Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A National Trigger


The incident at the Lincoln Memorial over the weekend was a national trigger.

What we saw in the widely circulated videos depended on what we were looking for. I have very little interest in conflicting opinions currently being shared about “what really happened.” I have little interest in berating “the media” for bias or decrying viral videos shared on social media. The interactions among three very diverse groups of Americans triggered us, and I have a lot of interest in that.

The malevolent spirit at work in our nation lurks just under the surface, and it doesn’t take very much at all to unleash it. And this surreal malevolence doesn’t care about “what really happened” or the current realities of how we consume our information. The only thing on the agenda for this spirit is to keep us all mad at each other. And this week we got triggered.

This weekend, the malevolent spirit got exactly what it wanted.

By and large our leaders have also succumbed to its influence. At the federal and state level (at least) our elected and appointed leaders seem to do nothing to alleviate our anxiety. Caught up in the bizarre malevolence themselves, they seem to be helpless against its power. Instead of defusing, they add fuel. Instead of compromising, they double down. Instead of seeking common good, they seek reelection.

I have written about this phenomenon before, of course. And yet I am stymied. I continue to believe that the only force at work in the world capable of overcoming this malevolence is love. As I said back in September, “resisting the surreal malevolence at work in the world requires us to announce, advocate for, and embody true love.”

By "true love," I mean “a deep, bold love that is brutal in its honesty and equally brutal in its graciousness. A love that insists on authenticity and vulnerability. A love that is at the same time both pliable and unyielding. A love that is at the same time naked and wearing the full armor of God. A love that is the paradox of the deepest pain and the most ecstatic joy.”

Three diverse groups of people interacted in front of the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, and we were all triggered. As Lincoln gazed on, I wonder what he would have said, how he would have responded. Perhaps with something like…

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Beyond "Right" or "Wrong" - Thoughts on Interpretation


My dear progressive friends, of course it is possible to interpret the Bible as condemning same-sex marriage. It isn’t even very hard to arrive at that interpretation.

But, my dear conservative friends, a claim that the Bible itself directly condemns same-sex marriage is not supportable. It just doesn’t.

For someone who takes the Bible very seriously as a moral code intended to govern human behavior, this is the interpretive lens through which the entire book is read. And for one with such an interpretive lens, obedience to God is a matter of applying the text directly to personal behaviors. And sometimes you make a few interpretive steps to get there. And all of that is fine; we all do that.

So, in order to go from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to a belief that same-sex marriage should not happen in the church, you have to go through several interpretive steps.
- You have to interpret the Biblical euphemism “lie with” (the typical interpretation is “have sex with”).
- Since the passages only mention men, you have to interpret the passages as applying to both men and women, unless your claim is that same-sex marriage is only condemned for men but for women it is okay.
- You have to interpret sex as either synonymous with marriage or the only or primary reason someone would get married.
- You have to interpret the “as with a woman” (NRSV) part of the phrase from a heteronormative perspective. That is, you have to interpret it with the assumption that all men would in fact lie with a woman. (The truth is that gay men would not, so the strictest literal reading of these lines does not apply to a homosexual man.)

In order to go from Romans 1:27 to a belief that same-sex marriage should not happen in the church, you have to go through several similar interpretive steps.
- You have to interpret the “Therefore” in verse 24 and the “For this reason” in verse 26 in such a way that does not directly connect verse 27 to what has come before. (The previous verses are a description of idolatry.)
- You have to interpret words like “degrading,” “unnatural,” and “shameless” (NRSV) as applying to loving, mutually respectful, life-long, covenant relationships (i.e. marriages).
- You have to interpret marriage as consisting of being “consumed with passion for one another” (NRSV), or otherwise interpret degrading and shameless sex as synonymous with marriage or a primary reason for marriage, or have a preconceived notion that homosexual sex is inherently shameless and degrading.
- You have to interpret the “exchanging” and “giving up natural intercourse” from a heteronormative perspective. (For a gay woman for example, sex with another woman is in fact “natural.”)

And finally, in order to go from either of the other two scriptures frequently cited in this conversation, you have to interpret the practice of pederasty as being equivalent to marriage between two consenting adults who love each other very much and want nothing more than to spend the rest of their lives together as a married couple. The word “homosexual” is often used to translate the Greek in these two passages, even though the word wasn’t invented until the late 1800s and did not appear in translations of Scripture until the mid 1900s.

And the truth is, you can absolutely take those interpretive steps to arrive at the conclusion that same-sex marriage should therefore not be allowed in the church. The ample evidence of this truth is simply that a lot of people do.

However, what is unsustainable is to say without qualification that “the Bible condemns same-sex marriage.” The best you can do is say, “My interpretation of the Bible leads me to personally condemn same-sex marriage.”

And honestly, I do not begrudge my more conservative friends their belief. I just wish they would be honest about the interpretive steps they took to get there. Widespread unwillingness to do so has done great harm to people.

(And by the way my more progressive friends, same-sex marriage is certainly not directly blessed in the Bible, either. One must take some interpretive steps to arrive there as well. My own interpretation of the passages cited above involves condemnations of idolatry, promiscuity, child abuse (pederasty), and sexual violence – all things that I am glad the Bible condemns. And my own interpretations of numerous other passages lead me to a belief that a mutually respectful, gracious, loving, covenant relationship between two consenting adults is a beautiful thing, and one that the church should indeed celebrate and honor with marriage vows.)

Furthermore, I wish we could all be honest about the fact that there are indeed hateful and homophobic people in the church. It is infuriating and exhausting when every time hate and homophobia are pointed out, then begins the inevitable protests of “But not me! I’m just doing what the Bible says.” Okay, not you, dude. But can you at least acknowledge that it’s there, and speak up when you see it?

And finally, the very last thing I want to do is push someone away from a relationship with God. I lament that when there are differing interpretations of scripture that lead people to very different places, some Christians choose to double down on their own perspective even when it is hurtful, which inevitably builds barriers between people and Jesus. I personally would choose to err on the side of love and grace, offering a connection instead of severing it altogether.

In the United Methodist Church, we are far, far beyond arguing over whose interpretation of Scripture is “right.” There are a variety of interpretations of Scripture in our denomination. The discussion has shifted to, “What are we going to do about that?”

That conversation requires honesty, humility, and integrity. I fear the supply of these qualities may be too short in this present season to make any difference.