Biblical Literalism, Jack Bauer, and Trump’s EO: How Fear and Anti-Intellectualism Got Us Here

At Xavier University, everyone has to take a course called Theological Foundations. Theo 111. Instructors receive some general goals and objectives of the course from the Department of Theology, but the design of it is really up to each individual prof. At any one time, you could have 20 different sections of the course going simultaneously. I find that this is one of the strengths of the department: while everyone is required to take the class, there are a variety of options to help each student find the one right for them.

After a three year hiatus from teaching the class–last semester I taught Christian Doctrine I–I am back with a new subtitle for my Theo 111: God From the Margins. We began the class with an examination of the Book of Exodus. Last week while I was out for my doctoral seminars, we did our class units online. I had them watch two documentaries and then write a paper. We began the discussion today.

The first documentary is James Cameron’s The Exodus Decoded, which is even worse than you might think it is; the entire film is like two-hour clickbait. You’ll never believe what happened next!

bible clickbait .jpeg
The film is genius, though, in representing a fundamental problem we face in our society: the devaluing of the expert and the attenuating anti-intellectualism that soon becomes normalized. To wit, the very title of the documentary harkens to Dr. Robert Langdon and symbology, a totally made up field that apparently enough people thought was real to justify the writing of this article.

Treating the Exodus like The DaVinci Code just doesn’t work out well for anyone.

James Cameron and his partner Simcha Jacobovici, an investigative journalist, believe that their “outsider status” will help them to see past the limited orthodoxy of traditional scholarship and present–for the first time ever!–the true story of the Exodus. Indeed, they believe that the discussion is between those scholars who believe the Exodus is fact, and those who regard it as a fairy tale.

giphy (14).gif

Now, I gotta tell you that I just about have a stroke any time I hear someone say something this demonstrably false. It is something Trump would say. First, myth is the most ancient form of literature. Period. Oral storytelling and written language both begin with myth. Myths function on many levels, but in the main we can say that myths attempt to bring order out of chaos. In the deep, seemingly ceaseless mystery that is life itself, we require answers. We want to know who we are, where we came from, the purpose of life, the meaning of death, the possibilities of immortality; on some level, we human beings have been asking these questions–and more–and answering them through mytho-poetic language.

Fucking fairy tales don’t come along until the 17th century.

So while Cameron and Jacobivici interview scholars for this film, they undercut the scholarship with a wink and nod; when an Egyptologist says, We cannot just start moving events hither and yon; 10 years in one direction or the other is the most we can change dates, the esteemed filmmakers go ahead and move the dating of the Stele of Ahmose 100 years, and conflate an event in which people were expelled violently to the exodus of the Hebrews. In so doing, they have “proved” that the exodus happened in 1500 BCE, something those silly scholars couldn’t realize, but our plucky duo, with only a tube of chapstick and a dance belt, have managed to decode one of the greatest ancient mysteries. Yay! (I encourage you to watch only the first 10 minutes of the documentary, and then cleanse yourself with this erudite, documented, reasoned rebuttal.)

So why have my students watch something patently false? Well, I then had them watch National Geographic‘s The Exodus Revealed to see how science and faith can be treated responsibly, without each side feeling their disciplines have been cheapened. I see the comparison as a microcosm of what’s been happening in religion (and public conversations about expertise) since the European Enlightenment. Take, for example, the Jefferson Bible.  Thomas Jefferson employed the same basic philosophy that propelled Higher Biblical Criticism, primarily in Germany: that is, the Bible should be treated as any other text, and approached from a wide variety of perspectives. Such biblical criticism examines language, redaction, historical context, literature types, archeological evidence, theories regarding transmission, theological hermeneutics shaping the text, and a whole host of other details. Jefferson cuts to the quick by excising references to the miracles, Jesus’ divinity, and any other supernatural elements. Indeed, the proper title of the work is The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, a copy of this was given to members of Congress until the 1950s, with the practice periodically resurrected. There is debate regarding when it began.  For Jefferson, Jesus was a philosopher; his Bible thin, but filled with wisdom.

Meanwhile, there was an equal and opposite reaction in both Europe and the Colonies. With Enlightenment principles suffusing the founding principles of our republic and mandating a separation of Church and State, a distinct brand of anti-intellectualism began to gain steam. Dedicated study of the Bible, placing it on the level of Homer’s Odyssey or the Vedas, was seen as sacrilege; such endeavors were the tools of the ruling elite meant to pull God out of the hearts and minds of the average person. Biblical literalism emerged as the viable alternative; this made it accessible to everyman: while a scholar has to read thousands upon thousands of pages to gain even a modicum of expertise in the field, the literalist need only read the Bible for its plain meaning. It is either fact or it is a fairy tale.

Science cannot be removed from the equation completely, though. Nope. Not for those who have a disdain for scholarship and intellectual rigor. If the Bible is inerrant, then it must be science that is wrong; move a few decades here or there is essentially the same thing as moving a few millennia here or there. That may seem hyperbolic, but it isn’t.*  They play fast and loose with details that have been meticulously researched and discussed for decades by hundreds of exhaustively-educated scholars. Seriously. I could not cut it as a biblical scholar, at least not on the level of my colleagues. I am a pastoral theologian with significant training in biblical scholarship, and I have published peer-reviewed articles and a book on one specific text: the Gospel of Mark. Egyptologists, Hebrew Bible and New Testament scholars have language training and expertise that I couldn’t achieve.

The Exodus Decoded sets forth notions that have been debunked by scholars, but one will only know it if one bothers to read. So they present a “scientific explanation” to the exodus that gives fuel to the literalist who wants to play scientist and biblical scholar. They do not hold themselves to the scientific method, but require that any critics have as their base assumption the infallibility of the Bible. One can see how literalism and anti-intellectualism merge to form quasi-scholars, misinformed as they may be. The lack of universal, reasonable standards means that one can just shape any evidence to fit the thesis rather than developing the thesis based upon the evidence. Exhibit one: Ken Ham.

This phenomenon, in a nutshell, is the same as that going on in response to Trump’s Executive Order regarding Muslims.

Stay with me on this, please. Above the argument is this: the Bible is being made too complicated by a bunch of elite scholars who wish to convince you that you can never know God; Scripture is either fact or fairy tale. We know it’s fact, proponents say with a wink and a nod, so here’s so wildly dubious “evidence” to use, and you just go in there and demand that you be heard in the discussion. And when people ask you if you have read the established scholarship, denounce it as propaganda. Demand that your own evidence be considered, but don’t allow them to point to the already established scholarship. It is tainted. Because you are not brainwashed by the Academy, you can see the pieces fit together, so go right ahead and condescend to those who oppose you.

For Trump, it is this: those who say that Muslims from the 7 targeted countries have no reason to be targeted, given that there is zero evidence of any attack after 1975, are ruling elites who don’t understand the real situation. They are too stupid and politically correct to see that terrorists skip generations. They are already here and our inept government has not a clue! Haven’t you ever seen 24? We’ve gotta give Jack Bauer the help he needs in order to get a hold on this elusive terrorist threat. It doesn’t matter that people from all political perspectives who are experts in terrorism prevention are denouncing the move; it doesn’t matter that this sort of one-sided action, with no consultation with the legislative branch, is the mark of the insidious, dictatorial power President Obama was accused of wielding by the very people who elected Trump. None of it matters because truth is simple, clear, and brutal.

God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it. Muslims are terrorists because terrorists are Muslims.

Trump has already displayed an open disdain for intelligence experts; he has sided with Russia as it concerns the most recent presidential election, but he has already launched an investigation into the patently false, delusional claim that 3 million “illegals” (seriously; how is a person illegal?) voted, hence why Der Fewer lost the popular vote. His supporters believe that the media is biased and untrustworthy, largely because it does not support their guttural assessments of complex problems; it is easier to believe that minorities and immigrants are draining the government of resources than it is to acknowledge that other white men in positions of power have betrayed them, and that the forces of capitalism have long since become more protected by law than are individual rights; or that there is anything of worth to be found in academia. They do not believe themselves to be ignorant because there are enough sources that have elbowed their way into mainstream discussions that they are accorded the, “you have to consider the other side.” It has happened with Intelligent Design, despite it being smacked down by a Bush-appointed judge. It happened with the Tea Party claims of death panels, President Obama’s citizenship, sharia law in the United States, and a whole host of other nonsensical issues that have conspired to give mendacious lies equal weight with learned considerings.

Trump’s ban on Muslims–and don’t try to convince me it is otherwise, for the president himself said during the campaign that he would call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” (yeah, that’s from his own website)–feeds well into the Jack Bauer school of counterterrorism: based on intelligence information known by only a few, we must act swiftly and without political correctness to make the people safe. It is only softhearted and softheaded academics who will get in the way, but the real American patriots don’t have time for that; the threat is right among us, hiding in plain sight. And that threat is always Muslim and always brown- or black-skinned, despite all actual evidence to the contrary.

Clearly, this analysis is not exhaustive or definitive; I do not claim it to be so, but the progressions and developments are there for anyone to see. In the majority religion of this country, Christianity, the most popular and influential expression is decidedly anti-intellectual; it elevates social wedge issues by providing dubious scientific evidence that is used by adherents to distract and frustrate legitimate scholars (that Neil DeGrasse Tyson should be expected to answer someone like Ken Ham is downright lamentable); and it supports politicians who gleefully declare themselves “deplorable” and promise to rule as an id, proudly devoid of an ego or superego. The rest of us are seen as threats to the faith.

The truth is, the sort of ideas dominating in the religion and politics which have assisted and empowered Trump perish in academia not because of liberal bias; they don’t flourish because they are terrible ideas. The irony is that the scientific method itself prevents the very things that Trump and his ilk fear: ideology tainting or polluting facts. Any academic field worth its salt is based upon rigorous testing and verification, and includes voices from a wide variety of perspectives to deepen understanding. Without question, academia is imperfect. There are certainly prejudices and faults, but these often are exposed by people who believe in the pursuit of pure knowledge. Academia has put forth some awful ideas, to be sure; but invariably, they are rooted out because they cannot survive continued testing. If you want to eliminate, or at least reduce, ideology, subject the ideas to peer-review.

We find ourself in a place and time in which we have normalized willful ignorance, rewarding it with equal consideration to expertise; we decry the “political correctness” of calling racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and all manner of prejudices by their proper names–it ain’t Alt-Right, it’s Nazism–yet we accept the notion that it is elitist to say “you must know at least this much to enter this conversation.” Our president has only a passing relationship with facts, providing all the validation followers need to continue their assault on ideas at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

Idiocracy is a modern Remembrall, a prophecy understood only with the passing of time.

*The Exodus Decoded can be turned into a drinking game only if we want cases of alcohol poisoning, and there need be only one rule: drink each time some for of “it has always been a mystery, UNTIL NOW” is uttered. You’ll be shitcanned by the fourth plague.

And God said, “Thou Shall Not Strand Thy Neighbor at the Airport,” A Sermon

Read this: Luke 6:1-16

trump-refugees7.jpg

It used to be that the Sabbath was a big deal. It meant something. When the sun started plunging into the horizon, the streets would begin to empty. As the last vestiges of light seemed to meander from the west down to the east, only an isolated few figures could be seen, hustling home or to the synagogue. Anyplace, really, where God was invited in. Yup, used to be that Sabbath was done right. But not anymore.

Some things don’t change, and romanticizing the past is one of them. It’s almost hardwired into us. We’ve created our own “age.” Like the “bronze age” or the “iron age,” we wax philosophic about the “golden age.” The problem is, most of the time when we’re living through what will later become “the golden age,” we are distinctly unhappy; we think the times have gone crazy, and we reminisce about an even earlier period being the “golden age,” which itself was most likely, when it was no longer the future and not yet the past, deemed a terrible, horrible, no good, awful, bad age.

The opening illustration can just as easily describe the time of Jesus as it can be used to describe our own present day.

back-in-my-day.jpg

It cannot be said enough times that Roman occupation was brutal. Fear was the default emotion for most with their necks held down by the sandal of Rome. The late, great scholar Marcus Borg suggests that during difficult times strict adherence to Law becomes the vehicle through which people transform their fear into strength. Ideally, this points one toward compassion and a desire for loving community; but in the time of Jesus what emerged is called by Borg a “politics of holiness.” The theology held that strict adherence to Levitical codes would render first the individual and then the whole community clean; God would look favorably upon the people and smite Rome. This viewpoint was held in Jesus’ day by the Pharisees.

The Sabbath was perhaps the most important focus of the Pharisees. The Jewish people had literally fought—often through nonviolent resistance—for the right to practice their faith throughout Roman territory. It cost them in blood and taxes, but Sabbath observance was recognized and allowed. Therefore, it is understandable that they would want the people to recognize the depth and breadth of the sacrifices made by some so that all could continue to follow God. Because for the Pharisees it was in the communal, strict adherence to the Law that would bring about divine redemption.

Which brings us to today’s pericope. Cast your mind back, if you will, to last week in which we talked about how the Gospel of Luke is dependent upon the Gospel of Mark for its narrative structure. In other words, Luke—and Matthew as well, actually—used a copy of Mark in writing their own gospels. The material shared by these three, later called the Synoptic Gospels because they all see Jesus “with the same eye,” is termed the triple tradition. Last week, Luke deviated a good deal from Mark; the same is true for us today.

Sabbath controversy stories, like most stories about Jesus, have meaning much more often in the subtext. The so-called plain meaning of the text cannot necessarily be discovered through a literal reading. For example, think about the context of this first confrontation. Look at the setting: Jesus and his disciples are walking in grainfields, which is a violation in and of itself. In plucking the grain, they are harvesting; in rubbing the grain, they are threshing; in eating, they have prepared food: all violations of the Sabbath. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

But let’s ask a question: if it is a sin to be walking through the grainfields on the Sabbath, what are the Pharisees doing in there themselves? I mean, this is like the Robert Burns poem come to life: “If a body meet a body, comin’ thro’ the rye.” Some people will say that it is evidence that the Pharisees were corrupted and filled with demons, and to that I say hogwash. Utter hogwash. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were Jewish. They were beholden to the same codes and expectations, but interpreted them very differently. When we read of Jesus criticizing the Pharisees, it most often has to do with the ways in which following the letter of the Law squeezes out the Spirit of the Law and leaves people on the outside looking in. The Pharisees in return  regard people like Jesus as having prolonged the duration of Roman occupation because they do not show strict adherence to halakha, Law.

far-side

The Pharisees most likely are present in the grainfield as a storytelling device; their presence could be about innate and rank hypocrisy, but once again we should seriously question the historicity of this claim. If we dig deeper, we find better answers. In both Sabbath controversy stories featured in today’s pericope, the conflicts present the same question: what do you think is most important to God? Jesus asks: Does God want people to go hungry amidst an abundance of food? Of course not, he says, citing the example of David with the consecrated bread. Before healing the withered hand, Jesus asks: On the Sabbath, is it lawful to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to destroy it?

What do you think is most important to God?

The Pharisees followed a theology of fear, at least as they are represented in the story. We must cross every t and dot every i if we want to be safe and protected. We must separate ourselves from those we have deemed unclean. We must draw lines, demarcate what is ours and what is forbidden. If we do all of that, God will see that we are serious. It is a theology that regards other people as a threat; a theology that says one can simply look at another’s life circumstances and know where they stand with God. Sick, poor, lame, sinner. But it is a theology that makes sense, especially if you feel a nearly total loss of control in most areas of your life. This sort of theology provides purpose and comfort for those able to follow it.

But it is hell for most everybody else.

On the most sanctified day of the week, Jesus walks through grainfields. He waltzes all up and into a synagogue and heals a hand. Why? Because there is a need from people. Jesus believes that the restrictions of the Sabbath have become so onerous, so antithetical to their original purpose, the only way he can rattle people out of their stupor is to engage in some religious civil disobedience. He works on the Sabbath to show that God made the day for us, not us for the Sabbath day. The day of rest is meant to bring us together: to unite us with God, our families, our friends, our communities. To connect us to ourselves.

We hear a lot about making America great again. We hear people wax nostalgic about the “good old days.” The golden age. But the whole of American history is filled with horrors for a great many communities that are not within dominant culture. Slavery, broken treaties, governmental limitations levied because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or creed (and if you seriously need links to prove any of what I just said, I suggest stepping away from Breitbart and turning off the Fox News). Yesterday, at airports around the world a politics of fear kept families from reuniting; it kept refugees who have been through ordeals most of us cannot fathom from taking one more step toward reclaiming their lives; doctors, scientists, translators, university professors, grandmothers, breadwinners, all human beings who have followed the rules and procedures, who have done what our Pharisees say to do, are living in chaos right now. This is not greatness. This is a politics of fear and death.

A mosque in Texas burned to the ground on  Saturday morning. Muslims living in our country, in our neighborhoods, are frightened and uncertain. I think it is time to walk through some grainfields and to start healing some hands. What this looks like for each one of us may differ; I have reached out to a local imam; he and I are meeting during the week to talk, to pray, to go to God for strength and solidarity. For you, it may be attending one of the actions that will occur in the coming days. For others, it might be giving money to aid agencies that can help people who will literally be killed if they return to their country of origin. It might be simply smiling and saying hello, as my colleague Rev. Bryan Fleet said at a recent Beloved Community Project event.

Right now, no intentional act of kindness is too small.

Today, Christian celebrate the Lord’s Day. It is both the first and the eighth day of the week, another of the many contradictions in our faith tradition. So, let us ask: what are God’s intentions for this day? What will our connections with and to both God and each other mean when we get up tomorrow? What will we do to keep walking through grainfields and healing hands? As Christians, we have a divinely-mandated responsibility to not turn away from injustices and oppression. We are commanded to not be afraid and are to step forward when stones are being thrown. We have a divinely-mandated obligation to not turn away from injustices and oppression; for our God makes it pretty clear what we are to do: build longer tables instead of higher walls. Amen.

 

People Fishing in Trump’s America: The Challenge of Progressive Christian Evangelism

Take it up and read: Luke 5:1-11

pol-people-pro-32x4.gif

Scholars believe that the work we refer to as the Gospel of Mark should be regarded as the earliest canonical gospel. Dominant theories in the field maintain that Mark provides the narrative template for Matthew and Luke. The material shared by these gospels is known as the triple tradition. There would not be much to study if the triple tradition was simply a verbatim transcription from one source to another; luckily—or perhaps unluckily, if you are someone who does not like contradictions between the gospels—each of the evangelists shape the stories in their own ways. Sometimes the changes are subtle: a minor rearranging of words or a synonym inserted here or there. But in other places, like today’s passage, the changes tell us a lot about how, from the very beginning, we Christians have understood the same stories in vastly different ways.

To make sure we’re all on the same page about what scholars are saying, let me be more specific. The theory of Markan Priority argues that a written copy of the Gospel of Mark was utilized by the author or authors of both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. It is important to remember that none of the Evangelists were writing so that their texts would be included with others; none of them wrote with the dreams of one day being canonized; we don’t know who wrote any of the gospels, as the names are assigned later. That can cause confusion. For example, the Gospel of John is not written by John of Patmos, who is credited with penning Revelation. But names help us differentiate more easily than saying, “you know, that one with the thing in the place with that guy.” The work we call the Gospel of Mark was clearly popular and circulated between communities. At separate times and in separate places, the author or authors of the Matthew and Luke narratives had access to the Gospel of Mark. And they both used it, extensively, for the framework of their own gospels.

So, when we refer to the triple tradition we are talking about material shared by each of the evangelists. As I remarked above, how the material is presented says a great deal about not only the author or authors, but also the communities that gathered around the texts. We should never forget that these stories survived only because they made a difference to people. Because they make a difference to people. In people. Part of what is so wondrous about studying Scripture is that when we read closely and carefully, we see an ancient, yet ongoing conversation about who God is through Christ. Who Christ is through God. Who we are through both.

Mark and Matthew render the fishing for people story basically the same way. Jesus, fresh from baptism, temptation, and an incident in a synagogue, is walking along the shoreline. He sees two sets of brothers, one pair is mending their nets: Simon whom he will name Peter, and Andrew; the other set, the sons of Zebedee, John and James, are working in a boat with their father. Both Mark and Matthew describe Jesus as calling Simon and Andrew first, with the enigmatic promise of having them become fishers of people, before continuing to gather John and James, who violate the fifth commandment and leave their father high and dry in the boat. There are some subtle language differences between the Mark and Matt, but they are infinitesimal compared to the large changes wrought by Luke.

Luke takes Jesus away from a tranquil seaside stroll and instead places him amidst a crowd so large that he is backed into a boat; this is how he meets Simon, which almost seems like something out of a buddy comedy. A vaunted celebrity jumping into an unknown car and saying “Hit it!” to the unknown driver, who will soon become our hero’s BFF.

giphy (13).gif

With Jesus on board, Peter pushes off from shore and gives Jesus some breathing room to teach. With the lesson completed, Jesus asks Simon to make way for deeper water and instructs him to cast out his nets. Simon responds that all night he has been casting, but only emptiness has been caught.

Let’s pause here and acknowledge the wonderful story that Luke has created around the call of Simon Peter; but let’s also note what has been lost. No Andrew. Just Simon alone with Jesus in the boat. Also, in both Mark and Matthew there is the detail that Simon and Andrew are mending their nets; upon being called, they drop their nets. I have preached before about how the Christian life concerns knowing when to mend the nets that help us catch our blessings, when to drop the nets that ensnare us in ugliness and anger, and how both are necessary to pick up the crosses that we bear in our communal walk with Christ. Luke largely removes this imagery. Gone as well is the detail about John and James leaving their father in the boat, which may have been done because it is an embarrassing element, this notion that God would ask us to leave our parents in the lurch; but we should take notice of these changes because it will help us to see what Luke is wanting us to see.

What is a simple, yet powerful call story in Mark and Matthew quickly becomes a miracle story in Luke, a sort of flash-forward (prolepsis) to the miracles of the loaves and fishes. Instead of mending nets, Simon and his partners are dealing with nets that burst from God’s abundance and blessings. Two boats eventually are weighed down with the heaviness of bounty, to such an extent that one boat begins to sink. To this, Simon responds by dropping to Jesus’ feet and saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Luke tells us that Simon responds out of amazement, and is joined by his partners, John and James, named for the first time, and also by an untold number of others present. Jesus then delivers the punch, the ultimate, the coup de grace: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Once they reach shore, the three named men abandon everything and follow Jesus, an ending much like that in Mark and Matthew.

What are we to make of this refigured narrative? Jesus displays God’s goodness through this plentiful catch, but soon it becomes overwhelming. It strikes fear into Simon’s heart; the boat itself is sinking, and Simon’s response is to cast away Jesus because of his own sin. We can see the theology here: sometimes we don’t know what to do when things are going exceptionally and unexpectedly well, do we? You ever felt that way? Like, this is too good to be true? I’m just waiting for it to go bad. Simon’s version of that sentiment is, get out of here, my sin is too much to receive these kinds of blessings.

Jesus’ response is fascinating. He does not negate the existence of Simon’s sin. He provides words of assurance but not the ones we might expect; don’t be afraid, he says, because I’ll have you fishing for people. And I imagine that many of us have heard this phrase dozens if not hundreds of times, this fishing for people. But have you ever thought about it from the fish’s perspective? Being pulled out of the water and suddenly finding it hard to breath? Being packed in with hundreds of other fish, all slithering and flopping in vain attempts to wrest themselves from the nets? The slow death that comes when lungs not meant for air run out of water. This death occurs for the fish so that life can continue for those who consume the fish. The death gives way to life. The great circle.

fish-caught-in-net.jpg

Such is the nature of the Christian walk. At least it has been for me. A continued dying, sometimes submitted to willingly and sometimes experienced as a fight to the finish. It seems clear that Simon, James, and John are Jesus’ first catches. Simon will soon die to his old name, and become Peter. James and John die to their family business, leaving it all behind to follow Jesus. They do this so that they can continue the process with others. No longer just fish, they are now fishermen, too. Such is true with us all; sometimes we are caught, sometimes we are catching.

In the country, we can see that there are those who feel like dying fish fighting for the end, and there are those who are cheering for the perceived abundance. Those who celebrated Friday, and those who marched on Saturday. The sad truth is that it will not be possible for any one church to serve all people. Not completely. This is a conversation that congregations must have; we are called to radical hospitality, but we must understand that there come responsibilities with inviting marginalized communities into worship. To congregations who made explicit dedications to safe, nurturing space for LGBTQ+ persons: We cannot ignore the deep homophobia and racism that exist in our country. It is a challenge that we face as Christians and as members of a religious community to responsibly weigh what it means to be welcoming while never forgetting those whom Jesus tells us to prioritize. Those whom we have told it is safe to come here. We cannot just think that sitting next to one another in the pews is going to be okay with and for everyone; I don’t know many people who want to sit next to a person who questions their right to exist or even their status as a human being.

And I understand that people will not want to sit in pews if they feel judged from the pulpit or by those around them. But yesterday’s marches throughout the world show that there is great fear. While it is dangerous to make assumptions about a person based on a particular political vote, we cannot ignore the fact that the VP of the United States has advocated for so-called conversion therapy for gay teens. This is widely and truthfully recognized as nothing short of self-hating torture. As a pastor, I cannot ignore that; I cannot say to frightened members of the GLBTQ+ community, “Oh, well. It is just a difference of opinion.” Hearing this may make us uncomfortable, but it is a conversation we need to have with one another. There are lots of churches making it clear that GLBTQ+ persons are not welcome. For those who have said otherwise, that is a covenant that cannot be qualified. While we certainly should always be looking for ways to bridge the chasm, it cannot come at the expense of those whom we have offered safe sanctuary. If this seems hyperbolic, I will gently say you are not paying attention to the very real fears of the community.

Like Mark, Matthew, and Luke see the call story differently, we in our own religious community will see things differently as well. We should seek to point out the differences and discuss them, trying to understand why we make the choices we do and to extend the same respect to others. But it is equally important to understand that when you go fishing for people, you have a responsibility to usher them through their death as fish and their rebirth as fishers. And not every fish can go in every boat; it is a mistake to think that they do. One church cannot be all things to all people. Neither can one pastor.

Let us continued to be caught so that we may catch; let us remember that no sin is so great that we cannot be put to work by God. Let us commit to hearing one another but let us not try to stand for everything, lest we stand for nothing. But let us never mistake following the gospel as being intolerant or inhospitable. Amen.

Crying Uncle (that means two things)

theend

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder nearly two years ago, I thought that the best approach was complete and total transparency. I thought that people were inherently loving and giving, and that while I could handle the slings and arrows that result from my particular approach to Christianity–a serving of God through social justice–that there would be some basic human decency, especially from people in my community. Overwhelmingly, there has been. But there’s been a vocal, insistent contingent who have managed to break me. They have taken words written here, misrepresented them, and used them to criticize me in ways that are deeply personal. It has broken me.

I don’t say that lightly. These people have broken me with their half-truths and outright lies. I just can’t take it right now, so I am crying uncle. You win: I am a terrible pastor who only beats people up with my sermons; I don’t do anything to uplift; I just assault, assault, assault. I should just quit. I am mentally unbalanced. I am unhinged and write outlandish things and then do not suffer repercussions. I should give up because I just damage people and hurt them and I don’t even have the decency to feel bad about it.

Yes. These things have been said to me. Multiple times. With no end in sight really, so I give up. I can’t take hearing it again and again.

So my personal blog posts are over for now. I am pulling back from Facebook. I am turning to a period of introspection and prayer because I have let it get to me so much. I have cried more in the past 48 hours than I have since…well, since I was finally able to cry over my brother, three years after his death. I have been combing through my sermons to find examples of this great pain I have caused, of the ways I am uninvitational. I have spiraled and the thing that sucks is most of the shit isn’t even true.

Please don’t tell me to get a thicker skin. What people don’t seem to understand is that I hold in confidence a tremendous amount that I can’t even mention to defend myself when I am told that I am a minister of darkness. I am exhausted by constantly being berated for what I don’t do when there is little recognition of what I actually do; I am tired of inviting people to join efforts through three different methods, but being told that the invitation is nonexistent because I did not do it a fourth way. When you see me snap and just look at the precipitating detail and judge me based on that, it further displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what this job is and what I do each and every day.

I am tired of feeling like my Facebook page is being monitored. Because it is, even with all the security levels I have put on it. There is no mention of the great good I have done on Facebook and with the ministry; no mention in these conversations, anyway. I am tired of there being a continued platform to say these outrageous things about me.

So I cry uncle. I am broken. Good job.

This will be my last personal blog post. At least for now. I’ll continue to post sermons and social justice writings, but I can’t let myself be beaten up anymore. I need to protect my heart because it has just had the shit kicked out of it.

 

Let’s Get Real: Few of U[.S.] Celebrate the True King

Read Luke 4:14-30

In today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus walk up into his hometown with all his mojo workin’. He’s got his Holy Spirit swagger going. He’s got people coming down from the hillsides to hear him preach. He’s got it goin’ on, that is until he rolls into Nazareth. His hometown. He goes into a local synagogue, and despite not having the sort of credentials the powers-that-be recognize, he reads from the Book of Isaiah. And then he has the audacity to say that the words of the prophet are fulfilled in everyone’s presence. It is the first century equivalent of a mic drop. I mean, say what you will about Jesus, but brother knows how to make an entrance!

giphy (12).gif

This is not unlike the story of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who arrived in Montgomery to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954 with his dissertation defense freshly behind him. He had credentials that mattered in the ecclesial and academic worlds, but neither the titles of Rev. nor Dr. would stop people from calling him Martin Coon. And worse. He rolled up in Montgomery knowing intellectually that he was prepared; he was filled with the Spirit, not just of God but of Boston University also. He soon began to feel pangs of doubt, which stayed with him his whole life. He wondered if he was strong enough; he wondered if people were ready for that train to Jordan Curtis Mayfield sang about. He listened to charges that he was an outside agitator for the whole of his career and it took its toll. The sermon he was schedule to give before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 was titled: “Why America May Go to Hell.” In 1955 Montgomery, with the bus boycott, King experienced the disappointment that comes in working with people: “[T]he forces of good will failed to come through,” he writes in Stride Toward Freedom.  “Other forces of justice also failed to act.” He had been depending on the moral shame of America to carry them through and to make good on the bill of sale, that promise that all human beings are equal. He was a prophet and his hometown was the entire country; he wrote in the famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” that “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”

If only everyone knew that to be true. Dr. King–and really, every person of color in this country–sees early and often that it is very easy to turn a blind eye to a suffering that is not your own.

Today’s passage in Luke should be seen as an act of nonviolent resistance. Jesus claims that God is at work in the proclamation of a good news that goes to the downtrodden first. A call to release those who are bound and captive. To provide sight and freedom to those whom very few people think to give priority; Jesus walks into the equivalent of city hall and declares that God wants the busses desegregated. This point needs to be heard because too many people are getting it twisted: both Jesus and MLK worked for God. They used the tools of the world, but they were animated by the Holy Spirit. Both Jesus and Martin knew that people were being angered, to such an extent that their lives would be lost. Both of them knew it, but they kept on working. In our story world, Jesus leaves Nazareth soon, just like Martin left Montgomery. And they both found that the forces of good will and justice failed to act. As a result, people continued to suffer.

It is easy to romanticize them both, Jesus and Martin. It seems that many prefer a Jesus on earth who does not stir the pot, but a Jesus in heaven who condemns people to hell with glee. We have created a Jesus who wants us to be wealthy, but who doesn’t require us to feed the hungry. We prefer a Martin who would never stop traffic or take a knee or interrupt a football game, but we forget his words:

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the [person] who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the negro’s cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars, and so became the triumphant tactic of the Negro revolution of 1963. (Why We Can’t Wait)

As we look at the state of race relations in the United States today, I am now seeing what many in the congregation witnessed the first time around. We are hearing the same attacks: “professional protestors” cause the problems, a charge levied at Rosa Parks. At the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At the Congress on Racial Equality. Today, it is Black Lives Matter. We hear that blame is on President Obama for stirring up racism; 60 years ago it was on King. Any attempts to speak to how such a claim has no basis in reality is met with willful, and oftentimes vitriolic, resistance. As the good doctor wrote in Where Do We Go From Here, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that white people in America believe they have so little to learn.” We hear that riots and and acts that cause destruction are why people don’t support protestors or those who agitate for justice. As King noted, “Cries of Black Power and riots are not the causes of white resistance, they are the consequences of it.”

When Jesus goes into the synagogue the response becomes about his audacity. About how he is not qualified to read; it is about his chutzpah in saying that God acts through him. We don’t hear the voices talking about the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the blind. We don’t hear any celebration, or hear any questions about how others can help. We don’t witness any self-reflection regarding how one might have been culpable in setting up a society that sees blinded, oppressed people left alone to their own devices. We see and hear anger because Jesus points out that the history of humanity is filled with examples of people being indifferent; it is filled with untaken opportunities to practice what we preach. The silence regarding justice is too often accompanied by chastising of those who are oppressed. That’s often what we still hear in primarily white spaces today: a stubborn unwillingness to listen to masses of others speak about their own experiences. We argue over language and word choice more than we address the systems that cause people to scream, to act out, to feel hopeless, or angry, or left alone. We continue to perpetuate a society in which we need a King. We need people who are willing to literally lay down their lives because they cannot continue to participate in a society that knowingly and willfully keeps others down and then blames them for their own condition. That is a sad statement on who we are as children of God.

If these words bother us and make us angry, we must henceforth stop saying we admire Dr. King. If these words upset us, we should ask who we think Jesus is, what he asks from us. If these words upset us, we need to seek the source of the upset. There is a persistent problem with racism in this country and it is time to stop saying that hatred is heritage, or that there are two sides to an argument about whether another person is a human being deserving of equal rights. We must stop accepting prejudice because it is cloaked in civility or codified in a political platform, and we must halt the rewriting of history to make revolutionaries like Jesus and King nonthreatening to us. I know that this is uncomfortable for some to hear and it is uncomfortable for me to say; that’s why I know it is the right thing to do.

On this MLK Sunday–as many of us prepare to have a “day off” tomorrow–I ask everyone to take some time and read from King’s collected works. For those of you who lived through the events, perhaps doing your own part, seek out young people whom you can influence. Write your story down and ask to share it somewhere online or in print. Because we owe it to you to know your story, to hear your voice, to know what you did to bring good news to the poor, liberation to the captive, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. We owe it to you to know so that we may in turn act. As King remarked,

“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.'”

 

Confess…and Address

Readers of my Facebook page most likely are laughing right now. Yesterday I vented my spleen regarding the improper use of ellipses on FB and other social media platforms. The post was in response to the page of a friend who is a biblical scholar on a level I cannot even fathom; a true student of language and history whom I am blessed to know. He was being taken on by a person with suspect ideas made all the poorer through his incessant use of ellipses to separate ideas, a function that the colon, the semi-colon, and the em-dash perform quite well. Hell, even parenthesis could be thrown in there and everything would be kosher.

Now, is this petty? You bet your ass it is petty. I know it. I own the pettiness, but I do not apologize for it because for me, in that moment, this guy’s pathos-laden screed against an educated, erudite scholar encapsulated the pile of shit we see ourselves steeped in as a country. We have allowed for the deconstruction of the informed expert culture and the elevation of the loud idiot echo chamber. We’ve traded Mike Douglass for Sean Hannity.

And those GD ellipses just sent me over the edge.

giphy (11).gif

So I made the post about ellipses use driving me crazy, and I asked that anyone looking to call me on the petty hold it, as I was aware of the ridiculousness. What resulted was a very interesting discussion about assumed biases in criticizing language or expression of ideas; there was also a lot of lighthearted fun, with people responding to me using all manner of ellipses and ellipses on steroids, that trail of periods that could lead one to the Yukon. But one person responded in a way that caused me to take umbrage. I have no desire to regurgitate the details, as that is not what I am holding up into the light. Rather, what resulted was a perfect opportunity for me to try out a new communication technique I am calling “confess and address.”

My emotions are big and close to the surface; I am also a highly reasonable person; most others have agreed with that when asked, even if they haven’t agreed with me on myriad substantive issues. I am passionate, but reasonable. I also understand that my emotions can be overwhelming for others, and I don’t always interpret situations correctly owed to my intense emotions. As a result, I have empowered others to stop a conversation if they feel bulldozed or attacked; I have only had one situation in which I felt that was inappropriately called out, which is a pretty awesome percentage. Most people understand that pointing to my mental illness in a conversation is a big move, and should only be used when absolutely essential.

I’ve tried a lot of things that don’t work, like sublimating my emotions or acting like everything is fine when it is not; I could win awards for the art of passive-aggressive behavior. To be sure, I am not like our PEOTUS, I am not a walking id and I am able to exercise a modicum of self-control. So I can compartmentalize, and I am getting better at choosing my battles. Facebook is a great outlet as well, but faithful reader will know that it has had its pitfalls. So IRL, as we say on the faceypages, I have been employing the “confess and address” method, which just played out beautifully online.

The misunderstanding between myself and the other person reached a fevered pitch, and I pulled down the original post. This is something I often do if I feel like a discussion is getting out of control. Often, it is followed by an unfriend and block. That has gotten me criticized in the past, and I recognize that it is a pretty definitive move. So I did not unfriend and block. However, the discussion continued on another thread and I was hit with: “you can either forgive me or you can’t.” Nuances and emotional responses aside, this is a true statement. Complicated and variegated, to be certain, but true all the same. It was easy for me to say, “I forgive you” and mean it, but that did not include no longer being perturbed, even downright upset. And I was upset, but it wasn’t just at the comment. It was at all the stuff that has been hitting since the event on NYE. It was the guilt I sometimes feel when I have to draw lines and not be a pastor, and to be a person who maybe gets irritated at little shit and just wants to gripe about it without being told I’m petty or that I’m not a real Christian. That has been said to me. Yes. When I get pissed and express it, I have been told I am a phony and a hypocrite.

hippo.jpg

So I confessed that I was still angry and expressed why. The other person expressed their emotions out of equally, if not more, intense contemporary life circumstances; we took it to IM and have had a lovely exchange that has ended in a promise to get coffee IRL.

We confessed it and addressed it.

I’m pledging to not respond so quickly to pull down a post and unfriend; I’m committing to identifying my emotions, but not to apologize for them. To address them. To enter into a dialogue with someone to talk through why we each are responding in a particular manner, and to authentically move toward a resolution. Sometimes that resolution involves another one of my core principles, holy tension. Holy tension is when we affirm the strongly-held beliefs of another, confess that we disagree, perhaps even vehemently, but pledge to remain in relationship without acting like we don’t have sincere differences. I have clergy friends whom I love dearly, but I know that we are on opposite sides of certain picket lines; we pull different levers and preach different perspectives, but we believe that love is enough to keep us at the table. And I am grateful for all who join me.

I laugh at myself a lot; I think that is necessary when you have a mental illness. It can be downright exhausting dealing with the myriad internal pressures, so when external ones come at a rapid rate, I sometimes crack at the silliest shit. That doesn’t make it any less real or valid; it just means that I’ve gotta confess that I just snapped, and then address it in ways that respect all sides of the experience.

Confess. Ellipses. And Address.

Scandal! Jesus, John, and Ringo: A Sermon for Baptism of Christ Sunday

Read Luke 3:1-22

One of the dangers we face when we engage with scripture regularly, when we commit to community-based religious life in all its facets, is this: we gain knowledge that sometimes convinces us of things that are not there. We become so familiar with the general contours of the story that we often think we have seen or heard something that doesn’t exist. At least not in the way we are reckoning. Did you catch the huge event that is absent in Luke 3? Go ahead; read it again if you need. I can wait.

ferrel-as-trebek

There’s not actually a baptism, is there? There’s the reporting that the baptism is completed, but we do not see it in the present tense. We do not have Jesus and John squaring off in the river, talking about the unfolding of God’s plan between a prophet and a messiah; Luke makes them cousins, has John leaping in the womb when brought into Jesus’s in utero presence. From a purely storytelling perspective, Luke misses a huge chance to hit us in the feels, to demonstrate God’s love through the passionate humility of both John and Jesus. Alas, Luke takes us to shore and reports God’s vital words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” with nary a Jesus-dunking to be found.

I don’t know about you but I’m kinda bummed out regarding this narrative of Jesus’ baptism. Give me the Gospel of Mark, with John the Baptizer saying the words to Jesus’ face, and Jesus refusing to denigrate others in order to elevate himself. God makes us who we are, Jesus seems to say, so let us honor one another and the fact that we’ve been brought together.

Certain scholars, and I’ll count myself among them, believe that Luke omits John’s explicit baptizing of Jesus because it is what Thomas Aquinas will later call a scandal. To be sure, scandal has very specific and complicated definitions. But in essence it is this: an external act or the omission of an external act that itself is evil, and is either intentionally or unintentionally the cause of another’s sin. To put it more simply, an act that is initiated by you and causes others to engage in sin.

Now, how could John baptizing Jesus be seen as a scandal? Well, we first have to keep in mind that Luke was writing well before Aquinas would formulate most of what is believed about scandal, so a one-to-one comparison would be irresponsible historically. That’s not what I’m doing. With that said, I find it reasonable to believe that Luke’s theology cannot support John baptizing Jesus. Some of that probably has to do with the fact that Luke, through the gospel bearing the same name and the Book of Acts, is retelling the whole history of Israel in light of the Christ. The Book of Acts moves God from Jerusalem to Rome, and through the text we can see the first fissures of the eventual separation between Judaism and Christianity. Luke is dealing in absolutes that have to justify major shifts in understanding Yahweh.

Let’d look at these subtle, but important changes: In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus demands to be baptized by John, who complies only after vehement protestation. For Luke, the reality of this would mean that, even for just a moment, Jesus is unable to do something for himself. We should notice that Luke puts the act in the passive voice: Jesus was baptized, and we don’t know by whom. Luke probably didn’t want the awkward description of Jesus dunking himself in the water—like Napoleon crowning himself—and he couldn’t eliminate the scene altogether because it is a vital part of the story. It creates a quandary, but again we return to the question: how is this a scandal?

For Luke, there can be no higher authority than Jesus. While Luke presents Jesus with more humanness than does the author of John, the final canonical gospel to be written, there is high Christology in Luke. Jesus most certainly is God, and God don’t get dunked in the Jordan, even by a prophet. We can also see in Luke’s writings that there is great concern about the structure of the community; while Mark is heavily eschatological (having to do with the end times), Luke is more ecclesial (centered on the Church). Luke’s gospel reflects a maturing Christianity that is sorting out structures that will shape the faith for two millennia. If during Jesus’ lifetime there can be someone raised to a position that he or she, if even for a moment, has authority over Jesus or is required to fulfill part of the divine plan, Jesus is not fully God. 

As the Church was wrestling with authority issues, it is not outrageous to think that Luke—or more probably, the community that gathered around the theology and stories recorded in Luke-Acts—changed the baptism story to support the hierarchical structure of the Church that was emerging. There are human agents like John, and divine agents like Jesus. Never between shall two meet. But why is this important?

If no one can rival Jesus, no one can rival the church that bears his name. To be clear, Luke is not Matthew, who centers power in Peter. This is not an argument for the Pope; however, it is undeniable that the sort of ecclesial structure represented in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts leads directly to centralized leadership  within the Body of Christ. 

Therefore, the baptism narrative is about the nature of power and in whom it is vested.

Protestants largely maintain that no single individual should be able to rule over the Church universal; we don’t recognize the authority of the Pope or the Patriarch of Constantinople. To be sure, we have created our own Golems, our own mythical creatures from Judaism. For we Christians the Golem seems to be distributions of power. I think this sometimes is what puts people off about religion, these squabbles about who has authority and who does not.

Luke has done us a disservice, if I may be so bold, in rendering the baptism in this way. The John of Luke is more powerful and passionate than anywhere else; perhaps what we lose in getting to see him baptize Jesus we gain in hearing from him in the water. John is setting forth the foundational aspects of understanding God’s work in him and Jesus. The act of baptism is important, but only if the external—the act itself—is matched by the internal—the conviction to act out of the faith which baptism signals. The content of the required faith is telling: John beseeches people to go into their closets and give surplus garments to those in surfeit. He calls for ethical business practices. His teachings are so threatening to the powers that be, Herod has to shut John up by shutting him up in prison.

Don’t you want to see this John baptize Jesus? Because there is something almost dangerous about the idea that Jesus did not need anyone. We can fall down the theological rabbit hole regarding Trinitarian theology, and believe me as an adjunct theology professor who often teaches Christian history, I love those discussions. But the only theology that matters is the theology that helps us in the nitty-gritty of life. Theology that helps us know something fundamental about God that remains true even in the harshest of times. I want John to baptize Jesus because it is further evidence that God is intimately involved in our lives. It communicates that God sends people to help us, just like he did with Jesus and John. It is evidence that the power is with us, too. Christianity is not just about waiting for Jesus to do it for us, or holding on until the Parousia, the Second Coming. It is about a radically giving way of life.

How we respond to scripture can reveal a lot about us. Five years ago, I don’t think I would even have noticed that John doesn’t technically baptize Jesus; and if I did, I don’t think it would have mattered. I imagine you’ve had those experiences, too. As you continue on your journey with God, questions and needs rise and fall. Today, as one tasked with being a preacher and teacher of the Word, all I can offer is this: none of us are ever above being acted upon by others for the betterment of ourselves and the building of God’s kin-dom. And I personally can’t see Jesus doing anything but arguing with John and saying, “No, friend. You’re not unworthy. Let’s do this together because it is what God wants.”

I have never lived during a time in which people hear each other less and castigate each other more. At a time in which the dynamics of power are so frightening and costly. I still hold firm to the belief that people can be loving and reasonable; that we can work on difficult issues while disagreeing vehemently, but never lose sight of one another’s intrinsic humanity. Jesus’ baptism is a sign that even he got by with a little help from his friends, and that there is no one unworthy of being used by God, if only we humble ourselves and don’t seek power for our own glory. Amen.