First Sunday in Advent

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel - Rembrandt

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel – Rembrandt

It was the First Sunday in Advent and the last in November. We were in the shadow of the end of a millennium, and – unbeknownst to me – the beginning of a seismic change in the direction of my life.  In the Lectionary readings, Isaiah reminded us that – flawed though we are – we are clay in the hands of a loving Potter.  Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of Mark, cried, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” And the Apostle Paul reminded us that we lack for nothing because our Savior strengthens us and God is faithful.

I let their voices roll around in my head as I made my way to Madison, Georgia. I had time to review my sermon, as it was more than an hour drive from our house in the city to the small, country church where I was the pastor. I often made that drive alone or in the company of our infant son. My wife Brigit worked most Sundays. Our son John-Francis heard his first homilies snuggled comfortably in the arms of any number of kind, older Southern ladies more than happy to sit with him on the back pew while I preached.

This Sunday, however, our whole family was together, and we made our way along the highway in the companionable silence of the early morning. The air had a hint of chill to it, but the sky was a cloudless blue against cleared fields and baled hay that shone a bright gold in the Georgia sun. If we looked closely, there were signs that winter was on its way, but for the moment we were happy to enjoy the last, gilded days of the South’s mildest season.

Advent, which begins the liturgical year for Christians around the world, is a season of hope. Often this hope is tied to the memory of the incarnation of Jesus, because the Christmas season is right around the corner, but the hope of Advent is even larger. In the four weeks before Christmas we remember that everyone and everything we know or value will someday pass away, and at the end of time our hope lies not in our accomplishments, but in the grace of God.

That is a more complex and subtle flavor of hope than the simple message of holiday greeting cards and Christmas carols. I had struggled with how to convey the texts’ messages of challenge and warning to my congregation, while also making certain to offer the hope that was at the center of the season and the gospel itself. I was not overly concerned. They were good sports.  Matriarchs, dairy farmers, mechanics, veterans, professionals – they had helped me grow into my calling while patiently teaching me to do the job for which seminary had given me the tools but not the workshop.

Normally I was the first to arrive, although the wife of one of our deacons would have come a couple hours earlier to turn on the heat. Today, however, I turned down the gravel drive to see that our aged white steeple presided over a parking lot full of cars. The congregation was over two hundred years old, and had once overseen a legendary revival that had prompted the citizens of a nearby town to rename their city “Newborn.” I wondered if a similarly great awakening was about to take place.

Brigit and John-Francis entered with me and found their usual spots for Sunday School while I went to my office to look over my sermon. I did not have much time to ponder the mystery of our increased church attendance, since the hour for Worship arrived swiftly. Our lector that day was the Chair of the Deacons, and his rumbling baritone proclaimed, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

“At least this Sunday,” I thought acerbically, “if you came down you’d find the pews filled.  I wish I knew why.” Still contemplating the sheer number of freshly-soaped faces staring at me intently, I launched into a lackluster but adequate sermon to begin the new Church Year.

I quickly realized something was very wrong. Anyone who has had the privilege to preach in a rural, evangelical congregation knows that we are well-trained. We can tell by the preacher’s inflections and facial expressions when we are supposed to laugh, and so we do – even if the joke is a familiar one or more than a little lame (and further hobbled by the preacher’s delivery). Church is a place where we remember not to take the world too seriously, and our shared laughter creates its own liturgy, honoring the joy that is at the heart of the gospel.

There was no laughter in the congregation that day.  For twenty minutes I tossed the crumbs of my sermon onto a sea of blank stares, and all that came back was a sense that something was coming and everyone knew it but me.  For the first time I felt the fear that is also a part of the season of Advent.  The axe was at the root of the tree, and I suspected the fire was yet to come.

When it did, it was during the announcements and in the whispered words of the same Deacon who had read from Isaiah, “Pastor, the Deacons would like a word with you if you have the time.”

We met in the Sunday School room that also served as the space for business meetings. The Chair stood and read a prepared statement which began, “Pastor, this is nothing personal…”

As with “This is not about you, it’s about me,” an introit like this invariably leads to a blow that is both deeply personal and carelessly brutal. This conversation would prove to be no exception. I was given the opportunity to tender my resignation (pastors are almost never fired), presented with a minimal severance check, and asked to leave and never return.

The church had called a meeting in the wee hours of the morning prior to my arrival that day. I was not invited. There was only one agenda item: my sermon from the previous Sunday.

On that day, the 21st of November – Reign of Christ Sunday – I had deviated from the Lectionary and preached from a selection of texts I had chosen to address an event on the minds of all our members. The previous week our state ecclesiastical body had expelled two congregations for the first time in the nearly 200-year-long history of their existence. The two Atlanta churches – both served by friends of mine – were clear and public in their advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. The rhetoric against those two communities of faith, especially in rural parishes like mine, had grown passionate and vitriolic.

I had entered the pulpit that previous Sunday terrified. I even brought two sermons with me, one from the lectionary that proclaimed the hope of unity in the reign of Christ, and the other from a collection of epistles and gospel fragments addressing pastorally the issue of homosexuality. My professional and prayerful opinion – then as now – was that any consistent, faithful approach to Scripture does not allow for the condemnation of homosexuality.

I didn’t want to say that to my congregation. I told myself that my reluctance was because they would not be able to hear the why of such a sermon because they would not be able to get past the what of it. Over the course of a sleepless night I realized that my real fear was losing a job I loved, a career path I was quickly ascending, and a paycheck that we desperately needed to pay our mortgage.

The writers in Proverbs remind us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” and ultimately that persuaded me which sermon to preach on the 21st. To this day, I recall the image that I could not shake – of me, standing before Almighty God, and God asking me why I refused to speak the truth from the pulpit. If even a single word I had ever proclaimed were true, how could I face my Creator and admit that the one time it really mattered I was more concerned with protecting myself than speaking for those on whom the Church had turned its back?

And so I had ended the previous liturgical year with the proclamation that the gospel included our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters just as they were. A week later, I started the season of Advent unemployed and unlikely to find a new congregation. My church, to its credit, had not been unanimous in their response to my sermon. Many had argued to keep me, but had ultimately agreed that the loss of an idealistic, big-city pastor was better for the church than the inevitable congregational split.

My colleagues were quick to offer their support. One – who had prayed during my ordination that God would take me, bless me, break me, and give me away – told me, “You were taken out for offering your very best stuff.  Don’t ever forget that.” I haven’t. Another simply told me, “They were wrong.  You were right.” Less helpfully, a number of them called to tell me “I wish I could have said what you said, but…” The pastors of both congregations that had been removed from our communion called to tell me I was part of their story too. I will always be honored that they counted me among their courageous number.

I also heard from a number of people whom I did not know. They told me how the Church had wounded them. They told me how painful it was to be told that they had to choose between the God to whom they had given their soul and the person who was their soulmate. I came to realize what a small price I had paid for the privilege of speaking on their behalf.

A part of me had known that a moment like that would come at some point in my ministry, but my ego had assumed that the stage would be larger and the consequences more far-reaching. A small, inconsequential church in a distant farming community hardly seemed worth the permanent sacrifice of my professional career.

But the gospel does not work that way. The riddle of Advent is that we are called to hope for a kingdom yet to come, while understanding that it will only arrive if we live as if it were already here. If we spend our lives waiting for that big chance to live out that hope, the opportunity for us to make a “real” difference, we miss the thousands of moments where we could have taken just a tiny bit of hate, anger, bigotry, or ignorance out of the world and replaced it with a little kindness, grace, or wisdom. Sometimes, the price we pay for that little bit of faithfulness or courage seems exorbitant, but – as anyone who has faced despair will tell you – that is nonsense. Hope is priceless.

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Let’s Talk about the Bible

Still Life with Open Bible - Vincent van Gogh

Still Life with Open Bible – Vincent van Gogh

Disagreements with fundamentalists ultimately end with a discussion of the Bible, an area that should be fertile ground for debate.  Unfortunately, social progressives, mainstream Christians, and non-Christians all-too-often surrender the high ground to those who claim to “believe the Bible,” operating on the assumption that social conservatives probably believe more of the Bible than they do.  This is very likely not the case.

The Christian Bible is not a single book, it is a collection of 66 canonical writings, divided into the Hebrew Bible from before the time of Jesus and the New Testament from after.  Those writings span over a thousand years, with input from multiple sources and multiple rounds of editing for purposes both theological and political.  Cultures can change a lot in a thousand years, and the writings of the Christian Scriptures consequently contain a number of different perspectives on every major issue they address.  As a result, nearly any idea can be supported “biblically” simply by privileging one text over another.

Think that women should not be allowed to be ordained?  I Corinthians 14:34 says that “women should be silent in the churches.”  Think they should?  Galatians 3:28 says that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Believe there is one God?  Monotheism was well-established in Jerusalem by the time the  second half of Isaiah was written, and Isaiah 43:10 states that there was no god before or after the god of Israel.  However, there’s still some polytheism lingering in the biblical writings.  The plural pronouns and verbs in Genesis 1, for instance, or the poetic references to the “gods” in the Psalms (82, 86, 95, 135).

Whether you want to defend or oppose predestination (Ephesians 1:4-5 vs. Galatians 5:4), pacifism (Matthew 5:39 vs. Luke 22:36), or poverty (Matthew 6:19-21 vs. Malachi 3:10)  as Christian virtues (or vices), you can take a “biblical” stance simply by privileging one verse over the other.  If you privilege the right texts, you can even defend child sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40)  or genocide (Joshua 8:24-26).  Of course, if you do, people will think you are a “nut” or a “fanatic” for taking the wrong texts literally.

And therein lies the difficulty.  If you are a Christian, and have an opinion on any of the issues I raised above, you already know the arguments used to minimize the texts that disagree with your position and privilege the ones that agree with you.  If you are a person of any faith, it’s “common sense” to you that the texts that support really heinous things are not intended to be interpreted literally.  Regardless of what the text actually says, or meant to its original audience, our natural instinct is to explain away that which fundamentally disagrees with our respective ideas of who God is.

None of this is logically consistent, but it doesn’t matter because – for almost everyone – sacred texts work more like a mirror than a lamp; we see our own beliefs reflected clearly in the book open before us.  As a result, some people get away with making ludicrous claims like “God wrote every word of the Bible” and “God’s Word never changes” and “I believe the Bible is literally true.”

If that’s the case, then God thinks that victims of rape should be executed if they do not scream out during the assault (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), and that otherwise they should marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).  God thinks that genocide, including the massacre of children, is justifiable (Joshua 8:24-26, 10:37).  God sends spirits into the world to lie to us (I Kings 22:19-23) and do evil (I Samuel 19:9).  God advocates rape as a legitimate form of acquiring wives (Judges 21:10-24), and even promises to give a king’s wives to their rapist, so that they can be raped “in broad daylight” (II Samuel 12:11-14).

Again, those who are raised with the claim that being a Christian means “believing every word of the Bible” have a stockpile of ready explanations for each of these texts.  “Things were different then.”  “These are very specific circumstances.”  “God doesn’t approve of this, it’s just what they believed or did.”  None of these excuses are consistent with actually believing that an unchanging God wrote every word of the Bible, but that is not really relevant to their argument.  They want to believe two mutually exclusive things: “God holds the same basic values I do” and “Every word of the Bible is literally true.”  Rather than resolve the conflict with critical thinking, these well-meaning believers simply re-interpret – against all evidence and logic – that which is inconsistent with their idea of God.

Nearly everyone does this on the really heinous material (of which I have given only a few examples, above).  This then lays the groundwork for privileging some texts over others on the more controversial theological claims (also mentioned above) while still claiming to believe every word of the Bible is from God.  The end result is that anyone can come up with any idea and claim it is “biblical.”  That adjective is as meaningless (and persuasive) as the claim to “believe the Bible, every word,” and both claims are hard to challenge in a way that persuades the claimant, so they rarely are.

In fact, cultural biases actually help those who want to make these claims.  Most people think “conservative” and “traditional” means what their grandparents or great-grandparents believed or did.  They lack the historical literacy to know what Christians believed or did a thousand or two thousand years ago.  As a result, when fundamentalists claim that they are the “traditional” Christians who “believe the Bible” because they oppose homosexuality or women’s rights or social welfare programs or whatever their cause du jour is, most folks – conservative or otherwise – let them get away with that claim.

In reality, their claim is absurd.  They are ignoring just as much of the Bible, and just as much Christian tradition, as the “liberals” they oppose; but, because the general assumption is that the social conservatives must be the ones who take the Bible literally, no one calls them out on it.  Unfortunately, the claim to biblical authority is surrendered on all fronts.  Their fellow fundamentalists assume that the social “conservatives” are taking the Bible literally because they are already in their camp, and they are already picking and choosing in the same fashion.  Everyone else takes the fundamentalists at their word because there is a general belief in the wider culture that the biblical writers must have been socially conservative themselves.

In other words, even though no one, not one single person, takes everything in the Bible literally, fundamentalists are allowed to make the claim that they are the biblical literalists because their fellow conservatives refuse to admit their own cognitive dissonance, and because their opponents lack the historical or biblical knowledge to fully deconstruct the absurdity of the claim.

And so, there is a continual process in which biblical “literalists” selectively ignore the things with which they disagree while simultaneously vehemently quoting the Bible to fight progressive changes in the culture.  Then, when those progressive ideas become “common sense” in the culture, the biblical “literalists” add the passages they previously quoted so passionately to the list of texts they now ignore or reinterpret, and then move on to a new battle in the culture wars.

There are two obvious examples of this.  The first is the idea of a round Earth in a heliocentric solar system.  In the early Renaissance, one of the few things that the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Christians could agree on was that any Bible-believing Christian knew that the Earth was the center of the solar system, and the Universe.  The Bible was definitely on their side.  Joshua 10:12-13, Habakkuk 3:11, I Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93 & 96 and many other texts describe a fixed Earth resting on sold foundations, around which the Sun and Moon orbit.  The very oldest story in the very first book even describes how the Earth was formed with a clear dome above it to hold back the “waters above” – beyond which the Sun and Moon orbited.  An omnipotent God, writing an infallible text, certainly could not have made such an egregious and repeated error, and the biblical literalists of the Early Renaissance knew this for certain.  Eventually, however, the scientific evidence made a heliocentric solar system indisputable for every person with even a minimal education, and the biblical “literalists” now interpret those texts allegorically.

[As an aside, they often do so with wonderfully circular logic.  “How do you know it’s intended allegorically and not literally?”  “Because it’s not literally true, so God must have meant it to be an allegory.”  “So, anything in the Bible that is not literally true must be an allegory, because the Bible is always literally true?”  “Yes!”]

A more recent example is the issue of slavery.  The biblical writers are very clear about their perspective on the issue of owning someone and using them as your property – they are fine with it.  Slavery comes up regularly in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and none of the writers take the opportunity to condemn the institution.  Slaves who are not taken from the Israelites (who are specifically exempted from the “harshness” of slavery) are property – plain and simple (Leviticus 25:44-46).  Exodus gives rules for parents who sell their daughters into sex slavery, but it never condemns the practice (Exodus 21:7-10).  The Pauline epistles are very clear that slaves are to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, I Timothy 6:1-2).  Jesus himself talks of slaves getting beaten, with the ones who didn’t know what they did wrong only receiving a light beating (Luke 12:42-48).  Also in Luke, Jesus is quoted as noting that a person does not invite their slave to come in and eat with them after they have worked in the fields; instead they are told to also fix supper.  “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17:7-10).

Prior to the nineteenth century, good biblical literalists knew what these passages meant:  God was fine with slavery, and even set rules for how to go about selling your daughter into sexual slavery and the importance of being an obedient slave.  Of course, the culture has shifted since then, and now even those who claim to believe that an unchanging God wrote every word of the Bible refuse to take these passages literally.  They can’t ignore the references, so they try to make claims that the “slavery” of the Bible was somehow different from the abusive slavery of more recent eras.  Of course, in the biblical version of slavery, a slave could be beaten severely, as long as they did not die immediately “for the slave is the owner’s property” (Exodus 21:20-21); and the penalty for raping a slave was only financial, not capital (Leviticus 19:20-22), so those claims seem more than a little disingenuous.

This pattern – of selectively quoting some passages and ignoring others while claiming to “believe the Bible” – has been repeated for centuries and will likely continue for as long as the Bible is read and quoted.  Ultimately, however, any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, holy or sinful, healthy or destructive – any such claim can be defended with Scripture.  “I know this makes no sense otherwise, and I know it seems mean or spiteful or bigoted, but I only believe it because I believe the Bible” is the refuge of cowardice and ignorance.  Not only is the person already ignoring or subordinating everything in the Bible with which they disagree, the Bible can be used to support any position.  People don’t argue from the Bible; the argue using the Bible.

So then, is the Bible useless?  Certainly not.  Even while denominations were forming to defend the institution of slavery, and slave-owners were using the Bible as a tool for oppression, the slaves working in the fields heard in the story of Exodus their own story, and found hope of deliverance.  Like any versatile and finely-made tool, the Bible can be used to create or destroy, to oppress or give hope.

To use it effectively, however, we have to let the Bible be what it is:  a collection of writings shaped by the wisdom and the prejudices of a plentitude of different authors and editors.  Once we make that admission, when we find something in Scripture that we might be inclined to use to oppress, to harm, to wound, or to exclude another of God’s creatures, we are much more likely to recognize that it is best to err on the side of compassion and common sense.  Recognizing that no one takes the Bible literally, and that every generation changes what they are certain it means to understand the Bible, we must all accept the possibility that we are wrong.  Once we realize that we have no choice but to live with that level of ambiguity, then we are obligated to err toward inclusiveness, kindness, and love – because “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), for God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7).

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Being Theologically Conservative

Scutum Fidei

Scutum Fidei (Wikipedia)

Enough friends have asked me how I can be pro-GLBT, pro-choice, and a socialist and still consider myself theologically “conservative” that I decided to answer in more detail here.

The first point that I should probably clear up is that being theologically conservative is not the same thing as being socially conservative. Despite what Focus on the Family and other fringe groups on the axis of intolerance want you to think, Christian views on social issues have changed from generation to generation – and they’ve changed dramatically from era to era. If Christianity is defined by a particular social agenda, then there have been almost no Christians since the third century.

Likewise, trying to use some form of convoluted logic to make the words of the Christian scriptures “inerrant” is not being a theological conservative. Clearly the people who wrote, compiled, and edited the Jewish and Christian scriptures didn’t think they were creating an inerrant collection of documents. They would have made them more homogeneous if they had. People who talk about biblical “inerrancy” are really just using a code word for their desire to subordinate Scripture to their social agenda; and they typically do so with people who don’t have the scholarly background to appreciate how ludicrous their claims really are (or to realize that the “inerrantists” aren’t conserving anything, they’re creating a new doctrine).

The reason that I began with the negatives, defining what “theologically conservative” is not, is that – for me – paring Christian identity down to the essentials was part of the process of defining my own role as a pastor. Through ordination, the Church entrusts to its clergy the custodianship of the Chruch’s identity; and so understanding what is “Christian” and what is not is part of a pastor’s role. Consequently, when I was ordained I realized it was important to try have a working definition of the word “Christian” if I was going to be able to do my job well.

If one takes this exercise seriously, it’s harder than it seems. On one side, there are the shrill voices of the fundamentalists. In order to place their counter-cultural assertions beyond critique, fundamentalists insist that even the most minute component of their doctrine, no matter how scant the biblical or historical support for it might be, is an essential part of being “Christian.”

On the other side are the real liberals. They claim the label Christian, while ignoring, denying, or contradicting nearly everything that Christians have historically believed – be it the deity of Christ or even the authority of God.

Both extremes have kept the label “Christian” because they have positive associations with it or because it gives greater credibility to their belief systems; but in neither case is the label helpful. “Being a ‘Christian’ means understanding the world exactly the way I do, even if I don’t realize that the way I understand the world is very different from how Christians have historically understood it!” is not a useful definition. Nor is, “Being a ‘Christian’ can really mean anything as long as you include the word ‘Jesus’ in there somewhere.”

But with so many groups offering so many different, and contradictory, understandings of what it means to be a Christian, where can one turn? For me, the logical answer was (and is): Scripture and History.

Scripture alone is not completely helpful in this regard. Even if one limits such a search to the New Testament, the authors there wrote from very different perspectives and with different, sometimes competing, agendas. One of the reasons for the great variation in modern definitions of Christianity is that, lacking an external locus of authority, people have picked and chosen what they liked from Scripture to define Christianity.

An example here is the debate over predestination versus free will. There are biblical passages that support both positions, but adherents to each camp will insist that their position is the correct, Christian view. They do this by privileging the texts which support their view, and subordinating the texts which disagree with them. As a result, they claim that they are simply “taking the Bible at face value” and “letting Scripture alone define their beliefs.” What they are really doing, however, is imposing their beliefs on Scripture.

A couple of useful things come out of this realization. The first is that lots of things that might be helpful to have in a consensus definition of Christianity (like, for instance, settling the question of predestination) can’t be included. That’s because the biblical record is too mixed. This is even true on really major questions like the mechanism of justification/salvation, and on key social issues like slavery. If one approaches Scripture honestly, allowing its authors to speak with their individual voices, it becomes clear that the basic definition of Christianity, its essential heart, must allow for a diversity of views on many theological points.

Also, the value of history becomes clear. “Christian” isn’t just defined by Scripture. It is defined by the people who died for the gospel in the first few centuries of the Church’s development. It is defined by the people who, 350 years after the time of Christ, selected, compiled, and edited the Scriptures that would become the Bible. It is defined, in short, by the historical identity of the Church.

In addition to the necessity of history in establishing some consensus on interpreting Scripture, a study of Christian history is essential since that is the history of the Bible. Scripture was not created ex nihilo. The same process of prayer, study, debate, and encounter with the world which produced the creeds and early doctrines of the Church is the process which produced the Christian Scriptures. The Bible did not come to be in a vacuum, and trying to interpret it outside the context which produced it is nonsensical.

And so, in my personal journey to find a working, consensus definition of Christianity, I turned to Scripture and history. Fortunately, at that point my work was really done. Christians had already worked out two beautiful, consensus statements of what it means to identify oneself as Christians: the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. Interestingly, neither statement makes any mention of social issues or addresses the kinds of minutiae that Christians use for division and dispute these days. There was already enough history of dispute over those kinds of things that the Church knew that any statement of faith which was based on them would exclude more Christians than would include them.

Instead, the creeds focus on the heart of Christianity: a specific understanding of metaphyscial reality. This includes the preeminence of God, the deity of Jesus, the reality of the Holy Spirit, the brokenness of humanity, the need for restoration to the divine reality of God, the importance of community, and the defeat of death through the suffering, execution, and physical resurrection of Jesus, God Incarnate.

It is not in its practical morality that Christianity defines itself. Lots of groups produce moral views that are nearly identical to those held by most Christians. Nor is it in its explanation of the inexplicable that Christianity defines itself. The creeds are noticeably lacking in the kind of theological specificity that modern logic craves. The holy is, by definition, “other” and undefinable.

The uniqueness of Christianity is found in its metaphysical claims, its assertions about the nature of the human condition and the reality of a holy Creator seeking a relationship with us. It is for that reality – made explicit in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – that the martyrs gave their lives. It is that reality that Paul proclaimed on Mars Hill. It is that reality which, no matter how it is encumbered by our own agendas and weaknesses, changes lives to this day. To deny any part of those metaphysical claims is to create new set of metaphysical beliefs, essentially a new religion. If someone wishes to do so, far be it from me to stop them. Nevertheless, a new religion needs a new name. It is not “Christianity.”

To finally answer the question, I define myself as “theologically conservative” because I define the gospel – the good news of Christianity – in a way that is consistent with how Christians have historically defined it. No matter how trendy or convenient, I will not take away anything from the heart of that confession. There is a God, incarnate in Jesus, who died of necessity to restore relationship with a broken humanity, and in his resurrection is victory over death.

Nor will I add to that definition, as fundamentalists do with (ironically) their own kind of liberalism – assuming somehow that their specific, modern understanding of morality and social issues is the unique and most accurate understanding of Christianity. In so doing, they ignore both the consensus of history and the diversity of Scripture, treating both dishonestly or, at best, disingenuously.

I am theologically conservative because I believe that, to be a “Christian” means to neither add to nor subtract from the common beliefs of those who died to give the word its meaning.

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Politics Should Stay Out of the Pulpit

Originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 5, 2008 .

Last weekend, a few pastors of large, evangelical congregations chose to convert their pulpits into planks for the Republican party platform. These participants in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” sought to challenge IRS regulations that maintain a wall between tax-exempt religious activities and taxable political ones. Citing controversial issues like reproductive freedom and same-sex marriage, they claimed that a biblical mandate required them to take a more activist role in instructing their congregants to chose the candidate who matched their political beliefs.

Their actions are yet one more indicator of the degree to which purveyors of a reactionary political agenda have continued to shield their propaganda behind the presumably sacrosanct rhetoric of the Church. The decision by these pastors to endorse a particular presidential candidate also demonstrates that the IRS’ distinction, which affirms the right of faith communities to discuss current events in the light of their traditions while denying them tax-exempt status when they move beyond that realm into partisanship, is a wise one. Simply put, stumping for a political candidate is not a religious activity.

This becomes immediately obvious when the particular agenda items cited by these pastors and the lobbyists who guide them are held up against the scriptures and traditions of the Christian faith which they claim to be preserving. In this election cycle three of the largest issues among socially conservative evangelicals are: elimination of access to abortion, prevention of equal rights for gay and lesbian couples, and the teaching of “intelligent design” in schools.

None of this issues hold up to even a cursory attempt to identify them with a consensus understanding of Christianity. Abortion is not addressed in the Bible, and Christian denominations in the U.S. hold a variety of positions on the ethics around reproductive freedom. Likewise, biblical arguments for and against same-sex marriage are sufficiently ambiguous that Christians and the denominations which represent them are divided on the issue, with the trend being toward more inclusion of clergy in same-sex relationships and blessings of same-sex marriages. As for a “biblical” understanding of how the universe was made, Christians who wish to hold with their tradition and a literal reading of the Bible must accept the biblical writers’ assumption of a flat earth and they must also agree with both Martin Luther and Pope Urban the VIII that, despite the data, the Sun goes around the Earth.

In other words, the socially and scientifically regressive arguments trumpeted by these pastors are not specifically or essentially “Christian” views. They are a last stand by social conservatives who, having lost ground in every other arena, attempt to hide their worldview behind the language of belief. In so doing, they are trying to safeguard their agenda from the scrutiny of logic and ethics on the assumption that faith claims are beyond those critiques.

They are not, but most of us are content to recognize that it is not the government’s role to evaluate the degree to which faith communities are honest about their own tradition. Consequently, churches are free to make remarkably bigoted and intransigent statements without challenge. For years, political activists have abused this freedom to produce single-issue voters whose decisions are forged, not in the thoughtful debate of the public arena, but behind the closed doors of sanctuaries and chapels.

This process has remained unchecked for so long that some pastors are now crossing the only remaining, clearly-delineated line between their churches and the state. They have reneged on their obligation to nurture houses of worship where Christians of all political persuasions can find a home. Instead, they are selling out the entire depth and breadth of the Christian tradition to the Machiavellian desires of a narrow political faction, one that will go back to ignoring those pastors and their churches as soon as the election is over. The only remaining question will be what those churches will do after they pay the taxes on their thirty pieces of silver.

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Waffling Candidates Unworthy of Support

This originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 31, 2002.

It is far more common to hear someone say “I think …” than to hear “I believe …” A statement of belief is a risky venture, since it is very likely that others will hold us to such a strong statement in the future. Somehow, though, politicians seem to get a free pass in this regard. Perhaps because their strength more often rests on their popularity and charisma than on their integrity; few people even bother to peek beneath the rhetoric and see if a public figure has ever really stood for something. If a voter does go to the effort, they are rarely surprised if a holder of the public trust has failed to take a consistent stand on what they claim to believe.

We have seen two prominent examples of this in local politics. Recently, in an apparent reversal of his public commitment to Georgia Right-to-Life’s zero-tolerance opposition to abortion, Georgia Senatorial candidate Saxby Chambliss stated that he now supports abortion in certain cases. Chambliss’ previous, stronger stand was made when he was courting far-right voters in a primary. Now that he needs moderate support in a statewide race, he seems to be painting himself as a moderate. What does he really believe?

Similarly, in the 11 th District Republican primary, the Rev. Dr. Cecil Staton – a former colleague in the explicitly pro-gay Alliance of Baptists – decided to reinvent himself as a champion of the causes of the radical right. Using their divisive rhetoric Dr. Staton turned the primary into a competition to see which candidate could prove himself to be the most anti-gay. On the surface, this should not have been a tough call considering Gingrey’s record and Staton’s former membership in the Alliance of Baptists.

Unfortunately, the Staton campaign fell back on a tactic that gay and lesbian people know all too well – they dissembled. Claiming ignorance of the Alliance’s well-known stand, Staton began to heavily downplay his role as a leading publisher of progressive baptist scholarship. In a similar fashion, Chambliss now claims that he was not aware of the extremism of the Georgia Right-to-Life pledge he endorsed.

This kind of waffling is nothing new to politics, or to faith communities for that matter. Most clergy hold onto their pulpits using the same skills that others use to gain political office – and with similar results. When leaders – be they political or religious – act out of expediency rather than conviction, then the institutions they serve continue to be vehicles for oppression.

It is therefore no surprise that the topics which Staton and Chambliss felt compelled to hedge around dealt with sexual minorities and women. If a political leader is more concerned about placation than integrity, then strong stands for either of these groups are a liability to their success. On the other hand, when a politician wins because of their ability to change with the political winds, we as their constituents become the losers.

We lose the opportunity for our children to see clear examples of people acting with integrity. We lose the opportunity for honest dialogue – a prerequisite for genuine understanding and real progress on any issue. Finally, we lose because the voices of the minority views are never heard.

I have seen this first hand in local faith communities – particularly in relation to Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender people of faith. Time and again I have heard clergy state their willingness to affirm homosexuality in private; only to mumble their unwillingness to do the same from the pulpit. Their lack of integrity allows bigots to continue to use “religion” as a club against gay and lesbian persons. In addition, it places their GLBT parishioners in the untenable position of feeling as if they must choose between their faith and the person they love.

As an explicitly pro-gay, socially liberal minister, it would be my preference to vote for candidates who clearly and explicitly – without prevarication – support my ideology. Barring the unlikely arrival of such a candidate in Georgia, I would rather vote for a person who openly and consistently disagrees with me than support someone who simply says what they think I want to hear.

At some point we have to set our respective agendas aside and say that – even in politics – there is a level of dishonesty that is completely unacceptable. Ideology is important. Honest dialogue on our beliefs, however, can only take place among people of character. It is therefore incumbent on all of us – liberal or conservative – to insist that every candidate for the public trust be held to the highest standard of integrity. If we do so consistently and vocally, across party lines, perhaps we can draw the kind of leaders who will sincerely work for all of us, and not just for themselves.

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