Talking To Your Christian Friends About Their Guns

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Gun violence in our country has reached epidemic proportions with no end in sight. While on the one hand we have seen one mass shooting after another -- including mass shootings of little children like at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the response has not been to work to have less guns and less violence, but to encourage people to have more guns. As the NRA advertises, "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." So we have people with guns at schools, at movie theaters, at Bible studies.

Think about that for a minute. We do not have people who are trained at all in how to deal with hostile and dangerous situations. We have a person who is afraid, who has had that fear repeatedly fostered by groups like the NRA, Fox News, and others, and who is now walking the halls of your kindergarten packing heat. We also have laws like "stand your ground" that say that if that person feels "threatened" they can kill.

Take an untrained person, motivated by fear, and give them a gun. That is a recipe for disaster. The driving force here is fear. That's why people are so adamant about gun rights, and discussions can get so emotionally heated. They want to protect their own safety and the safety of those they love, and when someone suggests we take away their means of protection, they feel vulnerable and threatened, and react with anger. It's a response to a perceived threat that is ironically called being "triggered" and means that our body literally physiological shuts down the social part of our brain (the cerebral cortex) and engages the fear-center (the amygdala).

So the question becomes, how can we help people to look at the issue of guns and violence without shutting down the rational and social parts of their brains and simply becoming angry and reactive? I've heard some pastors take the hard line of saying that Jesus forbids the use of violence, and so the answer to "How will I stay safe?" becomes "You won't. You will die like the martyrs did. Jesus commands it. Take up your cross." While that is indeed an argument that one can make with the New Testament on their side, you can see why this would make a person feel threatened and trigger a reactive amygdala fear response.

Let's not kid ourselves, the core message of the gospel is not pro-gun, and in fact Jesus' message of the kingdom of God is a systematic refutation of that way of thinking. This is one of the take-away points from the 2015 documentary Armor of Light, which follows one conservative evangelical pastor's attempt to speak to his fellow evangelicals about the conflict between guns and the gospel. You can watch it on Amazon for just a buck. It's a great conversation starter, and it's a conversation we desperately need to have.



What I would like to do is give some theological context to that conversation, demonstrating that a belief in guns cannot co-exist with belief in Christ. They represent two opposing and incompatible visions of life, and we need to be clear on that. What I hope further to show is that the way of Jesus is indeed good news. It is not pie in the sky idealism, but a realistic way, addressing the fears we have, and our deepest desires for abundant life. It's a gospel message that many white evangelicals in this country have never heard.

Jesus' message of the kingdom of God represents an alternate societal vision, in contrast to the societal vision embraced by the religious culture at the time of Jesus, and found in the parts of the Old Testament, which promoted  tribalism and responded to those on the outside with condemnation and acts of violence committed in the name of God. When Christians claim the Bible supports their endorsement and use of violence, they draw on those parts of the Old Testament that Jesus specifically confronts and rejects. So let's take a closer look at Jesus' message of the kingdom and how it speaks to the issue of guns, and more broadly to the larger issue of self-preservation and fear.

The big picture of Jesus' message of "die to yourself" is one of overcoming fear. The biggest fear we have is the fear of death. Fear is often behind why we do hurtful things. We are afraid we won't have enough for ourselves, so we are unsocial. We are afraid of being hurt, so we carry a gun. The gospel tells us that we need to care for others, that we need to learn to think socially, and that when we do, that our needs will also be taken care of. "Don't worry about food or shelter" Jesus says, "but seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well."

This is not about denying the self or denying your family or tribe or race. It's about widening the circle of who you consider to be "in" to include everyone. It says that it's not just about my family, but also about your family. It's not just about my race, but about yours, too. Jesus points us to caring especially for those who are neglected in society, the poor, the unclean, the condemned. He calls out racial prejudice with the story of the Good Samaritan. He calls out religious superiority with the story of the good centurion.

Today in America our "Samaritan" would be a Muslim, or more broadly anyone with brown skin who is seen as threatening and labeled as a terrorist if they are Muslim, or as a criminal if they are black. In other words, the people we feel threatened by, the ones who we feel we need to use a gun against, the ones we want to lock up in jail or keep out with a wall are the very ones Jesus says we need to love. The are the ones whose lives we value "the least" as Jesus says.

In other words, the reason Jesus would say "black lives matter" is because he recognized that society (including religious society like his and ours) disregards the value of the lives of those they see as "other" and "least." If we want to break out of that, caring for all lives, the way we get there is by caring especially for those who are treated as "the least" valuable by us.

Behind that otherizing is fear. We are afraid of the person who looks scary to us. That's where the idea of enemy love comes in. An "enemy" here is someone that you perceive as a threat. This is not something only conservatives do. Liberals do it, too. Liberals like me see conservatives with guns as threatening and scary, just as conservatives see liberals like me as scary. The typical reaction is to label the other, calling them a terrorist or a criminal (if you are conservative) or labeling them as racist or homophobic (if you are a liberal). Either way we see ourselves as the "good guys" and them as the "bad guys" who need to be stopped.

When you see someone in that category of "enemy" you feel justified in silencing them, harming them in order to protect yourself. You need to dehumanize the other to kill them. So they are labeled as a "terrorist" or a "criminal" and then it's okay. The gospel is about recognizing the humanity and value in everyone, not because we are innocent or "good guys" but rather the gospel is that even though we are sinners, God showed his love for us. The gospel is about seeing that the sinner -- which includes you -- is valued and loved by God.

It's relatively easy to care for those we see as meek, poor, helpless, begging for mercy, repentant. But what about those who we see as a threat? Do we know how to love someone like that? Do we know how to reconcile? Do we know how to make peace when there is real conflict? Or do we instead build walls, fire people, and even fire a gun? "Do not return evil with evil" both Peter and Paul write. The Hebrew there (which is the context they would be thinking in) is "do not repay anyone harm for harm." That seems to be the only way we know how to respond though. We either passively do nothing, or we return violence with violence, evil for evil. It's the American way. But it is decidedly not the way of Jesus.

What is missing completely from this is any application of love of enemies. It is at the same time the most ground-breaking and revolutionary of all of the teachings of Jesus, and also the least taught -- let alone practiced -- by Christians (whether they are liberal or conservative). Perhaps that's because we think that love of enemies means "be a victim," and pronouncements by pastors like the one above to "be like the martyrs" tend to perpetuate this misunderstanding. Similarly, lots of Christian pacifists take the stance that Jesus simply gives us a prohibition against the use of violence. I don't disagree, however I must insist that this cannot be all. Just as a Christian vision of sexual ethics cannot only be about not having sex, a Christian vision of love of enemies also cannot be only about not committing acts of violence. Love of enemies is not just a prohibition, a command saying what you cannot do. More importantly love of enemies presents an alternative means to resolving conflict without violence. In other words, it is not about doing nothing, but about doing something different.

Love of enemies is about recognizing the value and humanity of the one who you have dehumanized by seeing them as an enemy, and asking what you can do to end that hostility and work towards reconciliation. Whether it's the polarizing and hateful rhetoric of political discourse, or the fear-based stockpiling of guns, reconciliation is something we Americans seem to be utterly incapable of.

Love of enemies is connected to the widening of the in-circles discussed above. We widen the circle to care not just about my family, but also yours, and all families. We widen the circle to care about all races, all lives. We widen the circle to care about not only those in our nation, but all people.  That is something that Jesus teaches over and over in the Gospels, and it is the exact opposite of the idea of building a wall around us, and encouraging Christians to bring guns to church with them so they can kill bad guys. Again, there is really nothing "Christian" about being pro-gun if Christian has anything to do with the teaching of Jesus and his vision of adopting God's values "on earth as it is in heaven."

So why is it that it is so hard for people -- especially white American evangelicals -- to trust the way of Jesus more than they trust their guns? A big part of it is diet, that is, what we feed on. While pastors remained silent on the issue of guns, groups like the NRA and Fox News stepped into the gap, inundating people with a 24-hour message stirring up fear and anger. This "other-gospel" of fear and anger has come to be associated with white evangelical Christianity, but it is about as Christian as a strip club. The fact that those same white evangelicals endorse a presidential candidate who encourages acts of violence from his supporters, and who owns strip clubs, is not lost on me. White evangelicals have abandoned the way of Jesus, and substituted it with the way of violence, driven by fear. That may be hard to hear, but it is the truth. I say this as a white American evangelical myself. I say it out of love, calling on my fellow evangelical brothers and sisters to repent of their unbelief, and return to Jesus.

In the end it is a matter of faith versus fear. Fear keeps people away from the way of Jesus. Fear of losing the good things in our life, fear of death. We need to understand that Jesus is not about taking away good things from us. He came, he says, to give us life, abundant life. He continually is telling people not to worry, not to fear. But what he does want us to do is to learn to think socially, to learn to love, to learn to widen the circles we make to include those on the outside. He wants us to become messengers of reconciliation. That is what preaching the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, is all about.

The part where widening that circle becomes hard is where we perceive those outside the circle to be an enemy, a threat. The point is not to ignore danger as if it did not exist. The point is learning how we can reconcile with someone, how we can overcome hostility. The way we do that is not through escalation, buying more guns, or building bigger walls. The way we do that is by learning how to be ambassadors of reconciliation, how to be peacemakers. Currently the direction we are moving in is the opposite, shutting out the refugee in need, the racial divide ever growing, becoming more and more reactive, fearful, hostile, and violent. We need to learn the way of peace, the way of reconciliation.  Doing that is not some optional side thing, it is at the very heart of the gospel, at the very heart of what the kingdom of God is about.

The fact is, white conservative evangelical's association of God and guns going together has virtually nothing to do with Christianity. It has to do with something that runs deeper. It has to do with the fear of death, with our human survival instinct, which is an incredibly powerful drive. The gospel speaks to that fear. We need to learn how to preach that gospel message. We need to learn how to place our trust in the way of Jesus, and not in a gun.

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A Change of Heart and a Change of Mind: Connecting Theology to Life

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Last time I spoke about using the tools of ethics and psychology as a means to better read Scripture, and the topic of "head versus heart" came up in the discussion following. This is a really important topic which I felt deserved a discussion of its own. It is particularly important because the idea of head and heart is ultimately about having our theories connected to reality and experience.

Let me begin by defining some terms. When I speak of the "heart" I am referring to our experiences, and how these affect our feelings, that is how we perceive and experience reality. When I speak of the "head" I am referring to how we cognitively understand those feelings and experiences, including the idea of language. If we have the cognitive alone -- disconnected from our experience of life, it remains merely theoretical, detached from lived experience. So the heart (our experience of life) is important, perhaps we could say it is primary. We however also need the cognitive to make sense of our feelings and experiences. Heck, the fact that you are reading this and thinking about whether you agree with me means you are engaging in the cognitive. At its most basic level it is about making sense, and giving a framework to our experiences and emotions. This does not need to be some deep philosophical exercise. It is something all of us do constantly. For example, a five-year old might think, "I'm feeling something, I think it feels good, it's caused by this other person, who I call 'mom', and this thing is a hug, and it makes me feel safe and loved. I love hugs from my mom." All of that is about understanding, conceptualizing about the meaning of our experiences. In short, both head (our understanding) and heart (our feelings and experiences) are essential for us. They impact theology, but they also of course impact way more, they impact how we all experience life.

With that brief intro, let's consider a comment made by Kent on my previous blog post (which was the impetus for this conversation). He begins by saying this,
"Living a life of being loved by God and loving others is not hard. From my perspective, we are changed (born again/born from above/become a new creation -- whichever biblical description one wants to use) when we experience the love of God in our hearts (right brain) through intuitional revelation."
First of all, there is far more in Kent's comment that agree with than there are things I disagree with. So let me begin where I agree. It is certainly true that we humans are formed through loving relationships. Ideally, as a child we are formed by the love of our parents, and out of that we grow to be loving, responsible, thoughtful, mature people. There is of course a parallel with God's love, and we find that idea expressed in the declaration that "God first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19), which is the context out of which we respond by loving others. As Paul puts it, "all that matters is faith expressing itself in love" (Gal 5:6). Again, just as we are formed by the love of our earthly parents, the idea is that God, our heavenly abba, loves us, and that love forms us, resulting in our loving others as a result. Our trust/faith in our experience of a loving relationship God expresses itself in our, in turn showing the same kind of love to others that we have known -- in short, trust expresses itself in acts of love.

Yet, often experience... let alone (shudder) feelings and emotions... has been spoken of in very dismissive ways by theologians, who tend to be very "head" focused and mistrustful of emotions and experience. That's a real shame because emotions and experience are vital to being human. Moreover, a theology that is disconnected from experience and feeling is disconnected from life, disconnected from relationship (including relationship with God), and disconnected from love. There is a biblical term used to describe that sort of head-only theology: dead. So when theology dismisses experience and feelings and the heart, that means it is very broken.


Experience: Changing your Heart

As noted above, our experiences shape and form us. They make us into who we are. The good news is that this is not only something that happens in childhood. Experiencing love can also change us as adults in positive ways, just as experiencing trauma as adults can change us in negative ways.

Where that connects to theology is that if we think that people are changed merely through information, we are misunderstanding something really basic about how we humans work. People are changed -- including changing our minds -- by what we experience. Change my heart, and that will surely change my mind. So if as pastors we want to change someone for the better, if we want to change the way we treat each other, a crucial part of how we get to that change is by positive experiences re-shaping us.

Let me give an example. One particular school of marriage therapy, known as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), stresses the importance of couples experiencing positive emotions as the central means to healing relationships and rebuilding connections in a marriage. Let's say that there is a couple where the guy is kind of a brute. He barges in and takes over when she is parenting. As the therapist digs into this however, it comes out that the guy is actually pretty insecure, but feels like he needs to be "strong" to hold things together. This is not something that the therapist tells him, but something he uncovers about himself. In other words, EFT helps him to get to a vulnerable part of himself, beneath the protective wall of his outward "strong" behavior.

In turn, as his wife experiences him having these vulnerable feelings, opening up, seeing a side of him that she has never seen before, she herself experiences feelings of empathy and understanding towards him. Experiencing this together as a couple brings them together. So it's about helping couples to break out of old patterns of conflict, by getting them to vulnerable places beneath that outward conflict (their fears, their insecurities, their wounds), in order to build empathy and connection.

The means to this is not primarily about understanding something cognitively, but much more about experiencing it together, and how that positive experience of being understood, as you were vulnerable, leads to deep connection.

The point of all this is that practitioners, who are working directly with people, people who need help with their relationships, with love, are finding that experience plays a crucial part of that work. It is through elicits positive emotional experiences -- not simply by cognitive understanding, but primarily through experiencing vulnerable feelings together -- that empathy and connection is built, the couple is re-connected, and the marriage is healed. Imagine what would happen if pastors learned how to elicit positive emotional experiences in people and how that could affect spiritual formation.

Experience is vital. Love is vital. But I have to disagree with Kent's claim that it is "not hard". Love is good, but it is certainly not easy. If love were easy, marriage therapists would be out of a job! Love is hard, and does not come to all of us intuitively. Couples often need to learn how to communicate, how to relate to one another in ways that bring them together, instead of ways that put them in conflict. A part of that is that most of us do not only have positive experiences as a kids, but also come with some emotional "baggage" that we bring with us into our intimate relationships. That is, we have learned some messed up ways to relate to others, and so we need to learn how to love well. The closer you are to someone, the deeper the intimacy, the harder that becomes.

Re-framing: Changing your mind

All this is not to say that there is no place for the head, for the cognitive. Indeed the cognitive is crucial because without it we'd have no way to make sense of our feelings and experiences. In fact, the way we understand and frame something actually changes the feelings we have about it, changes how we experience it. For example, as a kid I broke my wrist playing soccer, and because this happened in the context of sports, I thought it was cool. When some kids picked on me in school and pushed me against a locker, that was really upsetting to me. The physical pain involved was trivial compared to breaking my wrist, but the emotional experience of being bullied was really upsetting, while breaking a bone felt cool. How we frame our experiences, the narrative we place them in, changes how we actually experience them emotionally.

Theology is all about how we frame things. How do we make sense of who we are as humans? How do we make sense of suffering in our world? The way we frame those kinds of things makes all the difference. Do we frame human misfortune as a sign that God is angry and punishing us? Or do we frame suffering in the context of a God who shares our suffering with us? That framing changes how you experience your life, and that's why negative images of God can be so damaging and debilitating to people. It's not just a detached theory because it impacts our lived experience, in this case in a bad way.
Just as we can have both positive and negative experiences (the heart), we can also have understandings of life (the head) which can help and heal us, and we can equally have understandings that hinder and harm us. So the way we make sense of and frame our experiences matters tremendously, and even shapes how we experience life. That's why the cognitive matters, why theology matters, because badly framed theology can block us from experiencing God's love, and good theology can allow us to experience a life filled with meaning and love.

When all is said and done, we don't need to choose between head and heart, between thinking and feeling, between the experiential and the cognitive. Rather, we need to understand how they both work together. In a nutshell, the head interprets the heart, that is, our understanding frames our experiences. The way this works is not linear (first one and then the other), but more of a circular relationship where both influence each other.

So instead of disparaging one or the other as bad (head focused people saying that emotions are "weak" and "unreliable," or heart-focused people saying that the cognitive is "cold" and "detached"), we need to be able to embrace both of these aspects of ourselves, recognizing that they are both good and vital parts of what it means to be fully human. What we think and what we feel are not in fact separate, but intertwined, each influencing the other. They are not rivals, but partners -- two lovers in a dance.

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Gays, Women, and How to Stop Reading the Bible Immorally

Saturday, April 23, 2016


Today I'd like to discuss how I arrived at my position on gender roles and LGBT rights. Specifically, I am a feminist, and I am gay affirming. So how did I arrive at those conclusions biblically?

To answer that I need to discuss my three core sources of theology, which are the Bible in conversation with science and ethics.



Ethics as the Lens for Biblical Interpretation

Ethics is the art of thinking morally. Ethics is inseparable from biblical interpretation because if we are not reading and interpreting and applying the Bible in a way that is moral and good and loving, then we are simply reading it wrong. That premise is the baseline for how Jesus read Scripture, and for how we should read it, too. When people do the opposite, taking things that are obviously immoral, and reasoning that if the Bible says it, it must be moral, they are calling evil good, and thus get the Bible and life dead wrong. It's worth noting that this is something that Isaiah, the biblical prophet most quoted by Jesus, specifically criticized, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil" (Isa 5:20). So if we think that doing so is a faithful reading of Scripture, we are kidding ourselves. It is a misreading because it is immoral.

We need to interpret Scripture through the lens of love, we need to ask as we read "is this interpretation good and loving?" Biblical interpretation must be done through the lens of ethical evaluation, and to fail to do this is to fail to do the central most important task of biblical interpretation. To fail to do this is to read in a way that promotes evil in God's name. 

This all may sound self-evident. Of course we should read the Bible morally, and this requires that we learn to think ethically as we read. But an ethical evaluation of the biblical text goes against the grain of how one learns to do biblical exegesis in seminary, where students are taught to not ask ethical questions in the name of scholarly objectivity, and where the compartmentalized nature of specialization keeps ethics detached from exegesis. To the extent that this is true, seminaries are failing to train future pastors, professors, and theologians properly.

Because of this deficit, I have had to go out of my way to bring ethics into conversation with theology and biblical interpretation. I'm so glad I did. My theology, as well as how I interpret Scripture, has been profoundly deepened and enriched by learning from good ethicists. Two contemporary ethicists who were formative for me as a young evangelical were Ron Sider and Glen Strassen. More recently I have learned a lot from David Gushee and Russell Moore. 

What's critical is that the main focus of the ethicist is not interpreting the Bible, but addressing the moral questions of our day, critically asking how we can live in a way that is good. Like the prophet, the ethicist must be independent from the tradition. This focus is crucial because otherwise the ethicist becomes an apologist for status quo interpretations (and I can unfortunately think of a few ethicists who fit this description). Doing ethics in this sell-out way is of course... ahem... unethical, and it also means we lose the very thing that makes ethics valuable: helping us to think morally. 

Again, this is precisely how we should be reading the Bible -- not with the aim of maintaining the status quo of the power tradition, but with the aim of letting the Bible lead us into loving practice. Scripture is not an end, it is a vehicle, and ethics is the key.


Science and the Importance of Having a Theology Based in Reality

Practically applying this is where psychology comes in, and more broadly where science comes in. Science is the study of how reality works. Social science is the study of how humans work in that reality. The way this functions is that science comes about by trying stuff in the real world and seeing what happens. It's about experimentation, observation, practice, evidence-based.

I don't think it can be stated enough how important it is that our interpretation of the Bible coincides with reality. The trouble is, Christianity has often seen science as a threat. When one thinks of this conflict between faith and science what comes to mind is often questions of natural science, evolution vs creationism for example. But social science poses a far more substantial threat to stuck-in-the-past theology because it speaks to what is moral and good. Social science, for example, tells us that beating children is bad for them, which challenges the traditional view, found in the Bible, that it is good for children to beat them. Social scientists know this because they observe what happens to children who are beaten, and observe that this harms them.

Again, this really should be a no-brainer. We should be able to look at the effects of what we do, and observe whether we are causing harm or promoting good. Science provides us with tools for doing this as objectively as humanly possible, and puts us on a path of continually seeking deeper and better understandings of how we humans function based on observing us in our lives. It's not perfect of course (nothing we humans do ever is), but science helps us get to places way beyond where we could go without it. Again this is not only true for how natural science helps us with things like medicine and technology, but also for how social science can help us to be... social.

Again, my theology has been deeply influenced by learning from psychology. The fact that I'm married to a psychotherapist is of course why I know much more about the practical world of contemporary psychology than I got from college text books. We've learned an awful lot in the century since Freud, including lots of insights from the neurosciences, and psychology is not just about lying on a couch and talking about your mom.

The bottom line here is that when I approach theology and biblical interpretation, I am always looking for how this will work in practice. I observe that Jesus was, too. Of course science did not exist at the time, but reality did. Science is simply a tool to help us to measure that reality better, and I'm deeply grateful for it. 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

So let's bring all of this together in relation to gender roles (both impacting women's roles as well as LGBT issues). I recently read this in the "what we believe" part of a church's website in the city where I live. I'm sure you can find a similar statement from a church in your town,

"Adam and Eve were made to complement each other in a one-flesh union that establishes the only normative pattern of sexual relations for men and women, such that marriage ultimately serves as a type of the union between Christ and his church. In God’s wise purposes, men and women are not simply interchangeable, but rather they complement each other in mutually enriching ways.

God ordains that they assume distinctive roles which reflect the loving relationship between Christ and the church, the husband exercising headship in a way that displays the caring, sacrificial love of Christ, and the wife submitting to her husband in a way that models the love of the church for her Lord. In the ministry of the church, both men and women are encouraged to serve Christ and to be developed to their full potential in the manifold ministries of the people of God.

The distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments." (emphasis added)
So to sum up, as you can see in what I highlighted in bold, they not only are not gay-affirming, but they also think that women should assume a lesser role, submitting to their husbands. That submissive role is the ceiling for a woman's "full potential" in life. Only men can be leaders in the church.

Here's the kicker: All of this "must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments" which translates to, we will hold this view despite what we can observe about how people work and how reality works (science), and we will hold to this view despite what we learn from asking whether this stance restricts and harms people, treating them as if there were less than they can be (ethics).

This is an example of reading the Bible detached from science and ethics, and thereby detached from reality and morality.

Typically, when discussing what the Bible has to say about a topic such as gender roles, the conversation is restricted to the sphere of biblical arguments. This is true whether one is making an argument for or against women's equality. They might bring in cultural context, they might look into the Greek, they might question the authorship (implying for example that if Paul didn't write 1 Timothy it's okay for us to discount its rather sexist perspective).

That's all fine and good, but what is left out of this is bringing the Bible into conversation with science and ethics, that is, connecting the Bible with reality and morality. Let's try this out with women's roles:

It is easy to observe that women are perfectly capable of assuming roles that have been traditionally reserved for men. We have women who are CEOs of major corporations, women who are chief of surgery, women professors, women Presidents, and plenty of women pastors who are all doing just as good of a job as their male counterparts. So to claim that they cannot lead is demonstrably false.

So the way I arrive at the conclusion that women should be able to assume leadership roles is simply that they obviously can and are, and so any interpretation of the Bible denying this strikes me as one that is detached from reality. Indeed, as we read in the above statement of belief, it is intentionally so. 

Imagine going to this church as a woman. Let's further imagine that you are the female dean of a seminary, and are responsible for equipping scores of future pastors. But suddenly when you enter the doors of this church you are not allowed to be on the board of elders or even to lead a Bible study. This is of course completely absurd. It's like walking through the doors of this church is equivalent to walking into a time machine, teleporting you into the patriarchal past, undoing the progress of centuries. The church has made itself into an irrelevant island, clinging to the past, not because it is good or true, but just because this is their frozen tradition.

So allow me to sum up in a single word my reasoning for why women should be seen as fully equal to men: Duh.

My reasoning for being gay-affirming is similar. It is essentially the same reasoning taken by those in the mental health field. A major part of what they do is help promote human flourishing. Because of this, the question they have asked, and indeed the question they ask with everything, is this: What is best for people? What leads to harm, and what leads to flourishing? How can we best help people to live well?

What they found is that while there is simply no evidence that same-sex relationships are themselves harmful, there is a considerable amount of evidence that the condemnation and rejection the LGBT community faces is profoundly harmful. Further, attempts at changing a person's sexual orientation have proven to be deeply harmful.

So if we ask, "how can we help someone to find life?" If we ask the moral question "what does a person need most?" The answer I am led to is that they need to know they are loved, just as they are, and for who they are. That's true of everyone. 

Further, I can see nothing at all that is harmful about two adults in a mutually loving relationship. This is not like having an affair which does harm another person. It is also not like being a sexual predator who harms others. These are issues of harming others, via betrayal and dominance. When people try to make parallels between LGBT people and sexual predators it is a false parallel. I wish I didn't have to spell that out, but based on the current discussions on bathrooms and the T part of LGBT, apparently I do. Harming others has nothing to do with one's sexual orientation or identity.

So again, I attempt to look at the reality of life (science), and ask tough ethical questions. The conclusion I come to is that there's nothing wrong with being gay, and there is something very wrong with the way that gay people have been made to feel condemned and rejected by fellow Christians. That's where repentance needs to happen.

I maintain that it is vital that we employ the tools of both ethics and science as we engage these and other questions of biblical interpretation, and that to fail to do so will lead us to an immoral reading detached from reality. 


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Muslims, Peacemaking, Progress, and Reform

Sunday, April 17, 2016

As someone who writes about the problem of violence and religion, I've often been asked to share my thoughts on Muslims and Islam, which is often in our culture associated with violence in the name of religion. 

I've been reluctant to do this since it is outside of my area of expertise. I did not study Islam in seminary, have never read the Koran, and am not a Muslim. So, I understandably don't really feel qualified to say much about it, since I am not an expert in the field, nor am I someone intimately familiar with Muslim faith and life.

What I can say is that I would hope that those within the Muslim faith learn to interact with their own sacred texts in the same way that I propose we Christians should interact with ours. That is, I propose that we need to learn to read the Bible in a way that leads us to compassion, rather than justifying harm. I propose further that this way of reading is not some progressive aberration away from the faith, but is completely in line with faithfulness to how Jesus read and applied Scripture.

I would hope that those in the Muslim faith would be encouraging their fellow Muslims to likewise learn a way of reading the Koran that leads to compassion and away from justifying harm, and hopefully show how this is a valid expression of their faith, rather than a move away from it. 

That's why I wanted to share the work of Irshad Manji, of the Moral Courage project. I don't know much about Irshad Manji, but what I have seen, I found very encouraging and refreshing. As I understand it, her aim is to show how values such as compassion, human rights, and... this is a really big one for me... questioning in the name of compassion (what I refer to as "faithful questioning" in Disarming Scripture, and she refers to as "critical thinking") are core parts of a faithful reading of the sacred texts of her faith,
"The reason I can embrace the Koran is that three times as many verses in the Koran call on Muslims to think, and re-think, and analyze... rather than submit blindly."
At the same time, while she argues that this tradition of faithful questioning -- as opposed to the way of unquestioning obedience and submission -- should be normative for her faith, she does not deny that there are many who would say the opposite, nor does she deny that there are those within her faith who advocate violence and oppression in the name of her religion.

All religions have a history of seeking to justify violence and oppression in the name of the good. My own Christian faith is certainly no exception. It takes a lot of courage and reflection to be able to face the dark parts in ourselves, and in our community and traditions.  It's hard to face that honestly, seeking reform, rather than deflecting and denying problems. So I really admire that Irshad is seeking to walk that tightrope.

Because of this focus, she stresses the need to be a "Muslim reformist," rather than just a moderate Muslim. That is, she is critical of those moderate Muslims who insist that "Islam is a religion of peace" and that acts of violence committed in the name of Islam "have nothing to do with Islam." I very appreciate her willingness to take a hard look at her own faith, including the dark parts of it, and to seek to reform it, rather than denying the problem. This is also something that I hope to do within my own faith.

I'm sure there are many on both sides of the fence who disagree with her, but I really was inspired by her moral courage, and wanted to share it with you in the hope that you'll be inspired too. So with that as a brief intro, I'll let her speak for herself. Take a look and I hope you find it as encouraging and inspiring as I did.






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