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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Of Gentiles and Homosexuals

In the first century a division emerged in the early Christian church.  As we are well aware, Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were Jews.  He taught about the Jewish G-d, and claimed to be His Son.  His followers believed he was the Jewish Messiah.  It seemed destined that Christianity was destined to be a sect of Judaism. Christians were to celebrate the same holidays, follow the same Mosaic laws found in the Torah, and insist new converts become Jews through the traditional conversion rituals.  However, all that changed on a rooftop in a town called Joppa.

The story is told in Acts 10.  You can read the full story for yourself here.  I’ll condense it here for those of you who are too lazy to click on the link ūüėČ  In the account Peter has a vision.  In said vision he sees a smorgasbord from heaven descend right before his eyes.  The buffet was filled the delicious delights like bacon, ham, Philistine National¬ģ hot dogs, clams, shrimp, lobster, etc.  It contained every delectable dish that, according to the Torah, was impure and unclean.  A voice calls to Peter from heaven telling him to eat the feast that has been set before him.  Peter, being a good Jew, attempts to correct G-d’s mistake.  Apparently G-d had forgotten that he commanded his chosen people never to eat such animals in His holy, infallible and eternally applicable scripture.  G-d assures Peter he is quite serious…three times.

When Peter comes out of the vision, he hears a knock at the door.  It’s a couple gentiles, inviting him to the house of their gentile master, Cornelius.  Peter starts to get the point of the vision.  Apparently the vision wasn’t as much about discarding Jewish dietary traditions as it was about moving past the exclusivism of his religion, which has traditionally rejected non-Jews.  So Peter goes with them, and once he arrives at Cornelius’s house he makes this declaration:  “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But G-d has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”

One might imagine how the conservative Christians of the day would respond to Peter’s new-found leniency on issues of Jewishness of G-d’s followers and on the Mosaic Law.  They would likely complain that Peter was teaching a doctrine that was unscriptural. They would accuse him of leading others into sin by encouraging them to pick and choose which parts of the law they would follow and what parts they would ignore.  Surely he just accepted the gentiles because it made him feel good.  They would, of course, say that Peter was denying the absolute truth and authority of G-d’s Word and in so doing was denying G-d himself.

Although it’s of little doubt this debate occurred in the early church, Peter and many other early church apostles pressed forward.  Their love for the gentiles and confidence that G-d did not and would not exclude them caused them to persist despite challenges of the more conservative crowd.  Before long other Christians began to accept the gentiles, then other leaders like Paul and Barnabas followed in their footsteps.  The movement proved to be as unstoppable as an avalanche.  The global, primarily gentile, face of Christianity emerged out of that one vision on that one rooftop, in Joppa nearly 2000 years ago.

From time to time the church takes another inclusive step in this worthy tradition.  In our past, minority races were once put in subservient roles in our churches.  Today such racial discrimination is abhorred by almost all Christians.   There was once a time where women were to remain silent in church and were not allowed to hold any authority over a man.  Although not yet quite as successful as the transition away from racism, sexism is fast becoming a thing of the past in our faith.
'Albany Gay Pride Parade 2008' photo (c) 2008, Tim Schapker - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

A new movement is afoot in today’s Christianity.  Many christians are now tiring of holding homosexuals at arm’s length.  The preconceived notion that they are an abomination, that they are immoral, that they are not worthy of G-d’s love is losing popularity.  Of course the fundamentalists will pull out their bibles as if they were weapons and attempt to brow beat our acceptance of and love for the LGBT community back into submission. They will proclaim the corruption and impurity of gay people.  They will insist that because they are gay, they must be rejected by G-d.

When they do, I hope that we respond in the manner Peter did when he faced the same criticism: ‚ÄúBrothers, you know that some time ago G-d made a choice among you that LGBT people* might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. G-d, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test G-d by putting on the necks of the LGTB community* a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”  – Acts 15:7-11

*My word replacement, LGBT for Gentile.

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Posted by on July 29, 2011 in Christianity, Emerging Church, LGBT

 

Apocalypse 1.0

In our childhood most of us were told a grand tale. ¬†It was filled with excitement, adventure, a hero, a big boat, and all kinds of fluffy animals. There was once a man who was favored by God, his name was Noah. ¬†He was chosen to build a large ark to save his family and the animal kingdom from a flood. ¬†With God on his side there was never much doubt that he would succeed…and he does. ¬†At the end of the story God shows Noah and his family a rainbow as a sign that such a flood will never happen again.

As children we accept the Noah story in much the same way that we accept Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Goldilocks and the Three Bears.¬† Our focus lies solely on the characters and the moral lessons contained therein.¬† Our approach changes as we move into our adult lives though.¬† We tend to view the story either through the lens of skepticism or of literal dogmatism.¬† Dogmatic belief structures will insist that every word of the Noah story is literally true; historically, scientifically, and spiritually.¬† If a story is literal, than every seemingly unimportant or implied part of the story will also be entirely true and accurate; using miracles (events that fall outside the realm of natural possibility) to explain away any inconsistencies or impossibilities.¬† It is almost impossible to debate the scientific merits of a biblical story with a dogmatic person since there’s a willingness to insert miracles into a story to back-up their preconceived beliefs.

Skeptics, on the other hand, will rebut the dogmatic telling of the Noah narrative by asserting that it cannot possibly be true based on scientific evidence.¬† Biology, geology, physics, husbandry, zoology, and logic all seem to be at odds with the literal approach. The unfortunate side effect for many skeptics will be an all out abandonment of the narrative.¬† While I definitely feel the same temptation, I also seek to find a compromise with my former dogmatic self.¬† I believe there is some common ground, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

In addition to all the normal skeptical arguments against literal interpretations of Noah & the Ark, I wish to add one of my own.¬† I would frame this as a moral argument against literalism.¬† While science and logic can often be dismissed by inserting a miracle, moral inconsistencies cannot.¬† As I mentioned earlier, every detail of a literal story, no matter how small or understated in the text is still true.¬† This is particularly important in the Noah story.¬† The text of the narrative does little to explain the perspective of the damned, those who were killed in the flood.¬† There is no detail in the story of offenses actually committed or of individuals that were actually responsible for committing them.¬† There is only general statements that the “people had corrupted their ways” and that “the earth was filled with violence”.

Now, the common interpretation from the literal understanding is that every person, and by “every” we mean E-V-E-R-Y person, was wholly corrupt and violent; with the obvious exception of Noah & fam.¬† Literalists will make a claim that god is completely justified in killing every violent or corrupt person.¬† Therefore they seek to assert that this was a moral extermination.¬† However, unless this is a time unlike any other in all of history, there were children and babies (born and unborn) in the world.¬† When literalists say that every person was full of corruption and violence, they are saying this about babies.¬† Certainly this is in full conflict with many of their modern and concurrent opinions on abortion and the value of the unborn child.¬† Either an unborn child is innocent or it is evil/corrupt,¬†one cannot have it both ways.¬† If we choose to believe that unborn children, babies, toddlers, and kids are innocent, then god killed innocents in the literal story of Noah.¬† Here, we identify a major and fatal moral flaw in literalism.

In addition to the moral flaw of killing innocents, for Christians the literal telling of the story is in direct contradiction to the gospel of Jesus Christ.¬† In the story of Noah, god has neither grace nor forgiveness for the sinner.¬† There is no warning given to the wicked people of the day, there is no call to “repent”, there is no message of love or salvation or forgiveness for them‚Ķthere is only death and destruction.¬† A G-d of love, peace, and forgiveness surely would have given them a chance.¬† There is no opportunity for salvation for the sinner.¬† Now, a literalist may point out that the god of the story does save Noah & his family‚Ķbut remember that there were (according to population estimates of the approx time) around 8-10 million people on the earth.¬† So god saves, what, like 8 people but kills literally a million times more.¬† Clearly this is a god who kills, not the G-d who saves.¬† Jesus, of course, tells a completely different story.¬† He proclaims that G-d saves the sinner, not that he kills them.¬† If we are literalists, we must choose between the god of Noah or the G-d of Jesus.

But does Jesus really speak of a different G-d than the author of the Noah narrative?¬† If we abandon literalism, then I believe he does.¬† If you have moment read the story again:¬† Genesis 6,7,8.¬† Note the points of emphasis and the points that the author seemingly glazes over with little care or attention.¬† There is really very little of the actual text that deals with the wicked people; explaining exactly how violent/corrupt they were or why they had to be killed.¬† The bulk of the text is spent discussing G-d’s interaction with Noah, the plans they formed together, the details of saving the lives of many animals and his family, and the saving grace of G-d on a simple man who was willing to put his trust in Him.

If we read the story as a piece of symbolic literature, flooding the earth and the elimination of the wicked seem to be plot devices supporting the story of salvation.¬† It’s a powerful story, originating from an author (or more probably group of authors).¬† When an author tells a story, he has a purpose. The best stories, those that maintain prominence throughout the ages, tell of a truth that surpasses reality (and literalism).¬† I believe this is the case for the story of Noah.

Imagine with me the author(s) of this epic. Most historians maintain that the narrative of Noah and the Ark (put aside Utnapishtim for now)¬†emerged during the time of Jewish captivity in Babylon (6th Century BCE). ¬†(For more about authorship check this out) ¬†Ancient Jews were seemingly always at war with the surrounding tribes and civilizations. ¬†Violence and corruption were a perpetual part of their story. Time and time again the Jews found themselves conquered and enslaved by other nations…ones who did not worship nor revere the one true G-d. ¬†It seems quite easy to empathize with the distraught author of the Noah epic. ¬†He looks around at the world and sees constant inequity. ¬†The heathens prosper while the people of G-d, the blameless and righteous ones, suffer. ¬†Surely it would be better for G-d to destroy the world; if only we could just start over with only His chosen people. ¬†One has to be in a pretty hopeless situation to desire an apocalypse; slavery and exile in an ancient foreign land seem like good reasons to wish that it would all just come to an end. ¬† It’s in this distressed state of mind that our author begins the story.

As we now move through our metaphorical tale, we see faith and hope emerge.  G-d speaks to his chosen. He reminds them that he has not forgotten their faithfulness.  He gives them a plan, one in which they can overcome the hopelessness of this present age; trading it for a hope in a brighter future.  G-d offers to replace a fallen world full of wickedness for a chance at a fresh start, a new beginning.  Imagine having the hope of a new life, the chance to be born again to the world afresh.

Now, through understanding the metaphor of apocalypse, we can see Jesus’ message in a story. ¬†We no longer need to read Noah’s story as an exclusive, violent, and frightening historical account of a wrathful god. ¬†We now see a narrative of redemption and¬†reclamation.¬†It encourages us that the world doesn’t need to stay the way this it is; that it isn’t hopeless. ¬†We can have faith in something better than today, we can strive to be a part of making the earth a better place. ¬†We can become positive agents of apocalypse in a world without hope. If we persist, if we do not give up, the evils of our age may one day be washed away by a powerful, cleansing flood.

How does this metaphorical interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark jive with you? ¬†If it is an appropriate interpretation what does it have to say about the John’s¬†apocalypse¬†in Revelation?

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2011 in Theology

 

King Nebuchadnezzar and The Pledge of Allegiance

From time to time the Pledge of Allegiance’s controversial “under God” clause surfaces in public dialogue. Recently, NBC ran a¬†montage during the U.S. Open featuring the Pledge. ¬†The phrase “under God” was edited out. ¬†To nobody’s surprise the Christian right flipped out. ¬†Immediately social networks were flooded with Christians shaming NBC for the omission. ¬†NBC officially apologized for the omission, twice. ¬†Leave it to my brethren to live Christ’s teaching by refusing to forgive them. ¬†A perfect example is found on the Christian Post:¬†NBC Pledge of Allegiance Apology ‘Too Little, Too Late;’ Christians Demand Explanation.

The message Christians have sent to the rest of the country is clear. ¬†Anybody who chooses to make a pledge to our nation without the specification of swearing by our God will be¬†publicly¬†shamed and alienated. ¬†Once the process of alienation has begun, even if an “offender” were to apologize, there will be no mercy. ¬†If you choose not to validate our beliefs in the form of public oath, we will take your personal religious beliefs as an “attack” on our faith and will label you an enemy of Christianity, our nation, and of God himself.

Now there is a defense that “God” is a generic word for a¬†deity, so it isn’t necessarily speaking of the Christian God. ¬†Might sound like a reasonable defense as far as other religions go…but then there are these conflicting facts:

  • Christians created the language in private religious groups before it was accepted into official use.
  • It was birthed in its public form in an actual Christian sermon, given in a Christian church, when witnessed by a newly Christian president in 1954.
  • A Christian majority Congress passed the¬†amending¬†resolution in 1954.
  • The only consistent public defenses for the clause has come from Christians.
  • In cases like the afore-mentioned, it is the Christians who embark on public campaigns to berate the “offender”.

There is not, to my knowledge, any reasonable defense of requiring atheists or agnostics to recite a national pledge containing a religious clause. ¬†In cases where there is no “requirement” to recite the clause…just try leaving it out, as NBC did, and see how the Christians respond. ¬†Could you imagine if a Muslim American substituted the Arabic word “allah” or “ōßŔĄŔĄŔᔬ†for our english word “god”? ¬†It is the exact¬†equivalent, just in a different language, so I’m sure the Family Research Council would be fine with that, right? ¬†Imagine if a Hindu said “gods” instead of “God” since they are not monotheistic. ¬†Would the religious right be alright with that? ¬†It’s obvious that the Christians who lobby for and defend this language are absolutely seeking a pledge made to and sworn by their Christian God. ¬†Make no mistake, the same people lobbying for “under God” in the Pledge are the same ones who believe there should be no separation between church and state and that America is a “Christian nation”.

Ok, so where is my metaphor…I should stay true to the theme of the blog so here it is:

Excerpt from Daniel 3
King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide,¬†and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.¬†He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up.¬†Then the herald loudly proclaimed, ‚ÄúNations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do:¬†As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.¬†Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.‚ÄĚ…At this time some astrologers¬†came forward and denounced the Jews.¬†They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‚Äú…there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon‚ÄĒShadrach, Meshach and Abednego‚ÄĒwho pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.‚ÄĚ
Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. …Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‚ÄúIs it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up?¬†Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?‚ÄĚ
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, ‚ÄúKing Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.¬†If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us¬†from Your Majesty‚Äôs hand.¬†But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.‚ÄĚ

Many of us know the rest of the story. They don’t bow, Nebbie has them thrown into the oven, they don’t die and walk through the flames with God. ¬†One one level, this story is one of the many “our God is better than your Gods” stories found in the Old Testament; but on another level this story is about religious freedom and standing up to the tyranny of theocracy. ¬†Ask yourself if this story would lose its power and meaning if we swapped some of the religious identities. ¬†What if we moved the story from¬†Babylon to Jerusalem, and the leader was a Jewish king burning religious minorities alive. ¬†Would that be morally superior just because they were doing it in the name of the “right” God? ¬†I would contend it is not. ¬†Or perhaps move the story to America, in our time. ¬†Should a Christian majority in a democracy be permitted to force religious minorities to follow their religious laws and force them to make pledges of¬†allegiance¬†to their God? ¬†Should we be proud that we are have become more civilized and have swapped a furnace for ostracizing a person or group for not sharing our religious beliefs? ¬†This story, as well as the historical record, should have taught us that when religious leaders govern minority faiths (or non-believers) it tends to end in oppression. ¬†This absolutely holds true for Christianity; but it also holds for Islam and I would say includes an atheism that forces its belief structure on others as well.

As a Christian, I have no desire to live under the religious control of the Christian right. ¬†I feel no obligation to take a pledge that affirms their religious ideals. ¬†But let me go further, I have little more desire to live under the religious control of Christians who share my theologies. ¬†If I am unwilling to live under the religious¬†coercion¬†of another faith, than I should absolutely not do such a thing to others. ¬†I don’t feel any just and free society should have the ability to demand religious allegiance; especially in the form of national pledges. ¬†No person should live in fear of religious oppression, whether the “punishment” for unbelief is being brutally executed or¬†publicly¬†shamed and alienated. ¬†No citizen should feel like an outsider or be demoted to second-class status simply because they do not share the same religious convictions with the majority.

So on this Independence Day, I encourage my fellow Christians to lend the strength of our numbers to minority religions, agnostics, and atheists.  I believe that we can show them love by pledging our allegiance to the principles of religious freedom.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Christianity, Emerging Church

 
 
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