Saturday, August 23, 2014

Out This Week - Prayers for Ferguson & Racial Reconciliation

I have been following as closely as I can the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri after an 18-year-old boy named Mike Brown was shot to death by a police officer, even though his hands were raised in surrender, because he was black and the officer was white.

By Their Strange Fruit has details of the situation and important links to more information.  As I white person in a nearly all-white northern U.S. city, I haven't been quite sure what to say, but I find the advice from Janee Woods below very helpful:

Becoming a white ally to black people in the aftermath of the Michael Brown murder
A lot of white people aren’t speaking out publicly against the killing of Michael Brown because they don’t see a space for themselves to engage meaningfully in the conversation so that they can move to action against racism. It’s not so much that they have nothing to say but rather they don’t see an opportunity being opened up for them to say something or to do something that matters. Or they might not be sure what to say or how to do it. They might have a hard time seeing a role for themselves in the fight against racism because they aren’t racist, they don’t feel that racism affects them or their loved ones personally, they worry that talking about race and differences between cultures might make things worse, or they think they rarely see overt racism at play in their everyday lives. And, sometimes, they are afraid. There’s a real fear of saying the wrong thing even if the intention is pure, of being alienated socially and economically from other white people for standing in solidarity with black people, or of putting one’s self in harm’s way, whether the harm be physical or psychological. I’m not saying those aren’t valid fears but I am challenging white people to consider carefully whether failing to speak out or act because of those fears is justified when white silence and inaction mean the oppression and death of black people. 
Let’s talk about an active role for white people in the fight against racism because racism burdens all of us and is destroying our communities.
I am out of town camping with my family this week, and I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said anyway.  But my fervent prayer is that this incident will at last prove to be the turning point that will open the eyes of white people like myself across the country, to make real changes to halt the racism that's still going on in our nation.  I want to echo the apology at Beccyjoy to the family of Michael Brown, to the citizens of Ferguson and to people of color across the nation:
I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’ve had to be so loud to get our attention. I’m sorry that another beautiful boy had to die to make us notice that you are oppressed. I’m sorry that no one is listening. I’m sorry that no one believes your experiences. I’m sorry that this is still happening. I’m sorry for the ignorant, invalidating, and racist comments you’ve had to deal with on top of everything else. I’m sorry that I’ve turned a blind eye to your struggle. I hear you, I believe you, I stand with you for justice. You deserve way better.
I hope that "no one is listening" will change now; that we will listen, and pray, and try to effect change.  As Christina Cleveland says so eloquently:
 Can you see the suffering Christ in the oppressed, even the ones who aren’t responding perfectly to society’s oppression? Christ doesn’t just suffer for the innocent, the ones who don’t have the energy to fight back, or the ones who perfectly respond to injustice. He suffers for the ones who suffer now and sin in their suffering.
I pray that we will see the suffering Christ in the oppressed and stop judging them for not being perfectly patient under oppression we have never experienced ourselves (and thus have no idea how we would handle it).

I ask my readers who are Christians to agree in prayer with these voices:

Accidental Devotional
I began to hear that there was a distinct danger you face every day, if people just assume that you are dangerous because you are black and you are male. And I began to hear the stories of police brutality, of unnecessary aggression, of my sophomore boys being treated like criminals simply because of their bodies. . . 
I began to see that my skin granted me access to pretty much anywhere I wanted to go. I began to see how no one ever starts out aggressively toward me, because I am never seen as a threat. I began to understand that my students, my colleagues, my neighbors were not granted the same access, the same pass. . . 
I am praying the people of this country have softer hearts than mine. I am praying that we are broken over Mike Brown and that brokenness is only a beginning. I am praying we listen when we are told that this is only one of many. I am praying we hear when brown mothers tell us they fear for their babies’ lives. I am praying we do something when our eyes and ears are opened to injustice. I am praying we speak out, we reach out, we educate ourselves. I am praying we care.
Five Minute Friday
Black men have the monopoly on unarmed civilian murder by an officer of the law. It’s a fact. As a Christian, I look to my community to share the burden, the questions surrounding racism in America and how we can move forward. I’m trying to navigate this without being written off as another angry black woman. And I don’t want to be quietly spiritually shunned from all the online communities I love, for saying what you have to already know. 
I don’t have to tell you, do I? – Racism is real. . .
God you are greater, greater…
I sang softly, swaying back and forth wringing my hands. Eyes closed. . .
God wasn't upset with me for being angry. And He hadn’t asked me to be quiet. He took those keys with Holy Spirit force. Sometimes that’s what it takes. 
Please understand. 
Being Christian doesn’t exclude us from the conversation. We have to speak up. To be clear, I understand we aren’t all called to every conversation and maybe you won’t write about it, but standing in solidarity with a hashtag or sharing posts you’ve read that resonate with the spirit of Christ and reconciliation could be a beginning.

Shalom In the City
I can’t do anything tangible with these hands, but raise them high. Lord, we are restless for change and anxious for hope. We are witnesses of injustice. We are the women at the foot of the cross, empower us to stay through the torment so that we can be present to bind up wounds and then—see resurrection. 
I raise my hands to God who out of his great love for his children heard their cries and carved a path towards justice when there seemed to be no way. Make a way in Ferguson, MO, Lord. Make a way and drown the Enemy of your peace in your waves of Justice.
Today, I raise my hands because the truth is Black Lives Matter and black kids don’t have to be college-bound for their deaths to be tragic. I raise my hands for the truth that Jesus identified with the poor, broken, marginalized, and ignored. I raise my hands because Jesus is our Truth and he will make us free.
God bless all of you.  See you next week.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Sola Scriptura"?

"Sola scriptura" is the Protestant doctrine of "scripture alone."  Here is a portion of the definition from
Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian. The Bible is complete, authoritative, and true. . . Sola scriptura was the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation. . . The only way to know for sure what God expects of us is to stay true to what we know He has revealed—the Bible. We can know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that Scripture is true, authoritative, and reliable. The same cannot be said of tradition. 
The Word of God is the only authority for the Christian faith. Traditions are valid only when they are based on Scripture and are in full agreement with Scripture. Traditions that contradict the Bible are not of God and are not a valid aspect of the Christian faith. Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible. The essence of sola scriptura is basing your spiritual life on the Bible alone and rejecting any tradition or teaching that is not in full agreement with the Bible.
"Sola scriptura" encapsulates Protestant principles regarding church tradition-- and though historically this has generally referred to Roman Catholic tradition, it can refer to any church tradition. As a Protestant, I support the concept that church traditions-- even Protestant ones!-- should be tested in terms of whether they are supported by Scripture.  But the assumptions underlying this Protestant principle sometimes go completely unexamined, with the result that "sola scriptura" can potentially become a virtually incoherent teaching that is used to support authoritarian and spiritually abusive church practices.

Notice the statement in the quote above: "Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible." The unexamined assumption here is that subjectivity actually can be avoided-- that the Bible provides a method for examining church teachings and practices with a completely objective standard.

The problem is that we read the Bible as finite humans, and though we as Christians trust that God is the source and foundation of objective truth, we are not God and not capable of fully understanding God, nor can we fully step outside our own subjectivity.  The doctrine of sola scriptura sometimes leads us to assume that we can, as N. T. Wright puts it, "read the Bible straight":
There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’. This is rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this) that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true the Church of England believes it. This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to have any ‘tradition’, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not wish that the claim be pressed. But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply na├»ve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying.
 The fact is that "scriptura" by its very nature is a book that people read, so it cannot stand "sola" -- alone and isolated from the humans who read it.  Every time we read the Bible, we are seeing it through the windows of our own experience, and understanding it according to our own reasoning. And this practically always encompasses at least some church tradition regarding how to understand the text.  So sola scriptura, instead of giving us an objective means for judging the legitimacy of church tradition, ends up merely giving us the illusion of objectivity, while we fail to notice or examine the church traditions and other underlying factors which affect the way we understand the Bible texts.

That doesn't mean there's anything necessarily wrong with those traditional readings.  The consensus of a faith community on the meaning of a text is one check-and-balance against wild and erroneous readings that an individual might come up with on their own.  But faith communities are also human, and some traditional readings uphold human bastions of power and/or reflect human prejudices.  Protestantism arose because Christians like Martin Luther began to question and challenge the existing bastions of power-- but Protestantism itself soon adopted its own traditions and power structures.  Sometimes we Protestants fail to understand the extent to which our sola scriptura doctrine is informed by Protestant interpretative traditions.

And then there's this.  When we say, as does, that "Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian," we have to face the fact that "scripture alone" has simply failed to yield one self-evident and incontrovertible meaning for each of its texts.  The reason is, of course, that scripture simply does not stand alone, but must be read and interpreted.  This doesn't mean that each interpretation of scripture is equally valid-- some methods of interpretation are more likely to yield truer results in terms of both the original human and the divine intent.  But always, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we see "through a glass, darkly."  We can't prove the human author's intent and we can't always fully grasp the divine intent.  So our reliance on sola scriptura as the rule for our faith and practice turns out not to actually be reliance on an objective and certain standard.

Ultimately, we have to rely on the Spirit of God to "guide us into all truth (John 16:13)."  But though Jesus said, "Your word is truth (John 17:17)," He also said earlier in the same passage that He is the truth (John 14:6)-- and we know from John 1:1 that He is also the word!  As I have said in another post, God seems to place much more priority on our trusting Him than on whether we are right about what a given passage of scripture means.  I don't get the impression that the Holy Spirit is particularly threatened by how many different understandings of Bible passages there are.  The truth He guides us into is apparently something much bigger than being right about what this or that scripture says.

The real problem comes when a particular church group uses sola scriptura to uphold their particular reading of the Bible as if that reading and the divine intent were one and the same. Protestant churches that do this are actually setting themselves up as a new magisterium with the power to dictate to their members how to believe and practice.  "Sola scriptura" can come to mean, "Disregard your own experience and reason, and ignore your gut instincts about right and wrong-- they are not to be trusted.  Only the Bible (and by that we actually mean 'what we have decided the Bible says') is to be trusted."  Claiming that the scripture is "clear" and that anyone who questions it is rebelling against God, they actually raise themselves up to the place of God in the lives of their followers.

I believe we do need to take the Bible very seriously and to do our best to understand it the way God would have us understand it.  But we need to do this with humility and with the knowledge that the center of Christianity is the Person of Christ-- that the Bible points us to Him, not the other way around.

"Sola scriptura" without that understanding is simply bibliolatry-- idolatry of the Bible. And it's dangerous.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Forgotten Women in Church History: Amanda Smith
Amanda Smith (1837-1915) was an African-American evangelist and missionary of remarkable spiritual power, affiliated with the Wesleyan Holiness movement of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Amanda Smith's entire autobiography is available online here. She was born in Maryland to slave parents, but her father was enabled by his relatively kind masters to purchase the family's freedom.  Their new home in Pennsylvania became a station on the Underground Railroad.

Amanda's first husband was a Union soldier who was killed in the Civil War.  Her second husband was a deacon through whom she converted to Christianity. Four of her five children died before reaching adulthood; only one daughter, Mazie, survived.

Smith became active in the Holiness movement and followed Phoebe Palmer's doctrine of "entire sanctification," seeking a direct religious experience of God's love and grace.  She received this experience in 1868, accompanied by a beautiful revelation:
And when they sang these words, "Whose blood now cleanseth," O what a wave of glory swept over my soul! . . . I don't know just how I looked, but I felt so wonderfully strange, yet I felt glorious. One of the good official brethren at the door said, as I was passing out, "Well, auntie, how did you like that sermon?" but I could not speak; if I had, I should have shouted, but I simply nodded my head. Just as I put my foot on the top step I seemed to feel a hand, the touch of which I cannot describe. It seemed to press me gently on the top of my head, and I felt something part and roll down and cover me like a great cloak! I felt it distinctly; it was done in a moment, and O what a mighty peace and power took possession of me! I started up Green street. . . .

Somehow I always had a fear of white people—that is, I was not afraid of them in the sense of doing me harm, or anything of that kind— but a kind of fear because they were white, and were there, and I was black and was here! But that morning on Green street, as I stood on my feet trembling, I heard these words distinctly. They seemed to come from the northeast corner of the church, slowly, but clearly: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28.) I never understood that text before. But now the Holy Ghost had made it clear to me. And as I looked at white people that I had always seemed to be afraid of, now they looked so small. The great mountain had become a mole-hill. "Therefore, if the Son shall make you free, then are you free, indeed."
This brief article summarizes Smith's life after this experience:
Following her second husband's death in 1869, Smith began preaching in churches and at Holiness camp meetings in New York and New Jersey, becoming a popular speaker to both black and white audiences during the 1870s. Although she was not ordained or financially supported by the AME Church or any other organization, she became the first black woman to work as an international evangelist in 1878. She served for twelve years in England, Ireland, Scotland, India, and various African countries. 
In 1892, Amanda Smith returned to the United States and settled in Chicago where she continued preaching. In 1899, Smith opened a home for black orphans, later called the Amanda Smith Industrial School for Girls in Harvey, Illinois. She wrote a monthly newspaper, the Helper, which augmented her fundraising efforts for the school, and published her autobiography in 1893. She retired to Sebring, Florida in 1912, and died in March 1915.
Bishop J. M. Thoburn of India, wrote in his introduction to Amanda Smith's autobiography about his first encounter with her:
Something like a hallowed glow seemed to rest upon the dark face before me, and I felt in a second that she was possessed of a rare degree of spiritual power.  That invisible something which we are accustomed to call power, and which is never possessed by any Christian believer except as one of the fruits of the indwelling Spirit of God, was hers in a marked degree. . . 
Her homely illustrations, her quaint expressions, her warmhearted appeals, all possess the supreme merit of being so many vehicles for conveying the living truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the hearts of those who are fortunate enough to hear her. . . 
The novelty of a colored woman from America, who had in her childhood been a slave, appearing before an audience in Calcutta, was sufficient to attract attention, but this alone would not account for the popularity which she enjoyed throughout her whole stay in our city. 
She was fiercely attacked by narrow minded persons in the daily papers, and elsewhere, but opposition only seemed to add to her power. 
During the seventeen years that I have lived in Calcutta, I have known many famous strangers to visit the city, some of whom attracted large audiences, but I have never known anyone who could draw and hold so large an audience as Mrs. Smith.
Like Jerena Lee before her, Amanda Smith felt the call to preach despite the African Methodist's church's general policy against it.  But she raised the money herself and began her preaching ministry independently, with remarkable results:
There was a large congregation. The gallery was full, and every part of the house was packed. I stood up trembling. The cold chills ran over me. My heart seemed to stand still. Oh, it was a night. But the Lord gave me great liberty in speaking. After I had talked a little while the cold chills stopped, my heart began to beat naturally and all fear was gone, and I seemed to lose sight of everybody and everything but my responsibility to God and my duty to the people. . .

[The next] Thursday night was the regular prayer meeting night. Brother Cooper said I was there, and would preach Thursday night. He was going to give me a chance to preach, and he wanted all the people to come out. . .

The church was packed and crowded. I began my talk from the chapter given, with great trembling. I had gone on but a little ways when I felt the spirit of the Lord come upon me mightily. Oh! how He helped me. My soul was free. . . [W]hen I asked for persons to come to the altar, it was filled in a little while from the gallery and all parts of the house.

A revival broke out, and spread for twenty miles around. Oh! what a time it was. It went from the colored people to the white people. Sometimes we would go into the church at seven o'clock in the evening. I could not preach. The whole lower floor would be covered with seekers— old men, young men, old women, young women, boys and girls. Oh! glory to God! How He put His seal on this first work to encourage my heart and establish my faith, that He indeed had chosen, and ordained and sent me.
Amanda went on to travel as an independent missionary for many years. The Women's Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary's article A Method for Empowering Women notes that "Smith’s preaching fueled the holiness revival begun by Palmer." Like Palmer, Amanda Smith was never formally ordained. But she believed that God Himself had ordained her-- and if "ordain" means "make someone a minister," it appears she was right.  In any event, from all appearances the Holy Spirit really didn't care what the church's policies were about women ministering to men, or black people calling for white people's repentance and conversion-- or what anyone thought of Smith's race or sex.

A 1989 Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy's article Empowered Foremothers speaks of the ministries of women like Phoebe Palmer, Jerena Lee and Amanda Smith:
The authority or command of the Holy Spirit superseded any command by mere man. The Biblical injunction of Acts 5:29 to obey God rather than man became the basis for Wesleyan/Holiness women to challenge the authority of those who attempted to prevent them from preaching. Employing this verse, Palmer explicitly challenged male ecclesiastical authority: "Where church order is at variance with divine order, it were better to obey God than man." . . .

Women asserted their autonomy as they claimed their allegiance to God rather than to men. The belief that women ultimately had to answer to God for their actions opened the way for women to challenge attempts to restrict their religious activities. A comment by the compiler of Phoebe Palmer's letters illustrates the implications of this conviction: "It is always right to obey the Holy Spirit's command, and if that is laid upon a woman to preach the Gospel, then it is right for her to do so. . . .
The Louisville Presbyterian article cited above expands on this by noting how such devotion to God can be empowering to women, particularly when personal religious experience is brought into play:
The opening for women’s leadership and the expression of women’s faith and gifts that Methodism provided arose from a theology that acknowledged the significance of personal experience as one avenue to knowledge of God’s will. By crediting experience, discernment, and a perception of the movement of the Holy Spirit in immediate circumstances, it became possible to weigh this evidence in balance with isolated texts of Scripture that seemed to prohibit women’s preaching or authoritative participation in church life, to come to new conclusions, and to challenge scholastic objections. These women’s practice then further generated persuasive experience of women’s callings in their listeners.
The fact is that the Bible has far more to say to women than the words in a few apparently restrictive texts.  The Bible reflects the callings of many women in texts like Romans 16, 1 Corinthians 1:11 and Philippians 4:2.  The Bible also points beyond itself to the personal empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all Christ's followers, as demonstrated by the pouring out of the Spirit "on all flesh," male and female alike, in Acts 2.

In Acts 15 the earliest church council yielded to the Holy Spirit's power released on Cornelius's household in Acts 10, as superseding the apparently clear Bible texts requiring circumcision for Gentile converts.  The Spirit's power on Amanda Smith to preach and lead evangelistic church services despite her sex, was apparently just as incontrovertible to most of those who witnessed it in her day.

Smith's final project on returning home from her missionary work, was to establish in 1899 the first orphanage for black children in Illinois, according to this excerpt from Illinois Heritage Magazine 1998:
When Amanda Smith decided to establish the orphanage after finishing her book, it is obvious that she had seen and known the effects of discrimination and was willing to discuss and deal with issues of what we would now call racist practices. Because of her multiple involvements in church and temperance organizations, she was no doubt well aware of both the growing discrimination and segregation in urban areas and also the needs of black children. . . It seemed clear in the face of continuing and growing discrimination that, not only in the South, but throughout the country, the mutual aid tradition within African American communities was necessary in caring for the elderly, the disabled and others in need, including orphans.
 Perhaps in this way Smith was comforted for the four babies she had birthed and lost before they could grow up.  But one thing is clear: she lived the faith she preached, caring for "the least of these" long after her preaching ministry was over.

Amanda Smith's life and ministry is not widely taught in Christian churches today.  Outside the Methodist tradition, I doubt that many Christians have even heard of her.   But her voice speaks to us from 121 years ago, reminding us that religious restrictions on the ministry of women have never been uniformly enforced in Christianity as a whole:
There were then [when she first felt God's call] but few of our ministers that were favorable to women's preaching or taking any part, I mean in a public way; but, thank God, there always were a few men that dared to stand by woman's liberty in this, if God called her. . . but it is different now. We have women deaconesses, and leaders, and women in all departments of church work. May God in mercy save us from the formalism of the day, and bring us back to the old time spirituality and power of the fathers and mothers. I often feel as I look over the past and compare it with the present, to say: "Lord, save, or we perish."
 When it comes to women in ministry, it seems to me that the movement of the Holy Spirit towards freedom and empowerment struggles constantly with traditional forces of restriction and control.  But in the end the Holy Spirit cannot be denied.  So I'll add my voice to Amanda Smith's from 1893, pleading for spirituality and power over formalism and restrictive rules:

"Lord, save, or we perish."

And in the end, save us He will.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Seeking the God Beyond God

Blogger PerfectNumber recently wrote a post called Could He Really Accept Me As I Am? I Mean, REALLY ACCEPT.  Using a hypothetical "other" voice, she speaks as if she were calling herself back to a kind of understanding of Jesus, God and Christianity that she can no longer accept: 
Perfect Number, he accepts you as you are, and he will guide you and give you time and help you to change into a "good Christian." 
He'll take you back to the way you were before, forgiving all this straying, all this questioning and the blasphemous things I've said on my blog. 
Yes, he accepts you as you are, even though you don't believe in purity, and you don't oppose gay rights, and you *gasp* have even been deceived into thinking abortion might sometimes be okay. 
It's okay, Perfect Number. Come back to Jesus. 
And I fear that's the deal. And that's why I don't want to come back to [that version of] Jesus.  I won't give him everything. I don't surrender. Obedience to God is not the highest thing in my life. 
You guys, I want love to be the highest thing.
And life. And freedom. 
And no matter what Jesus says, I won't go along with anything that is, as far as I can tell, incompatible with love and life and freedom. [Emphases in original.]
And then there's the story Vyckie Garrison of No Longer Quivering once told.  This was on an old message board that is now defunct, so I can't share the link, but in the "Quiverfull" movement, women are often burdened with the requirement to eschew all birth control regardless of whether their own health, or even their lives, are in danger.  Vyckie tells the story of a husband who loved his wife enough to refuse to go along with this:
"I had a friend who was bedridden with every pregnancy and each time it was worse ~ not life-threatening, but just really miserable. After the 6th, her husband asserted his "authority" over her ~ and had a vasectomy. He refused to put his wife through that any more.

I remember feeling so jealous ~ I couldn't imagine having a such a decisive husband who was willing to take the responsibility to say, "No more" himself ~ and I was really impressed when he told me, "It may not be the right thing scripturally ~ but if God has a problem with it, He can take it up with me. I will not do that to my wife again." Wow ~ a god-fearing man willing to take on the Lord in defense of his wife. That's love like I have rarely seen."
While I disagree in general with husbands "asserting authority" over their wives, in this case I can't help but see the husband as doing the most loving thing he could in a no-win situation. But I have to ask: what kind of a god is this, that an ordinary human man can so easily outdo him in love and compassion? A deity who would insist on "the right thing scripturally" to the real harm of its followers-- who cares more about rigid rules than about people?

Jesus said in Luke 10:27 that the whole law is encapsulated in this: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart. . . and your neighbor as yourself."  And then when asked "who is my neighbor?" He told the story of the Good Samaritan, the hated outcast who treated a member of the story-hearers' own people with care and compassion.  So the question is, if our enemy is our neighbor, how can our spouse not be our neighbor?  Surely despite whatever this Quiverfull couple's church said, the husband could not have been disobeying God if he loved his wife as himself?

And if "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and if "the truth shall set you free" (John 8:32), then how could Perfect Number be going against Jesus if she's prioritizing love and life and freedom?*  And why should obedience to God be the highest thing in her life if it's not obedience to love?  If we're not obeying love, are we obeying God at all?

The way I see it, if we find we want to be, and can be, morally better than our conception of God, then what we're following isn't God. According to St. Anselm, God is "That than which nothing higher can be conceived." If we can easily conceive of a better, a morally higher God, then our god is too small-- it's only a caricature of God. The better, higher version is closer to the God we're really searching for, the One we should be seeking.

James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix defines the common phrase "God Beyond God":
This is the very ancient idea that, beyond any sort of anthropomorphic deity that we may think of and tell stories about, there must be an even greater reality that transcends our ability to comprehend and describe.
The Christian idea of God has always been an idea of transcendence, of an Entity beyond human conception, but which makes Itself known to humanity using ideas we can understand.
There are a number of places in the Bible where, despite the fact that the writers' human understanding of God was limited (as ours is too), the idea of a "God beyond God" shines through.
  • God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM"; and He said, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" Exodus 3:14. 
  • For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9. 
  • He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. . . . 1 Timothy 6:15-16. 
  • The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things. . . . Acts 17:24-25.
If we mistake God's accommodation of God's Self to our limited understanding, for the real God, then we are re-making God in our own image and ascribing to God our own limitations.  We make God into what Joe Hinman on his blog The Religious A Priori calls "just a big guy in the sky."

The result is that we can then end up with a god which is little more than a big stick used to enforce religious control.  Rules get prioritized over people, and obedience to those rules gets mistaken for devotion.  And then when someone protests and tries to seek a more transcendent idea of God, their very seeking is construed as rebellion and disobedience!

To this, some might respond that what looks like love to us sinful humans isn't really love, or that God is holy just as much as God is love, so have to mix our love with hatred of sin.  To this I would reply that love is holy-- because sin is that which hurts ourselves or others, and love will always oppose people hurting themselves or other people.  And anyway, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 shows what love is:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
To bring the familiar words into clearer focus, let's paraphrase the verses using opposites:
Love is never impatient; love is never cruel.  Love is pleased when others do well, love draws attention to the accomplishments of others, love is humble.  Love honors others and seeks their good.  Love stays calm and supportive; love is only angered by the giving of real harm.  Love keeps memories of the joys and triumphs of others.  Love never abandons, never becomes judgmental, never sees the worst in people, and doesn't view loved ones with disappointment or cynicism.  Love never gives up on you.  Love goes on and on. 
Anything counter to this kind of love is not holiness.  And any version of God that is impatient, cruel or any of these other things isn't holy either.

So I say if we're going to seek God, let's keep seeking the God beyond God.  No matter what anyone else says.

*Note:  I know that taking snippets of verses like this can look like proof-texting, which means lifting pieces of scripture out of context to make it say whatever you want.  But I believe that the snippets I'm quoting do bring across the meaning I am intending to convey here, when they are taken in context. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Why the Church Needs Feminism

Today I'm contributing to the Faith & Feminism synchroblog occurring this week, which "invite[s] feminists of all faiths to reflect with us on the interplay between feminist praxis and religious faith." Reading some of the amazing posts there, I'm mostly reminded of how little I know about oppression; how as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class woman, I dabble at the edges of intersectional feminism, trying to open my eyes and ears to see and hear beyond my own privilege.

But I'm learning.  Thanks to Sarah Bessey's wonderful book on the subject, I have already shared why I'm a Jesus Feminist despite the tendency in Christianity to reject and even vilify "feminism" as a term:
Because neither Jesus nor feminism should be defined according to how they are represented by vocal extremes. 
Because my Savior came to proclaim liberty to the captives. Because feminism, when not defined by extremes, proclaims the simple truth that women and men are equal in humanity, equal in dignity, equal in worth.

Equal, Jesus feminism adds, in Imago Dei, the image of God. Equal in the pouring out of God's Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17). For the sake of the gospel of Christ, who said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10), a woman must be free.
I do believe feminism is about the same the principles of human worth and equality that are encapsulated in the gospel.  But recently I've been reading arguments (particularly from comments on Rachel Held Evans' contribution this week) that use the gospel to claim feminism is unnecessary and superfluous for Christians.

Summarized, the argument says, "What does the church have to do with feminism?  All the church needs is the gospel.  The gospel teaches the worth of every human being in the sight of God.  The gospel teaches that we are all equally sinners and equally in need of grace.  The gospel already teaches the equality and worth of women and minorities. We don't need feminism, we just need Jesus."

And in a way they're right.  The gospel really should be all we need.

The problem is that it isn't.

We, the church both historically and in the present, are just too fond of ignoring the implications of the gospel, of narrowing the gospel's scope to the zone of our comfort. We like the concept of spiritual family, but we prefer our spiritual family to consist of people very much like ourselves.  We haven't realized that all people are equal in the sight of God and should be treated accordingly-- either in theology or in practice. Instead, the church has generally used the power of religion to uphold traditional hierarchies and power structures.

So here's why the church as a whole needs those voices (including but not limited to the voice of feminism) that demand she hold to the full implications of the gospel that she would so often rather ignore:

To shake the church loose from traditions that should be jettisoned.

One of the strengths of religion is that it safeguards orthodoxies and traditions that are valuable, that should not be lost in the tides of time.   But this is also one of its greatest weaknesses.  Traditions that in their essence deny the gospel's implications-- deny the full human dignity and worth of "the least of these"-- often become set in stone.  Anyone who introduces a new idea that jostles the status quo ("Maybe God and the Bible are not actually against women leading churches!") often gets in response, "How can you go against 2000 years of church history?"

Feminism, and particularly intersectional feminism, asks if church traditions are really more important than human dignity and equality.  It challenges Christians to shake off the blinders and see where their status-quo interpretations of the Bible might actually mean they have "let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions (Mark 7:8)." 

To show the church what real justice means.

Here in the West we tend to think of "justice" mainly in terms of the punishment of wrongdoers.  Our "justice system" is all about catching crooks and stopping cheats.  As Christians we often speak of the tension between justice and mercy, and how Christ's sacrifice satisfied God's justice so that we could attain mercy.  "Justice" to us is generally a term that describes something negative (dealing with wrong) rather than positive (dispensing right).  But the Bible often uses the word "justice" in a much more positive sense.  Isaiah 42:3 says (prophesying the ministry of the Messiah):  "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice (emphasis added)."  In Matthew 1:18-19, Joseph decides to divorce Mary quietly rather than putting her to public shame-- and the text does not say this was because he was a "merciful" man, but because he was a "just" man.

Kenneth Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, says:
Here justice means compassion for the weak and exhausted. . . Joseph looked beyond the penalties of the law in order to [show] tenderness . . .This . . . definition of justice required a compassionate concern for the weak, the downtrodden and the outcasts in their need. 
Feminism insists that justice is about more than punishing criminals.  It focuses on changing entrenched, systemic inequalities that marginalize, harm and oppress.  If the church will listen to what feminism has to say about real justice, we will find ourselves moving closer to a more complete picture of justice as shown in the Bible.

To persuade the church to stop justifying oppression.

When the church tells women they exist for men or makes them responsible for men's lust; when the church focuses on upholding its privilege in the public square and refuses to notice our participation in systemic racism; when the church is more interested in punishing LGBT people than feeding children, then we, the church, need voices like intersectional feminism to point out where we need to examine ourselves.  It's too easy to "clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside [be] full of greed and wickedness (Luke 11:39)."  

So often we simply spiritualize away human dignity and equality, making it about salvation only, so that we don't have to change our earthly practices of inequality and subordination.  Feminism is very good at pointing out that this is pretty much the same sort of thing James 2:15-16 warns against:
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?
Equality that certain groups can only enjoy in the next world, is of no practical use at all.  It isn't comfortable, I know, to have this brought to our attention, and it's understandable if we don't like the messenger!  But this is a truth we need to hear nonetheless.

To teach the church the humility of accepting truth from outsiders.

Jesus and Paul both taught that Christian believers are of one family, with God as our Father.  The problem is that we tend to get tribal about this, viewing the world through us-vs-them glasses. Sometimes we don't think anyone outside our group could possibly have anything valuable for us to listen to.  But the gospel accounts show us numerous times where complete outsiders "got it" better than Jesus' own disciples-- such as the Roman centurion in Luke 7:9 or the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.

Samantha Field on her blog Defeating the Dragons wrote this week about how feminism helped her realize what Christianity should have taught her, but didn't:
I listen to our stories, now. I don’t dismiss the individual because their experience isn’t my experience. I’ve learned to value that vast diversity of experiences and perspectives in a way that I’ve never been able to before. . . .  
Because of feminism, I’ve learned to respect myself. The Christian cultures I’ve been a part of, from fundamentalism to non-denominational evangelicalism, have tried to teach me to be ashamed of my sexuality, to see myself as dirty, to think of myself primarily as a subordinate to another person. Feminism has given me the ability to recognize myself as a person whose voice deserves to be listened to. I am a child of God, created with the imago dei, and I have gifts and abilities and talents that should not be ignored. 
But, most importantly, feminism has shown me how to follow Jesus better. Feminism has shown me how to love my neighbor, how to show grace and compassion and empathy, how to defend those who cannot defend themselves. For the first time in my life, when I see the poor and the orphan and the widow, the least of these, I see Jesus. [Emphases in original]
Learning that we don't have all the answers, that there is wisdom to be gained from other voices and movements, is nothing but good for us.  An attitude that says "the gospel is all we need" is at its heart, just plain spiritual pride.  Especially because we use that word "gospel" so lightly, without consideration of all that this gospel means.

So I say that we, the church, do need feminism.  We need not agree with every stance of every branch of feminism, but we need to listen and consider what feminism is telling us.  1 Thessalonians 5:19-20 says, "Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good."  There is a Bible story about how God once used a donkey to impart a message to a prophet.  So how can we say the Holy Spirit only uses Christians to speak to the church?

Let's listen to feminism wherever it speaks truth.  Because when it comes to our own gospel, we still have a lot to learn.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Falling into the Holes in Their Own Thought"

(Cross-posted from Bible Literature Translation)

I have been following a blogsphere conversation that Bible Literature Translation (among others) has been involved in, particularly in its Noting Abusive Theologians post, where blog contributor GaudeteTheology noted:
In my class on the History of Systematic Theology, my classmates and I were shocked to learn from our professor (not from any of our books) that Paul Tillich had extramarital affairs, including sexual contacts with his students which certainly today would be considered sexual harassment at best, abusive at worst. It generated an important discussion about the extent to which we could rely on the intellectual work of a theologian whose life showed such serious failings in his ability to “walk the talk,” on the one hand; and the extent to which all of us are sinners, and thus all theologians are sinners, so why do we expect anything different, on the other. . . 
(I do not recall whether the discussion broke out along gender lines; I do recall that another woman student and I were among the most vocally horrified, and that our professor, a man, was rather strongly making the case that we shouldn’t be surprised or concerned.)
[M]y immediate response to learning of this theologian’s persistent sinful patterns of behavior was to question whether and how it reflected on the value of his theology. It seems a screamingly obvious question to me.
This last week Fred Clark at Slacktivist contributed more to this discussion.  Clark's post is in response to Roger Olson's recent question, "Should a theologian's life affect how we regard his/her theology?" Leaving aside for now the issue of whether all sins should be viewed in the same light (whether we should, as Clark thinks Olson does, put excessive beer-drinking in the same category as advocating the slaughter of peasants), I found Clark's post very helpful in providing an alternative to either dismissing a person's theology because of his personal life, or dismissing a person's personal life because of her theology.

Clark says:
It is, rather, a vitally important matter of identifying the way these men fell into the holes in their own thought so that we can avoid falling into those holes ourselves. We can’t shrug off Yoder’s sexual abuse or Jefferson’s slave-owning as, in Olson’s compartmentalizing phrase, “sides to their personal lives that we cannot be proud of". . . 
Did Luther’s anti-Semitism “affect” his theology, or did his theology foster his anti-Semitism? Yes, both. Did George Whitefield’s slave-owning shape his otherworldly revivalism or did his otherworldly revivalism rationalize his slave-owning? Yes, both. 
The inability to recognize that cause and effect can flow both ways makes it unlikely that Olson will be able to “use it but highlight those areas” where the taint of this “scandalous action” can be identified as a discrete, separate compartment of thought. That’s not how humans work.
I think it is important to avoid the ad hominem fallacy when considering this question. After all, the truth or falsehood of a statement is not changed by the nature of the person who makes it. But (and this is an important "but") individual statements of truth or falsehood don't exist in a vacuum. They are each one bit of a whole system of thought subscribed to by the person making them. And often, human beings being what they are, inconsistencies and even outright contradictions can exist within a person's system of thought. These inconsistencies and contradictions often come from unexamined assumptions and prejudices within the person who is writing or speaking. The cognitive dissonance thus created is often assuaged by some small cheat, such as an unacknowledged change in the definitions of the words being used. For instance, Thomas Jefferson's idea that all people are equal is one tenet of his thought. The idea that certain kinds of humans aren't really people is another tenet of the same man's thought: the one that justified both slaveholding and the ongoing rape of certain of his female slaves. Both ideas have to be taken into account in order to make proper sense of Jefferson. The fact that equality depends on how "people" are defined is a weakness in his system of thought that needs to be recognized. In fact, it's a weakness that he either introduced or allowed, in order to justify his personal behavior to himself.

We can't ignore Jefferson's weakness relating to who gets defined as fully human, if we want to avoid falling into similar traps in our own thinking.

Roger Olson's reasoning on the subject is as follows:
If we were to discount the value of every theologian whose life was in some way scandalous our library shelves would be much less burdened down. And perhaps our theological thinking poorer. And I didn’t even mention all the German theologians and biblical scholars who supported National Socialism! 
Having said all that, I have to add this. If those German theologians allowed their pro-Nazi sympathies to infect their writings we would all, I suspect, decline to use them in our courses. So, to the extent that a theologian allowed his infidelities, racial prejudices, wrong political views, to affect his scholarship, I believe we must inevitably either 1) discard his scholarship, or 2) use it but highlight those areas where the scandalous parts of his life affected it. 
However, to the extent that the theologian’s scandalous actions did not affect his theology (or biblical scholarship) I see no reason to make much of them. They should probably be mentioned in a biography but there’s no need to reject his whole theology because of them.
Olson's writing here, I think, reveals his tendency to think in just the sort of binaries I have asserted we should try to avoid-- that either a theologian's theology has been affected by his personal life, or it hasn't; and that it's possible for it not to have been. And where it has been so affected, if it's not too pervasive it's possible to cut away those places like a bit of mold on a piece of cheese, leaving the rest good and usable. However, if the taint of the theologian's personal life is too pervasive, the entire theology must be discarded.

But I'm afraid we humans really don't work that way. We are all a mixture of bad and good acting and thinking. Our thinking does affect the way we act, and the way we act does affect our thinking-- and this is particularly true of the kind of people whose words, spoken or written, are wise enough to have been remembered down through the years. Wise people don't usually leave their actions unjustified by their thinking, because they are thinkers and they can't function that way.

Therefore, it's important to take a theologian's private life into account when reading his or her writings, and note where cognitive dissonance may have been compensated for by changes in definitions and other such things. 

If Tillich abused young women at Union Theological Seminary, then his attitude towards women certainly affected what he wrote (or didn't write) about Eve. The key is to keep that in mind when reading his Systematic Theology and other works.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Conformity is Next to Godliness

My first roommate after I left college was a good friend and a lovely person.  She still is both of those things, though she lives far away.  But there was one dynamic to our relationship in those early roommate-days that wasn't all that lovely.  We haven't talked about it, but I think she'd shake her head in amusement and chagrin as much as I do now.

You see, she was very skilled, even back then when we were young, in the domestic arts.  She could whip together a dinner for six people without turning a hair.  She could make jams and jellies.  She could sew beautifully-- she eventually made her own wedding dress, and then my bridesmaid dresses.  Her cupboards were organized, her shelves were organized, even her junk drawer was organized.  And when she cleaned the kitchen, it knew it had been cleaned!

And I?  I wasn't a bad cook.  But that's all you could really say about me and the domestic arts.

This wouldn't have been a problem except for the kind of Christianity we were both involved in. We attended the same church, and the church taught that women were designed by God primarily for homemaking.  The Proverbs 31 woman and her superlative skills in food preparation, sewing and the like were the standard to be sought and attained.  I never really could attain it.  My sweet roommate seemed to do it effortlessly.

And this meant that somehow she was a better Christian, a more spiritually mature person, and a better woman, than I was.

Our church never put it this way in so many words, and I'm sure my roommate never consciously told herself as much. I know I never put it into actual words, in my mind or aloud.  But under the surface I think we both knew she was measuring up, and I wasn't.

A similar kind of thing happened to the guy I ended up marrying.  We weren't together at the time, but when he joined the same church and began to "grow in Christ," a certain idea of Christian manhood was held up to him as the standard.  A spiritually mature, godly Christian man was, first of all, an extrovert.  No one said as much, but that was the general idea.  A godly Christian man always prayed confidently and articulately in men's prayer meetings.  A godly Christian man knew how to loudly "take authority over the devil and his works" as a true prayer warrior.  A godly Christian man could go into a park and talk to strangers about Jesus with boldness "like a lion," just as Proverbs 28:1 said.  A godly Christian man was a born leader.

The young man who eventually became my husband was quiet and a little shy.  He met the church's standard easily when it came to reading the Bible privately (though he had a discouraging tendency to come to unapproved conclusions about what he read), but in prayer meetings and "witnessing" he just couldn't measure up.

This is not to say a woman couldn't be a good "prayer warrior," or that a man couldn't be a good cook. But there was always this sense that you had to meet the basic expectations for Christian manhood and womanhood first.  If you did that, then these other traits were an added plus.  If not-- well, they were nice traits of course, but-- well. . . . it just wasn't quite good enough.

There were other, more general things too.  The church was a charismatic one, which meant that outward displays of emotion were encouraged.  We didn't want to be like the "church of the chosen frozen," you know!  I don't think there was anything wrong with our dancing or waving our arms to the music, or with our cheering and applauding as a "praise offering" to God.  The problem was that those who were less comfortable with these outward displays were treated as if they were just not as devoted to Jesus as those to whom these things came naturally.

Personality, you see, was often mistaken for spirituality.

One of the most ludicrous things was how, at nearly every church meeting, we were exhorted from the pulpit to "give God the loudest shout that you've ever given!"  I remember thinking, "but I shouted as loud as I possibly could last time, and the time before.  It's physically impossible for me to shout louder than that!"  This, I might add, was pretty much as far as my rebellious thoughts ever went.  I still obediently shouted as loud as I could-- though I was one of those who felt adoration, and God's presence, far stronger when I was alone in complete silence.

Most of the time (with the exception of the domestic arts) I was pretty good at being what I was expected to be, and doing what I was expected to do.  Naturally easy-going, I usually had no problem going along with whatever the leaders said we should do.  My basic quietness, and the good manners my mother taught me, were generally interpreted as meekness and deference to my spiritual authorities-- even after I stopped believing they were always right.   The fact that at pot-luck dinners I'd rather talk theology with those of the guys who weren't watching sports, than discuss marriage and children in the kitchen with the women, was a bit puzzling to people, I think-- but in general, I was considered a good, godly Christian woman.  But this was really because (with the unfortunate exception of the domestic arts) I happened to have lot of the traits associated with godly womanliness.  It didn't really have much of anything to do with following Jesus.

On the other hand, my roommate-- the one with the super-homemaking powers-- tended to be naturally much more outspoken and even a little loud.  I suspect that just as I felt inferior to her in the domestic arts, she might have felt inferior to me when it came to having a "quiet and gentle spirit" per 1 Peter 3:4.  How was she to know that it wasn't actually my spirit, my "inner self" as the same Bible verse says, but simply my outward personality, that was quieter and gentler than hers was?

Other friends of mine in the church, I remember, sometimes had serious trouble conforming.  Those who couldn't manage it sometimes ended up leaving the church or even being thrown out.  Why was it, I wonder now, that no one seemed to be able to see that those who succeeded at "godliness" were most often those to whom the approved behaviors simply came naturally?

Why does it seem like this is still often the case in many churches today?

I'm not talking about those things which Galatians 5:22-23 calls "the fruit of the Spirit":
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.
It's true that some of these will come easier to some personalities, and others will come easier to other personalities.  But every kind of personality can cultivate these basic virtues, and they won't necessarily look the same in every person.  But what I'm really talking about is when a certain outwardly recognizable stereotype is viewed as "godly" for one whole subset of Christian people (like men or women, or church leaders, or children), or even for all Christians everywhere.  If you fit the stereotype, or can fit yourself into it, you're approved.  If not, you get disapproval and censure.

Under Much Grace, Cynthia Kunsman's informative blog about spiritual abuse, points out that this tendency to seek conformity to a set of unspoken and unwritten expectations can be a spiritually abusive practice:
Manipulative and authoritarian Christian groups manifest this phenomenon all of the time, with great predictability. One of the most significant problems with cultic groups stems from the many different *informal* rules that are held, communicated, and followed by the group, though they often do not directly communicate these rules to new members. . . All groups have standards, expectations, and unspoken rules, [but] cultic groups are riddled with unwritten codes and expectations that are never brought into the light of scrutiny. . . [T]he consequences for failing to comply with [a] standard can range from formal and severe to informal and avoidant.
Every social group has some standards and unspoken rules.  When you meet someone in Western culture, for instance, you shake hands, and to ignore an offered handshake is extremely rude.  But when the standards become restrictive boxes that require everyone in a group to be alike, that's a problem.

Isn't the God who made us, a little more creative than that?  Since God's wisdom displayed through the church according to Ephesians 3:10 is "manifold" (meaning "many and various," in both the English and the Greek texts), shouldn't there be many and various ways to be a good Christian?  And shouldn't it be possible to do so while still being ourselves?

As I remember reading somewhere once (if I could remember where, I'd cite it) individuality in humanity is a feature, not a bug.  Jesus didn't expect Peter to act just like Andrew, or John to act just like Nathaniel.  Or Martha to act just like Mary.

Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen the better thing-- but He didn't insist that Martha choose it too.  He didn't reject her act of service in making a meal-- He just told her she was getting too worried and bothered about it.

I think if Jesus had come in person to my apartment when I was just out of college, He'd have praised my roommate for her individual way of welcoming Him, and me for mine. Neither of us would have felt like we didn't measure up.

No conformity required.  Just love.