youth ministry and the culture of sports. That’s vague – but hey, I don’t want to give my idea away!

* At Alum Creek, we continue to experiment and pray and work through what it means to be Jesus in an affluent culture of the suburbs. There’s several aspects of our ministry that I hope to work through in the coming months.

* The Church of Christ continues to draw my attention as well. I plan to publish an updated take on my role in the Churches of Christ before we leave for Europe next week (or maybe on the plane) that connects some of my experiences at Fuller and what I see taking place in our churches.

* My interest in politics and the role of a Christian in them won’t go away. This remains a constant burr in my butt and something that I think and reflect on often. I don’t figure I’ll ever be able to get that all out of my system.

So . . . stay tuned . . . hopefully we’ll see some of these things come to fruition . . . but don’t expect me to offer many posts from Europe!

The Myth of a Private Faith and Reflections on Just War Theory

ImageI can always judge when I’ve read (or am reading) an important book or article or whatever when I find myself consumed in reflecting on it well after I’ve put it down.  The vast majority of things I read just simply bleed into the next article or book or whatever with minimal personal impact.  The fact that I finished Lee Camp’s book, Who is My Enemy?, last weekend and it has haunted me throughout this week testifies to its impact on me.  This post continues to reflect upon and wrestle with some of Camp’s work.  

This morning, on my way to the office, I turned on the local Christian radio station – something I almost never do.  In the brief moment I had it on, I was informed that this particular station says the Pledge of Allegiance every morning – “so you can say the Pledge with your kids” is how the advertisement ran.  While the issue of whether or not a Christian should say the Pledge is a topic for another day, I simply use this anecdote to illustrate just how ingrained and intertwined patriotism has become with the Christian faith in the United States.  Soldiers regularly are praised for serving “God and Country,” but I wonder if we’ve come to a place where we really exist in a society that extols “Country . . . and god,”  but I don’t think I mean that in the way most people will understand.   

It is perhaps the greatest paradox of our age.  The liberal view of religion – that which states religion is a private, personal matter and should be kept out of politics – has at the same time, largely brought the United States and Western civilization to unparalleled heights of power and wealth and success while (nearly?) removing any public relevance of the Christian faith to matters of policy and politics.  Last year in our small group, we were going over some of our discussion questions (I don’t even remember the topic) when someone in our group remarked rather sharply, “I feel like this is getting a little political,” and then skipped the question and moved on.  Inherent in this episode is the belief that politics are not a matter to be discussed in church.  They are too controversial.   And so . . . we have, by and large, forfeited our right as the Kingdom of God, to have any important or relevant say in matters of politics.  Instead, we have allowed the partisan blowhards and professional politicians to determine the language we use and the manner by which our arguments are constructed.  Simply put, the arm of the state has set the rules and the church has been more than happy to play by those rules.  

Lee Camp points out this reality rather sharply in his discussion of Just War Theory (JWT).  Using a similar rationale to that of his mentor John Howard Yoder, Camp takes a theory that he himself does not espouse (for Camp, no war can ever be just – as with Yoder – see his When War is Unjust, 1984) but is nonetheless widely held, at least theologically, and takes a candid assessment of America’s involvement in war.  From the genocidal settling of the American Frontier, to the bloody intramural cultural battle of the Civil War, Camp relays gruesome stories reinforcing Sherman’s assessment that “War is hell.”  The question ringing throughout, of course, is whether or not it is a hell in which Christians are ever called to participate. 

Camp summarizes the criteria for JWT under three areas: just causes for war, just acts of war, and due process governing the war.  Falling under these three categories are the following more detailed criteria:

– War must be declared by a “legitimate authority”

– There must be a just cause

– Right intention (ie. restoring peace)

– Right motivation (ie. love for oppressed and for enemy)

– Last resort

– Enemy must always be allowed to enter negotiations to end conflict

– The war must be deemed “winnable”

– Proportionality – war cannot cause more damage than it seeks to prevent

– Respect for international treaties and laws

– Only one side can be considered to be fighting “justly”

– Immunity for innocent

– Weapons must discriminate (landmines are generally understood to be in violation here)

– “Necessary” methods

– Respect for human dignity

My intention here is not so much to engage in discussions about JWT or pacifism.  For the record, I tend to lean more towards the Camp/Yoder camp (pun intended) and struggle to reconcile violence with New Testament Christianity – but again, that is neither here nor there.  More important for the discussion here is this anecdote by Camp early in the book.  In his ten years or so teaching at Lipscomb University, he has encountered only one student who has ever heard a sermon preached or a class taught on the issue of JWT. One of my gravest concerns is that these discussions are mostly limited to academic circles. 

The importance of this may be lost on you if you fail to realize that JWT has long been the established “official” position by the church for hundreds of years!  And yet, ten years’ worth of students at a Christian University (and one that actually has a pacifist branch within its tradition) only one student has received any thoughtful reflection on that from his or her church!  The question is – where is teaching on matters of the Bible and war-making taking place? 

I assure you, from personal experience, our churches regularly graduate our students as soldiers of the State through the Armed Forces – and this reality forces us to ask the very challenging and difficult question: Have we given them any thought or training or reflection to what they are doing?  Have they prepared themselves to reconcile Christ’s teaching to love their enemy as they participate in the State’s war games preparing to kill the enemy? 

It is here where I believe the reality of a private religion is exposed as mythical and heretical.  We wince at the thought of having these discussions in our churches or Bible classes, but if they are not happening there – then where?  When?  And led by whom?  The vast majority of discussions I’ve taken part in sound more like an episode of Glenn Beck or Bill O’Rielley than they do uniquely theological or biblical.  Our church members are better informed on the Republican stance on Iran than any international Christian churches or organizations.  I’ll be particularly hard on youth ministry here.  A bird’s eye view of youth ministry sees the emphasis on sexuality, relationships, identity, and many other important factors in adolescence – vitally important for a person’s development to be sure, but also extremely limited to the impact of a “private, personal Savior.”  The hope is that they’ll be celibate until marriage, they’ll avoid pornography, they’ll have a positive body image, and self-respect.  As for their public impact, the hope is that they’ll grow into important leadership roles in society, to be sure . . . but how much attention is given to the impact of what particular roles they choose to serve in?  I recently met with a woman who turned 99 years old.  I have not met her son who lives nearby, and when I asked if he went to church anywhere, she just shook her head and said, “No . . . he went all the time until he joined the military – but that changes a person, you know?”  Well, I do . . . but I wonder how many young Christians who are sitting in a recruiters office realize that. 

Why don’t churches graduate more social workers than soldiers . . . business majors?  Now there’s a question for the next youth minister’s luncheon.   




Superman Not an American???

This little frame from the most recent Superman comic has created quite the platform for discussion.  My previous blog, God, Superman, and the Buckeyes, seems to be the perfect repository for much of recent big news (scandals at Ohio State, and now this??)  This is right in my wheel house.

A couple of years ago I published an article examining the ways in which media portrayals of heroes are little more than an extension of the state seeking to glorify national interests and solidify patriotism in children (think G I Joe, Superman, etc.)  The authors Jewett and Lawrence have done a lot of work in this regard from the perspective of American history.  It seems that this latest turn in the Superman saga sparks a potential follow-up article (which if I can find some time I’ll work on some day , but here are some initial thoughts).

There is little doubt that Superman is the archetypal American “mono-myth” (a term from Jewett and Lawrence).  After all, he has always fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”  Created by Siegel and Shuster in 1938, the comic had World War II and the Cold War to foment Superman in the American psyche as extension of all that is good in American foreign policy.  2011, however, is a much different time than the 40’s and 50’s.  The global political landscape has changed so drastically that Superman is having to reinvent himself to make sense in today’s global world.

It will be interesting to watch the conservative backlash from this event (and to see if the comic creates a new storyline where Superman’s American citizenry is once again affirmed), and it is one of those instances where we can learn alot about people from popular culture.  No doubt, the underlying impasse for many will be the presupposition that Superman’s renunciation of his American citizenship is predicated on the idea that his quest for truth and justice (and freedom?) finds him at odds with the American economic and political policies in the world.

There’s much more to come on this . . . but I wanted to throw out some initial thoughts of mine . . .

The Super Bowl, Jack Black, and The Powers

I remember being in seminary, reading through Stanley Grenz’s great systematic theology textbook [did I just use “great” and “systematic theology book in the same sentence?  I have problems!] Theology for the Community of God, and first being introduced to the concept of “the powers.”  It was a concept that was completely foreign to me at the time, but one that I connected with immediately and has left one of the more indelible marks on my theology.

In his section entitled, “Our Spiritual Co-Creatures,” Grenz lays out his theology for “The Structures of Existence.”  He defines this oft-overlooked topic this way: “Those larger, suprahuman aspects or dimensions of reality which form the inescapable context for human life and which therefore condition individual and corporate existence” (p. 228).  Closely paralleling our understanding of angels and demons – both topics that have fallen victim to the Enlightenment’s  fixation of empiricism, it is no wonder that the structures are not talked about more often.

In the years since having been first introduced to this concept by Grenz, I have pursued the topic in more detail by reading authors who focus more specifically on the powers (Grenz was a good introduction).  This pursuit has introduced me to the likes of Hendrick Berkhoff, John Howard Yoder, Walter Wink, and (just recently) William Stringfellow . . . among others.  Interestingly, Lipscomb University, where I attended seminary, has two professors well-versed in this area – unfortunately I never had classes with them to discuss these matters further.  (Lee Camp has written the widely read Mere Discipleship, and Richard Goode published Crashing Idols last year co-authored with Will Campbell)

Fortunately, the theological treatment of the powers is becoming more widely considered and addressed, though it remains largely written to academics and is overly theoretical (not that you ever move far beyond theory with this type of topic).  As I enter into the heart of my D. Min studies, and begin searching for topics for my final project, I am giving special attention to this subject.  I believe it has much to say to Christians today.  The critical consideration of the larger powers and principalities behind reality is something few Christians have considered – especially those from “conservative” backgrounds.  The conservative emphasis of personal piety and moralism has left this crucial rock unturned.  This is where I turn to Jack Black, who teaches a little theology.

Simply stated, the powers and principalities are the -isms and -ologies at work in the world.  They are Jack Black’s “man.”  Yesterday most of us were privy to one of the most unique assemblies of powers in the Super Bowl.  When I first read Grenz, my thoughts went almost immediately to sports.  Sports, in Western culture, is an extremely vigilant power.  The Super Bowl represents this power at its appex, combining the additional powers of capitalism, music, commercialism, and entertainment to mention but a few.  The Super Bowl puts the powers and principalities on full display – flaunting themselves before the world.

Our attention to moralism and personal salvation is important and certainly has a vital role in the Christian narrative.  However, we must never neglect the broader topic of the powers and authorities [stoicheia in Greek] that help shape the world around us.  Our individuality gets sucked up into something as culturally significant as the Super Bowl, and, as Christians, we must seek to better understand the cosmic implications of the work of Christ and how he has “disarmed the principalities and powers” (Colossians 1:16) and how we wrestle “against principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12)

There is much to be said, written, thought through, and prayed through in relation to the powers and structures of existence in our world.  We need a better and practical theology of “The Man” in our quest to live as aliens in a strange and foreign land.