Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Continuing to Dream

Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his classic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C.  This speech was a part of the larger “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” which was designed to “dramatize [the] shameful condition” of discrimination and economic oppression that African-Americans faced. [1] The march in general and his speech in particular were credited with pushing forward the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. As a result, Dr. King is recognized today as a national hero.
But Dr. King was not held in such widespread favor. In his day, many people opposed what Dr. King was doing because they believed that the fight against racism was over. After all, slavery had been abolished for 100 years, the federal government had given African-Americans full voting rights, and an increasing number of African-Americans were rising into positions of influence. It wasn’t clear to many white people what Dr. King was still fighting for. Many believed that the American government had done its part. Now, it was up to African-Americans themselves to improve their situation.

But Dr. King knew that there was more to it than that. He saw that there were power structures that kept African-Americans at the bottom of society, and he could give a sophisticated account of what these structures were and was always prepared to supply specific examples of how they mistreated people. However, his reasoning by itself was not enough to persuade his opponents. So he helped organize boycotts and sit-ins, which exposed the ugliness of police brutality and brought the injustice that was occurring onto a national stage. When this happened, people accused him of making a big fuss over nothing and inciting violence, even though he was merely organizing peaceful assemblies! This is what led him to say, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” [2]

This is still the greatest stumbling block to minorities today. Although we have had tremendous success in resisting the hard racism of the KKK, there is still a mountain of resistance from “the white moderate” who lacks the patience to listen to cries of racial injustice. [3] I know this because I was raised as a white moderate. I love my home family and my church and I cherish all that they taught me, but this was one area where they fell short. The white moderate today, like the white moderate a half-century ago, believes that the fight against racism is over. The white moderate today, like the white moderate a half-century ago, thinks you have a right to your opinions but discourages you from putting them in public forms, whether in political rallies or Facebook posts. The white moderate today, like the white moderate half a century ago, silences the conversation about race because, as Dr. King noted, they “prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Having been a white moderate myself, I do not believe that people who hold such views are secretly harboring sinister intentions to harm minorities or even believe their race to be superior. They are ignorant of the white privilege that they have inherited from the legacy of racism, and if you could convince them of it, most of them would give it up.  But their ignorance is a fierce one. It is not stirred by calm complaints and it won’t listen to passionate protests. Intellectual explanations lose its attention and personal testimonies don’t shake its conviction. I have often wondered how I can communicate the transformation of my own perspective to my white-moderate brothers and sisters in a way that is critical yet empowering, practical yet inspiring, confrontational yet inviting. And today I remember that Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished this by sharing a dream. So here is my dream:

I have a dream that wealthy white people will no longer avoid schools and neighborhoods that are predominately populated by minorities out of concern for their children, but that places with racial and socioeconomic diversity will be seen as the best possible setting for a child’s growth.

I have a dream that our prisons will no longer be filled with black and brown bodies, but that our nation will learn to pursue the kind of justice that restores individuals and communities to wholeness.

I have a dream that 11 o’clock on Sundays will become the most diverse – rather than the most divided – hour of the week.

I have a dream that my children will live in a society where we can have civil conversations about race, that they will understand that race is a creation of man and not of God, and that they will therefore be able to acknowledge its influence without legitimating its power. I have a dream that my children will not be surprised when the progress we make inspires other oppressed groups to speak out and that they will constantly renew their strength in the long journey toward justice.

I have a dream that people of every tongue, tribe, and nation will come from the east and the west to take their places at the table of Abraham, so that the one who gathered much does not have too much and the one who gathered little does not have too little. This is a dream of the kingdom of heaven. Only God can bring it about. But by dreaming it, I can see it, I can participate in it, and I can find the strength to keep striving for it.

End Notes

[1] This is how Dr. King describes the march in the second paragraph of his, “I Have a Dream” speech.

[2] This excerpt is from King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

[3] For a more analytical description of the racism that persists in the United States in the form of “soft racism,” see my post about the Zimmerman trial.

Monday, August 26, 2013

On Cussing in Front of Pastors

I am a pastor. Although I’m not ashamed of my vocation, I still break into a cold sweat every time someone asks me what I do for a living. Why? Because discovering that the person with whom you’re talking is a pastor seems to be equivalent to discovering that the unmarked vehicle in front of you is a police car.  As soon as I say, “I’m a pastor,” people immediately slam the brakes on our relationship because they assume that I’m pointing a moral radar gun at them. It's so predictable that it would be funny if it weren’t so alienating. Usually, you can expect one of the following responses: people will start trying to convince me that they're a good person or they will avoid talking about my work altogether. Most of all, people offer us profuse apologies out of nowhere. If someone cusses or tells  dirty joke or loses their temper in my presence, they stop themselves, turn to me and say something like this: “I’m sorry for doing that in front of you.” [1]

I recognize that this kind of apology is meant to show respect to my religion in general or to me in particular. That’s fine. The irony, however, is that such an apology creates the very effect that it sets out to avoid: it forces me to judge them. Honestly, when someone I don’t know cusses (or does something else) in front of me, I don’t judge them. In fact, the Bible commands me not to. Although Christians are called to “judge” in certain settings, it is always to be done with extreme caution and it is never to be directed at strangers or even acquaintances. [2] So when I meet people at social gatherings or talk with them in a business environment, my “moral radar gun” is turned off. However, if they offer an apology to me, then I have to judge because they have implicitly put a judgment in my mouth.  The unspoken premise that precedes the apology is this: “Whoops. I just did something that you believe is wrong and therefore that offends you. Consequently, I’m sorry for doing that in front of you.”

I want to reply, "Did I ever say that the action was wrong? You're just assuming that." In all likelihood, I wasn't "judging" their action either as morally acceptable or morally flawed when they made the comment, but now they've asked me to make a public statement about it. When they say, "I'm sorry," I have to either confirm or deny the wrongness of their action in my response. If I say something like, “Well, thanks for apologizing,” then I confirm not only that that the action was wrong but also the assumptions that I was judging them and that I am easily offended, which I really want to do that. On the other hand, if I say something like, “Oh, that’s ok,” then I have given my moral approval to their action, which is also not something that I want to do. Either way, I have to make a judgment. Thus, I almost always come away from these situations not feeling very good. [3]

But I think I’ve come up with a solution. As I was thinking about this last night, I realized that a person who apologizes to a pastor for their action not only forces the pastor to make a moral judgment but also defers taking moral responsibility for themselves. When you say, “I’m sorry for doing this in front of you,” it’s unclear whether you see the action itself as wrong or whether you are only apologizing for doing it in front of a pastor. So my solution is to turn the act of judging back on the person who apologizes. The next time someone apologizes for cussing around me, for example, I plan to ask, “Do you believe that cursing is wrong?” If they say, “yes,” then I can forgive them in accordance with their moral values. If they say, “no” then I’ll tell them not to be ashamed for doing things which they don’t believe are wrong. In either case, I can let them know that cuss words don’t have the same effect on me that water has on the Wicked Witch of the West: I don't melt when I hear them.  Pastors are not super-sensitive people, any more than we are super-holy. So, unless you commit an action that is aimed at me specifically, don’t apologize to me for it. If you do, I’ll use it as an opportunity for me to explore your moral values rather than mine.

End Notes

[1] This experience is not unique to pastors. Anyone who is known by their peers to have a high ethical standard is likely to experience something like this.

[2] To talk about the Biblical perspective on judging is to enter a heated discussion. Most people, looking to Matthew 7:1-5, assume that Jesus taught his followers never to judge, but that isn’t what it says. The point of that text is to emphasize that we must judge ourselves first and foremost rather than being self-righteous or hypocritical. Later, in Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus offers a model for how we should confront other people about their sins, which implies that we must judge them.

Another passage that I find very helpful is 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. Here, Paul argues that we are only supposed to judge those “inside the church.” From my Anabaptist perspective, I believe that this means we are only encouraged to “judge” those who have voluntarily entered into a covenant with us to follow Christ and to engage in mutual correction, rebuke, and encouragement. It is not license to judge any who call themselves Christians.

[3] Because this happens to pastors so often, we often respond in one of two ways. The first response is that we try too hard to make people feel morally comfortable around us. Some pastors dress down, get tattoos, frequent bars, and swear just to convince people that we’re not judging them. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these actions, it makes it very difficult for this kind of pastor to offer a prophetic or moral critique when this becomes necessary. The second response is that we stop resisting the “holier than thou” image that is imposed upon us and just pretend that we are, in fact, better than other people. This, of course, leads to hypocrisy: it encourages us to hide our flaws and to force ourselves/our family members to play into this image of perfection. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have a “third option” for pastors to take. We can’t change the fact that our vocation makes people uncomfortable. The best we can do is to continue interacting with people and let them see that our moral judgments are aimed at ourselves (with some exceptions). This may not be “relevant” or “effective,” but it is faithful. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Critique of “Holding Biblical Texts in Tension”

A few Sundays ago, I preached a sermon on Psalm 85, which includes a lot of language about the wrath of God. Recognizing that this language has been used abusively in modern times, I spent a little time explaining what it means. "God's wrath" represents the suffering we experience when we (as individuals and as a society) experience the consequences of our own sins. [1] This is not a punishment that God inflicts on us directly, as it is our own actions that create this type of suffering. However, it is a punishment that God inflicts on us indirectly, by stepping back from the situation and allowing sin to run its course. Because sin is intrinsically destructive, this indirect response truly constitutes punishment, for sin – left to itself – will leave its captives in torment. This is, by the way, the essence of hell, which theologians have long defined as the absence of God. [2]

A few days after I preached this message, a member of my congregation sent me a very respectful email that challenged me on this subject. He wrote, "Regarding your observation that God's response to sin in the examples cited was to step back and let the consequences fall as they may, were you suggesting that that is one of several ways God responds to sin in the Biblical record?" [3] As a matter of fact, that is not what I was suggesting. I was pushing it further, claiming that this is a privileged definition of God’s wrath by which we should interpret divine wrath whenever it comes up. Nevertheless, as a Biblical scholar, I can’t help but appreciate the insight of his question. Undoubtedly, there are several cases in the Bible in which “God’s wrath” indicates something vindictive or retributive, not in keeping with the “indirect” interpretation of God’s wrath that I promoted above. I can’t deny that God was
directly punishing sin in the stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and the striking down Herod in Acts 12. Furthermore if I am being rigorously honest, I must also admit that these destructive stories conflict with other Biblical descriptions of God as loving and merciful. [4] So, the million-dollar question is, what should Christians make of conflicting passages of Scripture? If we are called to make claims about God on the basis of the Bible, how can we do this when the Bible itself offers differing views of God?

For our current purposes, I would like to suggest that there are three basic responses to this problem of internal Biblical conflict. First, one could simply affirm those passages that conform to one description of God and ignore or reject those that conflict with that description. This is often dismissively referred to as “picking and choosing,” but there are some intriguing arguments in favor of this approach. [5] Second, we could do what the majority of Christian theologians have done through the centuries, which is to try to find unity within those conflicting passages. This is commonly referred to as “harmonizing,” and it usually involves re-interpreting the texts we find problematic in new ways so that they cohere with the texts we find attractive. These interpretations are not always convincing, but they give us a way to affirm the whole Bible. Finally, a third approach would be to acknowledge that there are irreconcilable differences in the Bible and to make a commitment neither to ignore nor to harmonize these differences. This is generally referred to as “holding Biblical texts in tension,” and it strives for honesty and faithfulness, but at the cost of coming to any concrete conclusions about what the Bible says. 

In seminary, the preference of my professors and classmates was overwhelmingly for option #3: “holding texts in tension.” We were taught that the good scholar or the good pastor acknowledges the conflict or “tension” of Biblical arguments and doesn’t try to twist them to fit her theology. Undoubtedly, there are some merits to this approach. From a scholarly perspective, your best chance at learning something new from a text begins when you set aside your agenda and listen to what it has to say. From a spiritual perspective, acknowledging that the Bible is complex and that you can’t make every verse fit together is an exercise in humility. Upon affirming this approach, my professors guaranteed that the other two approaches would be viewed with some disdain. Anyone who tried to make a Biblical argument that selectively emphasized a certain set of verses would be accused of not “holding the texts in tension.” [6] As a result, we were encouraged to hold the pro-government and anti-government elements in Scripture in tension, the demand for order in the Church and the promise of freedom in the Spirit in tension, the different presentations of God’s wrath in tension, etc.

This is all well and good until you are confronted with a situation in the real world that demands a Biblical response. If you find yourself in a situation where you must choose whether or not to obey the unjust demands of an oppressive government, or whether the need for church order is great enough that you should muffle your concerns about a congregation’s unfaithfulness, or if you are asked whether someone’s premature death is a manifestation of the wrath of God, it won’t suffice to offer a list of verses that could be used on either side of the argument. These situations need a “Yes” or “No.” Now, it should probably be a nuanced “Yes” or “No,” one that proceeds cautiously and sensitively, one that acknowledges the weaknesses embedded in it, one that recognizes its own fallibility, etc. Nevertheless, Christians are required and empowered to speak a clear word of truth in these kinds of complex situations. And the moment that we do that, as soon as we take a stance on the basis of some Biblical texts – with the awareness that other texts could be cited which would oppose this stance – it becomes clear that we do, in fact, have an interpretive preference, that we do privilege some verses over others, and that we are already involved in harmonizing the Bible. And what is wrong with that? Jesus privileged certain verses above others, the apostles reinterpreted OT texts so they would conform with the Lordship of Christ, and the Bible itself is intrinsically a harmonization! [7] Although it has its dangers, harmonizing Scripture is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is an inevitable part of preaching the gospel.

One of the dangers of harmonization is that Christians can get so comfortable with their reading of the Bible and so convinced by their own hermeneutic that they are no longer able to be challenged and convicted by the text. I think this is one of the main reasons that my professors encouraged us to “hold texts in tension” rather than to quickly harmonize them: on the surface, this seems to prevent the kind of arrogance that claims to have the Bible completely figured out. However, there is a better way to try to integrate this kind of interpretive humility in our lives: to establish communion with Christians who read Scripture differently. Because other Christians privilege different texts and harmonize the conflicts differently, these brothers and sisters can offer us plenty of opportunity for wrestling with the readings of the Bible that we have come to accept. [8] However, genuine dialogue must begin by acknowledging where each side is coming from, and we can’t do this honestly unless we evaluate and own the ways in which we already harmonize Scripture.

So, given all of that, how should I have answered the church member who challenged me for pushing one reading of God’s wrath over and against other Biblical possibilities? Perhaps like this: “You know, I have to admit that there are Biblical passages that don’t seem to take this view of God’s wrath, and I’m not sure what to do with those. But when I read the Biblical story as a whole, this is my best understanding about what God’s wrath is. If you have a better understanding, which incorporates more of the Biblical record, I’d be open to hearing it. However, I am compelled not just to offer a fair interpretation of texts but to make a proclamation about God. And based on my reading of the Biblical story, I genuinely hold this to be the true nature of God’s wrath. How do you see it?” [9]

End Notes

[1] It took a lot of self-restraint for me not to write this sentence as, “I believe that ‘God’s wrath’ represents the suffering we experience…” Of course, I do believe that God’s wrath represents the suffering that our sin creates, but why does it feel so important to add the words ‘I believe that’ at the beginning of the sentence? If all the words indicate are, “I myself hold this to be true,” then there’s no need for me to write them. After all, if I am telling you that something is true, it’s clearly implied that I also believe it. However, that is not all that the words “I believe” indicate.

When I begin a sentence with “I believe that,” I am lessening the force of my claim by moving it from the realm of fact into the realm of opinion. There it is less threatening because it doesn’t impose a truth on someone else. Consider the difference between these two statements: “Sean Connery was the best James Bond” and “I believe that Sean Connery was the best James Bond.” Although they mean the same thing, the first sentence is asking for a fight, while the second statement is just expressing a sentiment.

Living in the United States, we have learned the pluralistic etiquette that teaches us to present all of our religious beliefs as opinions. We are permitted to have our beliefs, even express our beliefs, so long as we promise to contain them in the realm of opinion rather than fact, faith rather than reason, and the private sphere rather than the public sphere. Christians on both sides of the theological and political continuums have unwittingly embraced these assumptions, which necessarily distorts the radical and political nature of Jesus’ message. Perhaps the most challenging task for Christians today is to drop, “I believe,” from their vocabulary. It’s easy enough to tell your non-Christian friends and neighbors, “I believe that Jesus is Lord.” It’s much harder to say, “Jesus is Lord,” in their presence.

[2] For a more thorough defense of this idea, see my post, "Heaven and Hell Reconsidered"

[3] I received permission from this person to include his question in my blog. I am so grateful to be a part of a congregation of people like him who challenge me and dialogue with me on these things.

[4] Consider Ezekiel 33:11, “‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Also consider 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” These are not the only two verses that oppose a vindictive or retributive view of God’s wrath, nor are the examples cited the only passages that conform to it. This is a deep-running conflict in Scripture. I just offer these as particularly clear articulations of the opposing sides, intentionally showing that they both have a presence in each Testament.

[5] The best arguments I have heard in favor of this selective approach have come from the liberation traditions. These groups point out that specific verses have been particularly responsible for encouraging racism, violence, and genocide, and that these verses should be clearly identified and rejected by churches so that this cycle of violence continues. I am not convinced that this is the only response to oppressive and historically-loaded passages in Scripture, but the point is worth mentioning. The Africana Bible
is a great resource for this kind of thinking.

[6] In my opinion, this is why there is tension between the Biblical and theological departments in many seminaries. Since theologians are no longer allowed to harmonize Scripture, they have no Biblical resources by which to create coherent theologies. Any time they cite Scripture, they risk receiving criticism from their Biblical counterparts for not really understanding the Bible. As a result, they have often times abandoned the Bible as their primary resource and turned to more “centralized” sources such as Augustine, Aquinas, Wesley, etc.

[7] Jesus commonly gave certain texts priority over others. For example, in Matthew 22:34-40, he identified Deut. 6:5 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength,” as the greatest commandment and Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as the second greatest commandment. This clearly shows that some passages have more authority than others. In an interaction with the Pharisees in Mark 10, Jesus argued that Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 should overrule the “concession” that God offered in Deuteronomy 24:1-3.

As far as the apostles go, the New Testament and especially the gospels are FILLED with passages that are often taken out of their original context and given new meaning, as any critical scholar would readily admit. For example, Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:5 in Matt. 2:18 as a prophecy that Herod would slaughter infants to try to kill Jesus. But if you read the actual chapter in Jeremiah, especially the verse that follows it, it is obvious that “Rachel” is bemoaning the diaspora or forcible removal of the Jews from their land, not this specific event. However, I don’t think that Matthew is simply misusing the OT. He is trying to frame Jesus’ story as Israel’s story, so that every stage of his life corresponds to one of the key events in Israel’s history. Thus, this quotation gives new meaning Jeremiah 31:5 without necessarily violating the original meaning.

I argue that the Bible is intrinsically a harmonization because the sixty-six books within it were written without an awareness of all of the others or the expectation that they would be compiled into one great “book,” as one grand religious text. By putting the books together in one volume and calling them “the Bible” (i.e. “the Book”), we predispose believers to embrace the (appropriate) assumption that these texts go together, that they somehow constitute one continuous story. If we were really opposed to harmonizing, then we should call this collection of books, “A Christian Anthology” rather than “The Book.” But once we do that, we will start raising questions about what books should and shouldn’t belong to this anthology, which completely undermines the purpose of “holding texts in tension.”

[8] I suppose I need to qualify this claim. It is possible to be “in conversation” with other Christians without being challenged by them, if we accept the pluralistic framework. That framework says that religious views are interesting particularities that reflect on the people who have them but that don’t have anything to say to people of other religious commitments. Unfortunately, this pluralism threatens to undermine the Biblical call to “encouragement, correction, and rebuke” – or what Methodists call “accountability.” John Howard Yoder taught me that true ecumenism involves critiquing other versions of Christianity while at the same time seeking to listen to my own blind spots that other Christians may see. For more on this, read the anthology of Yoder’s works, The Royal Priesthood.

[9] I didn’t answer him with this much wisdom, but perhaps he will read this blog and it will give him a chance to respond.