Why Love the Sinner Hate the Sin doesn't work

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Love the sinner, hate the sin. I'm sure you have heard the phrase a million times. Some attribute it to Augustine. Those who use it view it as a generous position to take. But many "sinners" are protesting and saying that they find it unhelpful and even arrogant. So maybe it's time to take a look at love the sinner, hate the sin.

The first thing we need to consider is the context: Who are we addressing when we say this? The way we answer that question makes a huge difference.
If we are speaking to people who feel wronged, wounded, hurt, by others--addressing people who are struggling with loving and forgiving those who have deeply hurt them--then "love the sinner, hate the sin" can be a powerful push towards recognizing the humanity in another and thus taking a step towards looking to mend the relationship. In this context "love the sinner, hate the sin" is about recognizing the humanity of the other. It moves the one who hates to instead learn to love in the face of hurt with the hope that love can act to mend the wrong.

However, much of the time when people say "love the sinner, hate the sin" the focus is not on helping another move away from hate and towards compassion, but rather it is more of a political statement, a way of saying publicly "I'm a compassionate guy, but let me make clear that I don't approve of this!" It's motivated by concern for our own good reputation--not wanting to be associated with those of questionable morals.

This is a focus that is primarily concerned with self-protection, with preserving one's own good name, as opposed to a focus on the needs of the one who is accused and condemned. This is the focus of PR firms,  advertising companies, and those concerned with the "bottom line" of public image and money.

It is decidedly not the focus of Jesus who had a reputation of being a "friend of sinners" (not a compliment) and was because of that association judged by the religious people of his day as a sinner himself. Hear me when I say this:

Jesus didn't give a damn about his reputation in their eyes.

What he cared about were those in need--the poor, the disenfranchised, the neglected, the condemned, the forgotten. That's who we should care about, too, if we truly care about the things Jesus did.

This brings me to the third focus of "love the sinner, hate the sin" which is when it is addressed to the sinner. This is where the phrase becomes especially unhelpful. In this context it sounds arrogant, patronizing. This is because people recognize that the real focus is not on them and their welfare, but on making a public statement to protect the speaker's reputation. People recognize that the statement is self-focused and that the professed care for them is disingenuous.

If our desire is truly focused on helping people move away from hurtful behavior then we need to realize that saying "love the sinner, hate the sin" simply does not lead to change in a person's life. In fact, it acts to push them in the opposite direction. Let me explain why:

When someone tells you what you are doing is wrong, your natural reaction is to become defensive. This is about self-preservation, and we all do it. What we need to instead communicate to a person is that we care about them, that we value them. When people feel safe--that is, when they know they are unconditionally accepted--this safety creates the possibility for vulnerability and reflection and openness.

Now, we may think that having a non-judgmental environment would be promoting sin, but actually the opposite is the case: When a person feels shame, they tend to hide the behavior. Defensive walls go up, things are covered up. If you want to see change, then what is needed is honesty and reflection--in other words, an atmosphere where things can be brought into the light, rather than hidden in the dark--and that requires a non-judgmental environment where a person feels secure and accepted.

That unconditional acceptance, rather than promoting sin, creates the setting where people can actually be real, where they can face the dark and broken places we all have. In that place we can own up to our weaknesses, to the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of and hide from.

That's beautiful when that happens, but I need to add a word of caution here: Be careful who you open your heart to. If we are vulnerable like that in a place where we are not in fact secure--where the love and acceptance is conditional--then that vulnerability can be dangerous, leading to condemnation and rejection. That of course can deeply wound us.

Behind that condemnation and rejection is fear, wrapping itself in a religious mantle. The Bible says that "love casts out fear" but the reverse is equally true: Fear casts out love. Many Christians are sadly driven by fear instead of love. They do not stay with God in response to love, but because they fear punishment. Take away the threat, and they will leave. Because they never really loved.

Love works. Love leads us to repentance. Love moves us towards healing and wholeness. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love always protects, always trusts, always perseveres.  Love never fails.

So I hope you stay because of love. I hope you can find a place where you are loved unconditionally and experience how that makes you come alive. I hope you find a place you can really be real, where you can admit your struggles and failures and hurts, and hear those two powerful words: Me too.

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If we question the Bible, how do we know what's right and wrong?

Saturday, October 04, 2014

This time around I thought I'd respond to a couple questions I got from readers this week revolving around the question of epistemology, which is a fancy way of saying "how do we know what we know?" Specifically, how do we know that our interpretation of the Bible is right? And what do we base that on?

Such questions become especially relevant when we begin to ethically question the Bible. We read something in the Bible that seems morally questionable--genocide, slavery, and so on. But if we are questioning the Bible, then this brings up the question: On what authority can we question it?
I don't say that as way of saying "Stop asking those questions!" like the Wizard of Oz from behind the curtain. Rather it is an important question that we need to be asking ourselves. The fear is that when we question the Bible, we are sawing the branch out from under ourselves, cutting off our moral foundation. Does questioning scripture become like the string that we begin to pull which unravels the whole sweater? is it true that once we start pulling that proverbial string--once we start to question things in the Bible--soon everything will just come undone?

What is the basis of our authority that allows us to question scripture? That's an important and legitimate question that we need to ask ourselves. Along these lines, OfGrace asks, 
"What is to guide our understanding and interpretation of the texts and how do we know we are being directed by the Holy Spirit in our interpretations where we differ with one another (the application of the NT's prohibition on same-sex sexual acts being in this category in the modern era)? What are authoritative parameters for how to read, interpret and apply the Christian Scriptures (i.e., the apostolic teaching)?"
The most common answer to this question among Protestants is that of sola scriptura meaning that we look to the Bible for the answer. How to do that can range from looking for the "plain reading" of the text to looking to our understanding of context, language, genre, ancient cultures, and so on in order to have scholarship help us unearth what the "authorial intent" of the text was.

A slight tweak on this which has gained a lot of traction among my tribe of progressive evangelical folks is to read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. However, if we apply the same above method that we all learned in seminary classes on exegesis, the question still comes down to looking for the "plain reading" of what Jesus meant or using scholarship to unearth what Jesus meant.

That sounds great, but how do we do that exactly? The problem is that there are plenty of people who read the Bible in a way that I think is profoundly wrong and immoral who claim to be doing so based on Jesus. There are people who would claim to be reading the Bible through the eyes of Jesus who promote all sorts of stuff that I see as deeply wrong and hurtful--oppression, violence, hatred.

They, in turn, of course think that I am wrong, even though I likewise claim to be reading the Bible like Jesus did. The bottom line here is that simply reaching for the WWJD card is apparently not a guarantee that we will end up on the same page or with the same values. It simply does not work as a safeguard to stop people from arriving at really awful and harmful readings.

So what do we do?

What I would propose instead is that we adopt the evaluative criteria Jesus suggested to tell a false prophet from a genuine one: Look at the fruits, Jesus said.  

We can look at the fruits of a particular interpretation, and observe the effects it has in people's lives. The question we ultimately need to be asking is not so much "Is this interpretation correct?" But more importantly "Is this interpretation good?" Or to put it another way: Will my reading and application of this passage or teaching result in something good or in something hurtful? Are the fruits good, or are they rotten? Does it lead to flourishing and wholeness? Does it make us better and more compassionate people? Or does it instead wound and crush our spirits, leaving us worse than before? In short: Does it lead us to life or death?

This approach is practical and liveable. It provides us with objective criteria (as objective as we humans are capable of being) that can be used to evaluate any interpretation or teaching. It provides a means for continually testing and refining our interpretation "on the ground" based on observing its effects on people's lives.

With that in mind, let me now bring in a possible objection from Samuel Adams who writes this on my Facebook page,

"I'd just like to clarify that Jesus is, in his person, the fulfillment or end of the law. He is faithful Israel. His example is closely tied to his person--the two cannot be separated. What I'm resisting is the slip by some to a point where Jesus is simply a moral example. Don't get me wrong, his example is important and authoritative, but always and everywhere tied to his person.

What I'm saying is that both 'law' and 'spirit of the law' are objects that humans can control/determine/possess. They tend to be what we want them to be. By making the person of Jesus inseparable from his teaching we are placing ourselves always under the gracious judgement of God... Christian ethics is bound to the living/commanding Jesus.
Let me begin by underlining what I agree with here: I agree with the stress on relationship with God that I see in Samuel's comment. Ultimately Christianity is about relationship, not religion. We are striving not to connect with a philosophy or example, but to connect with a living Someone. One major consequence of this is that we need to recognize that we are always subjective, we are always limited in our perception. There is therefore no way for us to ever be certain or to ever be done, ever to say "this is the final word."

Certainty is dangerous. Certainty--including certainty in our doctrines, certainty in the Bible-- has a long history of leading people to do things that violate conscience and cause great harm. Certainty is the opposite of faith. Faith is about recognizing our need, our lack. Faith and humility go hand in hand. So when the question is "how can we be sure we've got it right?" the answer is quite simply:

We can't.

We will, even with the best of intentions, get it wrong. Recognizing this is part of growing up. However, the reality is that we do need to make choices as humans. We need some practical way to decide what is good and what is hurtful right now. Even if we will stumble, still we do need to try to find the best way to live, and I would thus propose that the model of "looking at the fruits" represents the best way we have for evaluating a doctrine, teaching, or biblical interpretation.

I further want to point out that the method I am proposing takes into account the reality of our subjectivity. The method I am proposing has its roots in the scientific method. That is, while it is ethical, it does not come from the discipline of ethics or philosophy, but from the social sciences which are different from older disciplines such as ethics, philosophy or moral teaching in that science is guided by a methodology of testing a hypothesis. Put differently, science is not based on an abstract theory, rather it is derived from observing how life works. It is discovered.

Science recognizes that we are never truly objective, and so works by continually testing and observing, continually growing in knowledge. Our understanding of physics today has grown beyond what Newton proposed as we continued to experiment and test. It will continue to grow beyond what it is today as that scientific pursuit continues. We will never reach the point of saying "this is now the finished understanding" but the scientific method does present the best means we fallible humans have of understanding how our universe works.

In the realm of understanding how we humans thrive both as individuals and together, we get into the specific study of the social sciences, which also operate through the same scientific method of testing things out in life. So mental health practitioners will determine what constitutes a mental illness based on how much it impairs a person from being able to function in society. 

For example if you drink to feel merry, then fine. But if your drinking causes you to lose your job, estrange your entire family, and end up in an alley way turning tricks, then this is a problem. Whether it's addiction or schizophrenia or depression or something else, the main question that mental health experts are asking is an intensely practical one: Does this impair you from being able to have the life you want to have? And following this up with: How can we help you to be able to lead the life you want to have, consistent with what you value?

Just as the natural sciences grow and evolve through continued experimentation and research, the practical ways that mental health clinicians help people also grows and develops, based on observing what works in praxis, and using these observations to shape and adapt their approach. Neil deGrasse Tyson describes the scientific method like this,
"Test ideas through experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that past the test. Reject those that fail. Follow the evidence where ever it leads, and question everything."

The same holds true for mental health clinicians, only they are not using test tubes or telescopes, but working with people, and their observations are done not only through studies and research, but also in clinical praxis as therapists observe what works and does not work. We might compare this to how a software company gets feedback from users and fixes bugs and adds new features in response. The software thus becomes better through that process. In the same way, based on such observation, psychology changes and grows and develops.

For example very early on psychologists observed that when you tell someone "what you are doing here is hurtful" people reacted defensively and took this not as a comment on their actions giving them an opportunity to change, but as a condemnation of them as a person. So rather than listening openly and changing their behavior, they would feel attacked and put up walls. Freud called this "denial" but whatever you want to call it, what this draws out is the fact that our behavior is not just a matter of rational moral choices--there's something else going on that can keep us from making good choices.

Therefore if a therapist wants their client to stop being hurtful, they need to find a way to get past that defensive wall which had the good purpose of self-reservation but which was now stopping them from being good, stopping them from being who they wanted to be. We call that "dysfunctional" because it has a good function (self-preservation and care) that has become maladaptive (rather than protecting ourselves it ends up keeping us stuck in patterns that hurt ourselves and others). So psychology needed to find ways to get around that roadblock, like a river changing its course, curving until it finds a way.

There are of course many other examples I could mention, but the larger point is that mental health practitioners have been doing this for a long time now. That means my proposal that we observe the effects that the application of a certain scriptural principle or teaching has on people's lives (be it "turn the other cheek" or "bruises and wounds cleanse the soul") and use these observations as our evaluative criteria is not something I just pulled out of my hat just now, but rather how those in the field of mental health have been working for a long time. 

For me to imagine the marraige of theology and the social sciences is easy because I'm a theologian who is married to a psychotherapist. However, understanding mental health as I do, what I notice among my fellow theologians and scholars is that there is for the most part a huge gulf between religion and social science. What I have continually found is that the vast majority of pastors and scholars--who may have a PhD biblical studies and speak fluent Coptic and Greek--nevertheless often have virtually no understanding of how the social sciences actually function today. To some extent this is because of animosity because of a perceived conflict between religion and science (and this is most relevant not in the natural sciences, but in the social sciences) and other times simply because it is outside of their field of knowledge. So they know as much about psychology as a therapist knows about Coptic and Greek.

Understanding both as I do, I want to say that the two would make great partners. Religion and the social sciences should be allies not foes. Specifically, what I am proposing here is that the ethical interpretation of scripture would greatly benefit from incorporating the practical working method of those working in the field of mental health.

Let me give an example of how this approach could work in biblical interpretation: Consider Jesus teaching to "turn the other cheek." Gandhi and Martin Luther King applied this in the context of protesting oppressive power, and found that it was an effective means to expose injustice and bring about societal pressure for change. Feminists however have pointed out that when turning the other cheek is understood to mean counseling a woman to remain in a situation of domestic violence, that this instead ends up supporting oppression and hurt, rather than stopping it. So as this teaching is applied in different contexts, we can observe where it bears good fruit and where it instead produces harmful outcomes. From this we can evaluate what the "right" application is, based on looking at the fruits borne out in our lives. The "right" interpretation therefore is not the one that gets the tense of the Greek word just right, but the one that works, the one that leads to life. That is something we can objectively evaluate.

There is much more I could say about this. This an approach that naturally lends itself to developing and growing, rather than tethering us to the past. This approach is also by definition a communal approach, which allows it to grow and develop in a community of praxis--in this case in a community of those who are actively living out the way of Jesus. This therefore brings us in dialog with the wisdom of community and tradition, and specifically with a Jesus-shaped tradition and community. I could also discuss how this approach sheds light on controversial topics, such as homosexuality, and what an approach would look like that bears good fruit. Perhaps I'll do a "part 2" to this so I can give those subjects the attention they deserve.

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Why conservatives & liberals have both learned to read the Bible wrong

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In his new book, The Bible Tells me So, Peter Enns writes,

“You’ll never read Israel’s story on its own terms and “find Jesus” on the surface.
To see Jesus, you won’t get there by sticking to the script. You will only see Jesus there in hindsight and under the surface, where your reading of the Old Testament is driven by faith in Christ, where Jesus has become the starting point for re-understanding Israel’s story, not the logical conclusion of Israel’s story.

Here in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is not telling his disciples to stick literally to the script. He is telling them to reread the script in light of his death and resurrection.”

Enns writes this after demonstrating over several chapters that the way that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament interpreted scripture was not to “look to the Bible as a collection of unchanging information about God” but instead to recognize how “the reality of Jesus necessarily transforms Israel’s story” which meant that they “adapted and transformed their sacred story to serve the story of Jesus... Scripture became more of a jumping off point” (emphasis in the original)

In as much as the subtitle of a book indicates its central thesis, the main point Enns wants to make here is to show us “Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it.” This is directed at a fundamentalist biblicist way of reading, and I certainly agree with Enns on this point.

What I’d like to draw our attention to in addition to this is a second problem with how we read our Bibles which is not restricted to conservatives, and which Enns also clearly recognizes: Pete writes, in his typical tongue-in-cheek humorous style of how as a Bible professor, if a student were to interpret the scripture the way Jesus & co. are doing, he would whip out a big fat red marker and proceed to “dip his paper in a bucket of red ink, give him an “F” for the assignment.”

That’s because from a scholarly perspective, the goal of biblical interpretation is to report as objectively as possible what the biblical author is intending to say. The assumption here is that if we can just understand what is being said then the work of interpretation is done. This of course involves taking into account such things as context, genre, language, culture, and so on. But we still land on the same spot: Once we find out “what St Paul really meant” and such we will have unlocked to key to a correct and authoritative reading of the Bible.

The problem with this is that is not at all how Jesus reads scripture, nor is it how any of the NT writers do. This is a lesson Enns demonstrates over several chapters in his book (and if I can toot my own horn something I also cover in my forthcoming book as well). So if you are unconvinced, go read his book.

Once you can recognize that this is indeed what Jesus is doing over and over again, and what the NT writers are doing it’s a real game changer. For starters, it begs the question: Since when should we as followers of Jesus prioritize the way scholars approach a text over the way our Lord does? Could it maybe be that Jesus is on to something in how he reads scripture that these scholars are missing?

I hope you are thinking like me: Yes, yes it does.

So then the problem is not just that many of us have learned to read our Bibles in an unthinking way due to our fundamentalist assumptions that questioning and thinking are bad. In really big ways, that way of reading is supported and upheld by the way students (including those who became your pastor) learned to read the Bible in seminary, and by how we have somehow made biblical scholars the authorities who are uniquely qualified to write Bible commentaries.

There is a huge blind spot in the assumption that the way we should interpret scripture solely involves reporting what it says (which is pretty much the definition of what the word “exegesis” means!). When we do that, we cannot go further than what is on the page.

Think about that for a minute.

Imagine if the developers of the iPhone only attempted to make their phone exactly like other phones had been made in the past. On a larger scale, imagine if scientists sought only to conclude what other scientists had concluded in the past. So Einstein would only have repeated what Newton did about physics, the end. That would indeed be the end. It would be the end of scientific progress, the end of growing and learning. Newton in fact famously said “If I have been able to see farther it is because I have sat on the shoulders of giants.” which captures the scientific spirit, and I would add the spirit in which we should read our Bibles so they do not tether us to the past but open our minds to go further in the way of Jesus.

That’s how we’ve been taught to read the Bible, and this “conservative” approach means that we say today that -- despite all the evidence we may find to contrary, despite how much it is deeply hurting people we love to maintain this view, despite the fact that our conscience is screaming at us “this is wrong, this is hurtful!” -- the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination, the Bible says so, that settles it. That same logic led Christians in the not so distant past to uphold the institution of slavery, despite the fact that it seemed inhumane and wrong to them, again with the simple logic that “the Bible says so.” The point that I hope you can see in these examples is that this is not merely a matter of private religion but about how the Bible and religion can be applied in ways that are deeply hurtful, in ways that can devastate and crush. That matters.

Now progressives will typically enter into this and instead maintain that the Bible does not really say that about slavery, and that maybe Paul wasn’t actually opposed to homosexuality. They do this, once again, because -- just like their conservative brothers and sisters -- they too hold to the assumption that all we need to do is uncover what the Bible really says, and we’re done. See there's no problem, everything's fine!

Not so fast. There really are problematic things in the Bible and the liberal tendency to whitewash over that is not helpful. More to my point, this is not the approach that Jesus takes. So why must we? What Enns points out is that our focus on reading the Bible so as to uncover the correct reading of what the biblical authors were saying is simply not at all what Jesus and the writers of the NT are even attempting to do. 

Jesus is constantly changing and contradicting the Old Testament. He does this so much that the religious leaders call him a “blasphemer.” The writers of the Gospels draw out this point over and over. Jesus does not understand faithful reading of scripture to entail simply reading what the text says and unquestioningly applying it. Nor does he think it involves digging to find “what Moses really meant.” What Jesus says is new. He is innovating, he is showing us version 2.0, and not staying forever at version 1.0 as if that were a good thing. 

There's a reason it's called the "new" testament, right? As Jesus saw it, faithfulness to scripture does not mean rigidly adhering to the laws of the past even when we can see people are being hurt, as the Pharisees were doing. As with the approach of science, Jesus builds on the shoulders of those before him. His aim in doing this is not to simply parrot back what Abraham or Moses or David said, but to go further which at times can involve bursting the old wine skins with an "I know the Bible says to do it this way, but I say to you..."  

As Enns writes, “explaining Jesus drove the early Christian writers to read their Bible in new, sometimes radically different, ways.” The NT is all about how the first followers of Jesus re-thought the biblical story to make sense of what God was doing in their time. Our task today is to learn how to do that in our time. Scholarship gives us important tools to get to what the writers of the NT were saying then. But that is not where the work of interpretation ends, it is only where it begins. We need to go from that beginning and engage morally with the text. We need to think morally. We need to question. We need to build. That is the fuller work of interpretation that we see modeled in Jesus and the NT.

A big part of this involves developing a way to engage the Bible with our moral brains intact, rather than thinking that “faithfulness” to scripture requires shutting them off. This entails a huge shift in how many of us have learned to read scripture as scripture, and there are a growing number of scholars like Enns who are recognizing this and calling for a shift in approach. This is not just a minor adjustment we’re talking about here, but requires completely re-thinking how we read the Bible, including how we have been taught to interpret the Bible in seminary. That’s of course a task that’s way too big for a single blog post (or even several), but one I address at length in my forthcoming book. It's a major paradigm shift -- not only for us as individual followers of Jesus, but also for biblical scholarship especially as it is understood as a tool to aide in Christian discipleship. I'm glad that there are folks like Pete Enns who are calling for that much needed conversation to happen.

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The New Testament and Violence: Pt 2 (Paul & State Violence)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Last time, I began discussing violence in the New Testament. In particular, I am initially focusing on human violence done in the name of God (I’ll get to the question of God’s violence later, I promise). It’s critical to begin here if we want to read the Bible morally. A person saying that a hurricane or cancer was caused by God is one thing, but a person killing others for God is quite another. So we need to begin by focusing on what we do in the name of God, justice, and the good—especially when those “good” actions cause profound hurt to others.

The focus of violence in the Bible is often placed on the Old Testament, which is certainly understandable since this is where we find things like divine commands to commit genocide. Even those who defend the violence there commonly make the claim that these were commands specifically for the Israelites at the time and that for Christians today this would be completely out of the question. The New Testament clearly teaches us not to retaliate violently, but to “leave room for God’s wrath” so the problem of people killing in the name of God is really just an academic question, a thing of the past, perhaps part of another “dispensation” and Christians today don’t kill in God’s name. So we're good, right?
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