Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Stopping Bible Abuse

A woman in Indianapolis beat her seven year old son with a coat hanger, severely enough to leave thirty-six dark purple bruises striped across his back and a hook-shaped bruise on his cheek. The abuse happened in February 2016. Her kids are safe now. (Story here.)

Legal documents filed in her defense quote Scripture to justify her actions.

Yes, please go back and read that again …

Her lawyer is arguing that something called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” gives this child abuser permission to abuse children. The child abuser said, “I was worried for my son's salvation with God after he dies,” and “I decided to punish my son to prevent him from hurting my daughter and to help him learn how to behave as God would want him to.” Even leaving aside the completely illogical and ignorant statement that hurting a child will teach them not to hurt another child, the horribly twisted theology ought to appall and anger every person of faith everywhere in the world.

And then, the second layer of the defense plan is to argue that cultural differences caused her to misunderstand the law, since harsh physical abuse is common in the woman’s culture of origin. Which is bullshit. Child abuse is child abuse in Myanmar as well as Indiana. C.S. Lewis wrote, “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard,” and that standard is “something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behavior, and yet quite definitely real.”

And so, I will confess that a whole lot of emotion came to the surface for me when I read this story this morning. I’ve been working through a lot of that emotion in the back of my head all day as I’ve been working on other stuff. As both a foster dad and also a pastor, this story has kind of captured my attention.

Look, I know that interpreting Scripture to justify horrible things isn’t anything new. It is as old as Scripture itself, actually. As long as the Bible has been around, people have misused it to wage war, keep slaves, oppress women, commit genocide, discriminate against entire categories of people, and on and on.

So if it’s all the same to you, I’d really, really like us to stop doing that. In fact, here’s a list of simple steps that I think we ought to take, that will hopefully help us stop abusing the Bible.

1) If it is hurts another person, don’t do it, even if you believe the Bible says it’s okay.
2) Admit that you do not know everything there is to know about the Bible, much less about God.
3) Stop saying “The Bible says…” and start saying “I understand the Bible to say…”
4) Interpret difficult, ambiguous, or obscure passages in the light of the Bible’s central themes, like love, grace, justice, and peace.
5) And finally, if it hurts another person, even if you believe the Bible says it’s okay, don’t do it.

Just don’t.

The divinely inspired authors of the Holy Book of the church, the scribes who copied their words, the interpreters who took it from Hebrew and Greek and brought it to the world, the editors who so diligently pulled everything together – I’m pretty sure they weren’t doing what they did so that Indiana mom could do what she did.

And by the way, nor so that invading armies could eradicate native populations. Nor so that governments could deny equal rights for people of color. Nor so that husbands could consider wives to be personal property.

And while we're at it, nor so that bakers of cakes could discriminate against gay people. Nor so that a town in Midwestern America could call their event a Christmas parade. Nor so an employer could refuse to pay for healthcare for women employees. And so on.

Let's call it what it is. It is Bible abuse masquerading as religious freedom. It is incompatible with the Gospel. It's wrong, and it needs to stop.

So can we just stop please? It’s hurting people. And so we need to stop.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

When Doctrine Hinders Mission

A woman called me a couple days ago. From the sound of her voice I would guess she is an older woman; she said she had attended worship, and she had a question for me about the congregation.

“What does your congregation believe about homosexuality?” she asked.

Earlier in my career, I would have hemmed and hawed a bit, trying awkwardly to figure out where she was coming from with her question. Was she “friend” or “foe?” Was I about to be the target of a homophobic lecture again? Was she going to unfairly associate me with the “official” denominational stance and chastise me for being so unjust?

But the time for hemming and hawing has long past, so I just answered her question honestly.

“I can’t speak for the entire congregation,” I said. “Some people here would like full inclusion of all people, and some think being gay should disqualify you from getting married. It’s a pretty diverse group. But as for me personally, I’m on the ‘full inclusion’ side of things. Meaning, I do not believe a person’s sexual orientation should disqualify them from getting married, or from getting ordained for that matter. And I know that there are quite a few who are on that same page.”

Her response made me smile. “Good,” she said. “I just couldn’t be a part of a church who didn’t include all people. I’ll be back!”

Our mission, church people, is non-negotiable. It is a given that our mission is to make disciples, meaning reaching out to offer people a relationship with God through Jesus as a part of a Spirit-filled congregation. And what is it that those disciples do once made? No less than “transform the world.” However you phrase it, our mission is to help people become followers of Jesus who are changing the world for God’s sake.

And so we talk about “the mission field,” which is a rather impersonal and businesslike way to describe the people I named above. We have other operational words like “unchurched” and “target demographic,” which are also helpful in encouraging us to forget that there are real actual people living real actual lives with whom we are called to live in real actual community. Nevertheless, whatever term you use, we are talking about people who are not a part of a church, for a variety of reasons.

Of that group, the overwhelming majority does not believe that being gay should disqualify you from getting married, not to mention impact how you are treated in the world in general. This isn’t my opinion; poll after poll backs this up. Or said another way, most “unchurched” people are like the woman who called me this week: they simply could not possibly be a part of a church that did not include all people.

So let me say this as clearly as I can. Pastors, congregations, and denominations who are opposed to marriage equality and who do not ordain people who are gay are stumbling blocks to the mission of the church. When the doctrine of the church excludes people based on sexual orientation, it makes it more difficult to accomplish the task given us by God.

Yes, it may very well be that people already in the church are opposed to fully inclusive marriage and ordination, but that isn’t the point, is it? The point is, the people we are supposed to be reaching are not.

I know the counter-arguments. “We would be condoning sin, and we just can’t do that” is one of the most common. The reasoning is this: Yes, all people are sinners, and all are welcome in the church. But we are supposed to stop our sinful ways and live like God wants us to. If we welcome and marry same-sex couples, we are not only not stopping the sin, we are approving of it.

There are a lot of people who believe this, and they are not hateful, they are not homophobic, they are loving and faithful and all that.

(To be sure, there are a lot of Christians who are absolutely hateful and homophobic, but I’m not talking about them today. Nor by the way am I addressing the “Scriptural authority” argument, as I have before.)

Thus for many the issue becomes the visibility of the perceived sin. For many Christians, a same-sex couple is an unavoidably visible representation of what they believe to be a sin, and they just can’t get around it. Of course, it is naive to believe that EVERY sinner stops sinning when they find Jesus, but for most of us you can’t really see it.

And so, the mission of the church is hindered. An enormous stumbling block is placed between thousands of people and a life-giving relationship with God, simply because some Christians are confronted with the evidence of one specific act that they believe to be a sin, and they can’t handle it.

For those of us who do not believe being gay is a sin, this is infuriating. I know how much my relationship with God has meant in my life, and I want more than anything else to share that with others. It makes me angry when something gets in the way of that happening, and it is embarrassing that what is getting in the way also happens to be the official doctrine of my denomination.

How many people are there in close proximity of our church building who are just like the woman who called me this week? Hundreds, no doubt. Thousands, probably. People are seeking a connection with the divine, a connection that fully embraces the whole self, all that makes a person a person, including one’s sexual orientation.

And yet many are never going to seek that divine connection as a part of a church, simply because the church’s mission is being compromised by the church’s doctrine.

But … some will. One did this week, in fact. And when she called, I was honest with her. And she said, “I’ll be back!” Thanks be to God.