Monday, December 12, 2016


‘God With Us’                                                               Dr. Joseph William Black
Sts Anargyroi Orthodox Cathedral, Nairobi                          December 11, 2016

Matthew 1:23
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him “Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us”.’

Have you been to one of the big shopping malls recently?  All of the lights, all of the decorations, all of the Christmas music, all of the advertising.  I was in one store on Friday and there was a big sign in Christmas colors as I walked in that said, ‘Christmas is about giving,’ which aside from the fact that that’s  not true, what  the store owner is really saying here is that ‘Christmas is about buying,’ and if we really want to get crass, we could further translate the words into, ‘Christmas is about spending your money right here right now,’ which of course is just another way of saying, ‘Christmas is about getting more stuff.’

All of the pictures are random shots of shopping mall Christmas decorations.

Meanwhile, schools are putting on Christmas concerts, churches are doing special Christmas music, even my little choir the Greenwood Singers has our Christmas concert this afternoon at 3 at St. Austin’s Church, people are throwing Christmas parties.  Then there are holiday displays that invariably involve snow.  Snow? Seriously? At the equator?

But despite all the festive good cheer, I’ve had a rough week.  Reality keeps trying to crash my party.  A good friend of mine died on Wednesday.  I had a crush on her forty years ago when we were first year university students.  Social media allowed us to reconnect. Then two years ago, she was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative nerve disease that slowly but surely shuts down every part of your body until you can no longer move, or swallow, or breathe.  It is not a happy way to die, because your mind carries on until the rest of your body dies around you.  My friend Nancy was a strong Christian.  She was in fact a pastor. She had gone back to seminary after a successful career and raising two beautiful children, and then planted a church.  But what kind of world do we live in where a beautiful, God-fearing soul can suffer and die like that?  

My mother in law - her name was Nancy, too - whose memorial we will celebrate in a few minutes along with her husband Jim, Nancy was in her sixties when she out of nowhere suffered a seizure.  When the doctors had a look, they discovered that she had a brain tumour, called a glioblastoma.  Of all the different kinds of brain tumours you can get, this is the worst because it’s shaped not like a ball or a sack growing there in your brain, but like an octopus that sends tentacles out in every direction making it impossible to get it all when you are operating.  But they tried anyway, and also tried some new radiation and chemotherapy treatments.  Life expectancy, even with surgery and treatment, is about a year.  After her surgery, Nancy had about 10 good months.  But we all knew that the cancer would come back.  It always does.  We got the bad news when we were visiting supporting churches.  And then we hard that she had suffered a stroke.  We rushed back to Jim and Nancy’s home.  Jim had decided not to put Nancy in the hospital with all the machines and disruptions, but to take care of Nancy at home.  When we got there, we found Nancy surrounded by all her friends from the Church.  Several of them were nurses and had already come up with a rota to help care for her.  Nancy was paralysed on her right side, which meant she couldn’t speak any more.  But she could speak with her eyes and could make signs with her one good hand.

We were there with Nancy for her last four weeks.  We helped feed her.  We helped turn her.  I sat with her, read the Bible to her, held her hand and prayed with her.  But the tumour ravaging her brain was relentless and her body began to fail.  She began sleeping more and more.  She stopped eating.  And then very early, while it was still dark before dawn on St. Nicholas Day, Jim woke us up and told us to come.  We stood around Nancy’s bed as she quietly took her last breaths, and then was still.

Such a wonderful mother and wife.  An incredible mother-in-law and friend for me.  And the most wonderful Grandmama for my two girls.  And a fun and dear friend for so many.  And a lover of Jesus, a hardworking saint at her church.  And then she was taken from us.

Then there was the young missionary couple from Australia, Andrew and Sharon.  Andrew was managing a construction site on the compound where I lived in Addis Ababa.  Sharon was a medical doctor, but she was teaching English at the Theological College where I taught.  I was the pastor of the big International Evangelical Church at the time, and Andrew and Sharon were always there on Sundays for church.  It was Tuesday and it had rained earlier.  It was damp and humid.  Andrew was checking the wall on top of the second floor of the new warehouse he was building, to figure out how to put the joists for the roof.   He passed within a meter of a power line and suddenly there was a flash and a loud cracking boom, the electricity arced from the line to the tiny wire of metal on the inside of his hat.  The electricity passed through his head, through his heart and blasted out of his shoes.  Andrew was thrown off the building.  He landed on his back and was quickly surrounded by his workers and colleagues, but there was nothing anybody could do.  They commandeered a land cruiser and took him to the national hospital just across the street from where I was at a meeting. I rushed over as soon as I had heard that there had been an accident.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I was there when they brought Andrew in.  But Andrew was gone.  There was absolute pandemonium in the emergency room, so I arranged for them to take Andrew’s body to a quiet room off to the side. And then came the hard part.  We had to find Sharon.  Her phone was switched off.  I took off to the college where she had been teaching that morning and discovered she had just left.  So I rushed back and got there just as Sharon walked in and found her husband and lover and best friend dead.  There simply are no words.  All you can do is hold someone and let them be in shock and then let them cry.

Everyone of us this morning could tell our own stories.  We have seen great pain and suffering.  Maybe we are going through our own private hell right now.  Maybe we are in the hole of poverty and cannot get the credentials to get us the job that would help us get out.  Maybe we are trapped in an addiction - addicted to alcohol, addicted to gambling, addicted to pornography, and we are in denial.  And in the meantime it’s killing us and all our relationships.  Maybe we’re suffering from depression.  Maybe it seems our life will never be happy again.  Maybe we are in a relationship that’s become a living hell.  Maybe we are being beaten, maybe we are married to a drunkard, maybe we are married to a bully who abuses us with her or his words.  And maybe so messed up is our world that the people around us, and maybe we ourselves, think this is just normal.

My friends, this is our world.  And it will be one sad, terrible, tragic story after another.  In just a few short years, there will be different people sitting here or standing here.  One by one all of us will come to the end.  Whether by accident or sickness or by malice of others or just old age, our bodies will stop working.  And what seems so solid and so real today will dissolve back into the earth from which we all came. There are good things about this life for sure, but they seem here to remind us of just how wrong things have gone.  All the brokenness, all the evil, all the sickness, all the dying -  It’s not what God created. It was never intended to be this way.

So when I see all the lights and decorations, all the presents and faux holiday cheer, I realise that Christmas as most of us celebrate it is not part of the solution, but rather part of the problem.  The world as we know it can’t actually handle the solution.  Because to do so would mean that we would have to acknowledged that things are really messed up, that our ways of coping are not working, that the ways of this world lead not to life but to death, that we are in fact desperately in need of a Savior.  And so a Savior comes.  Not to give us a handout, as if that ever ultimately helped us.  Not to provide another program to give us the money or the stuff that we think we need. Not someone standing outside our lives and our world telling us just to do the right thing, just love each other, just be good, yet another list of dos and don’ts.  Instead God Himself comes to us.  Not through the words of one of His prophets.  Not through some holy book.  Not to mobilise some holy crusade.  But God becomes one of us.  God wraps Himself in our life.  God becomes a human being, a human baby, a human body and mind, with human eyes and ears, with human hands and feet, a human voice, a human heartbeat.  God himself takes on our life, our sorrows.  He experiences our world.  He sees our traumas, understands our heartaches, weeps at our bereavement and then suffers, he embraces our death.  Not simply so that he can say that he did it, but so that he can, by His transforming power defeat it, and remake our broken humanity, remake our broken lives, undo what sin has done and is doing, undo the end that death has made for every son of Adam and daughter of Eve.  Matthew quotes Isaiah the prophet:  ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God with us.’  

God with us.  That is the good news that Christmas brings.  Not that we get more stuff.  As if that ever solved any of our problems.  Not that we are left alone by a distant God to carry on with the same attitudes and behaviours and hardness of heart that has brought each of us precisely to this point of desperation.  Not that God has made a way for us to come to him, when not a single religion of this world has ever made the difference we so desperately need.  Instead God Himself has not waited for us to get our acts together and to come to Him. Rather, He has come to us.  He becomes one of us.  He knows us and loves us precisely as we are, precisely where we are.  The good news of Christmas is Emmanuel.  God Himself with us.  And when He opens our blind eyes and softens our hard heart, and we see Him, our salvation can actually now begin.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Friday, December 2, 2016

Missiology and Tedium

I am in the middle of writing a paper comparing the missiologies of the Orthodox missionaries of 19th century Alaska and those of late 20th century Kenya.  This is interesting (to me, at least) because, whereas Protestants and Roman Catholics have long developed thoughtful and involved missiologies, and even developed their own category of academic studies, the Orthodox, in contrast, are rather new to the missiology game, at least as it has been played in recent decades.  Part of this has to do with the fact that, more than any branch of Christianity, the Orthodox have been more ‘under the cross’ than any of the others, though this is not to make little of the suffering of anyone who has found themselves facing persecution for identifying as a follower of Christ.  Part of it has to do with the fact that the Eastern Church is not wired like the Western Church.  It has never been a priority to systematise theological knowledge in the East, as if if were actually possible to understand God.  The great systemizations of Western theologians have given just that impression - that their authors know their subject.  And it is true, these men (and some women) have mastered vast mountains of information about their subject, as well as what just about everybody else thinks about their subject.  And to hear any one of these great theologians speak is to be amazed at what they have to say. 

But in the East, this temptation has been more readily resisted - this temptation to think that by knowing about something, one actually knows that something.  There is an awareness of and passionate respect for mystery in the East, a realization that the so-called truths of theology can only take one so far, and are instead are beyond verifying, that the subjects of theology are actually beyond knowing.  This has never meant that theology collapses into subjectivity (the way the epistemology and certain rooms of theology are doing so in the West today).  Rather it puts the emphasis back on God the Holy Trinity, and upon the Trinity’s astonishing acts of self-revelation, and on how that revelation should be understood, interpreted and applied through the guidance of the Church’s Tradition.   Some aspects of this revelation have been viewed as through a glass darkly.  Others have, dramatically, been face to face, as women and men and even children were confronted with and blessed by and challenged by the words and presence of the incarnate Son of God Himself, Jesus of Nazareth.  But even in the face of Revelation Himself, we are confronted with intractable mystery - How can this person be both God and human?  How can He save His people from their sin?  How can He rise again after being executed?  etc.  There are, of course, no shortage of ideas, and many books and papers have been written in every generation since He walked this earth attempting to address these very things.  But for all the words we still don’t know the hows and the whys and the wherefores.

But this was just an example.  Back to missiology.  Missiology is the attempt to study the transmission of the Christian gospel and its impact on individuals, communities and cultures through the establishment of churches.  One on-line definition calls it ‘the science of the cross-cultural communication of the Christian faith.’  But to reduce missiology to a ‘science,’ in my opinion, reduces the study of missions to that of the amassing and plumbing of a body of knowledge, an organising of missionary facts, as if this described the reality.

In the East this is about as satisfactory as coming up with a ‘how to’ set of directions as to how the sacraments ‘work’.  The (western) Roman Catholic Church has long held that sacraments are ex opere operato, ‘from the work worked’.  This means that the sacraments work when they are validly effected, independent of the faith of either the recipient or the performer of the sacrament.  But this is to answer questions that neither Jesus nor the apostles ever answered.  It points to the existence of a ‘system’ of sacramental theology that demands certain answers apart from and beyond what the Revelation we do have actually says.  In the East, we have sacraments, but no sacramental theological system.  The sacraments are means of God’s grace. They Church has faithfully passed down certain ways of accessing these God-given gifts, but nobody has presumed to put a limit on how God gives his grace or how it must be received.  Rather than two sacraments for Protestants (an unfortunate allergic reaction to medieval Roman Catholicism), or seven sacraments for Roman Catholics, there are as many sacraments for the Orthodox as there are ways that God may choose to manifest his love.  We celebrate seven in the Orthodox Churches, but nobody is so foolish as to limit God to seven in the way He chooses to govern His world.

With respect to missiology the literature that I have become familiar with attempts to say what can be said about the great themes of cross-cultural evangelism, the various strategies employed, the profound insights elucidated, the great personalities who have set their shoulder to the plough.  Other disciplines are plundered, such as history, anthropology, theology, biblical studies, linguistics and the like.  Theories are advanced, others are debunked. The whole process has been academized and professionalized, with proper journals, scholarly books, conferences and the like.

In the rush towards legitimacy, it seems, to this observer at least, that all the sound and fury is in danger of missing the point, to badly paraphrase Shakespeare.  My experience of the ‘mission field’ since my first foray in 1980 has engaged with precious few of the great themes of missiology as such.  In fact, most of my experience can be described by the unhappy word - tedium.  I have made many good friends.  Had many good opportunities to do what I am trained to do, which is to preach and to teach.  I have given my two cents’ worth in conversations at every level from spouse to friend to Bible Study class to congregation to conference to dais of experts.  But mostly, being a missionary has meant living my life in a cross-cultural context, and that has meant large swaths of time with not much to do.  And if one adds the time one has been sleeping during all that time, then the actual percentage of time spent doing something as a missionary is actually quite small.  It’s amazing that we humans are able to accomplish anything at all when you think about it.

I think that God is actually (and surprisingly) most interested in my tedium.  When I am operating in my strength, in my abilities, in my ‘calling’, I am doing what I feel most comfortable doing.  I am doing what I can do.  But when I am outside that zone, in the quiet times, the times when I don’t have enough to do, when I’m not cramming my schedule full of everything I can just so I can give the appearance of being busy and important, it’s these times that God finds me, the real me, me as I am, the me left to my own devices.  I think that God is actually most interested in the me of tedium because he knows that if I cannot be touched and transformed there, all of the rest is actually worthless dust and noise.

This calls to mind that Jesus himself was born into what, for Him, was a cross-cultural situation.  Jesus himself never systematised anything.  (It might actually be good for us Westerners to repeat that several times!)  He spent His time as an infant as all infants do, with His mother and caregivers.  He spent His time as a boy as all boys do, playing with sticks and rocks and dirt and friends.  He spent his time as a teenager as all teenagers do, studying and hanging out with friends.  He spent his time as a young man as all young men do, learning a trade with his father, working and earning a living.  With respect to his ‘ministry’, the subject of almost all that is written about Him in the gospels, those three years comprise less than 10% of the time he spent alive on this earth.  What was he doing the rest of that time if he wasn’t doing ‘ministry’?  He was living.  With all the relationships, all the quiet, times, all the visiting, all the listening, all the joking and laughing, all the reading and studying, all the time apart praying, all the things that we do.  Except that he didn’t have a radio, or a TV, or an iPod, or an iPhone, or a laptop or all the other things you and I feel like we need to save us from boredom.  Dare I say the Incarnate Son of God experienced boredom, too?  If He was truly human, the answer must be yes.

So it’s actually in this most needy hole of our lives, our tedium, our boredom, that we find ourselves most of the time. Our professional Christian identities eschew any suggestions that our maximalized lives may be anything other than optimally utilised.  It is, moreover, strange that our systematized theologies pretend this aspect of our humanity does not exist.   It’s equally strange that our systematised missiologies ignore this aspect of our missionary reality.  But a theology and missiology that is not touching our tedium is not touching our humanity, nor is it touching our reality.

In this it would be wise to catch up with our Lord Jesus Himself, who not so much addressed this as lived it and therefore sanctified it.  His life was full of empty moments.  So is mine.  And likely so is yours.  Resisting the temptation to understand why or how, it is enough to begin to enter the sacramental potential of our tedium.  By the incarnation, even this catches sacramental fire and becomes a means of grace for me in God’s hands.  It’s part of God’s shaking loose from me everything that is not worthy of the New Jerusalem, filling every corner of my mind and heart, mending the broken parts, cauterising the diseased, wiping the tears.  And it doesn’t happen when I am too busy to hear or care.  This does not mean that I find something more or better to do.  It means, simply, that I find God.

Knowledge is not insignificant.  But knowing God the Holy Trinity is infinitely better.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

An Old Testament Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday.  At least until recently, until greedy merchants began pushing their ‘Black Friday’ agendas and in the name of competition making ever earlier their opening hours to include even Thanksgiving Day evening (thus forcing many of their employees to leave their family gatherings or risk losing their jobs), Thanksgiving has been the least commercialized and most family-centered of our national holidays.  The centerpiece is a meal that everyone shares together, full of special foods, some of which make their appearance on our menus just this once every year.

For those of us who have family, either around us or to visit (or be visited by), it’s a chance to reconnect, to catch up, to share old stories, to laugh, to sit and watch a football game (or if the weather cooperates, to troop outside and play touch football and hope that the determined displays of machismo on the part of the older bodies don’t result in an injury).  Then there is the ritual eating, and eating so much that one never wants to eat anything ever again.  But of course we must because then there is dessert.  Oh my.  Five different kinds of pie (pumpkin, pecan, apple, cherry, and Aunt Lucy’s chocolate cream delight).  By this time everyone (except Aunt Emogene, who always eats like a bird) has been promoted to the status of beached whale.  This is the stage when the children have all run off to play someplace else, and all the adults are sitting around complaining about their common experience of having eaten way too much.  Why anyone would want to interrupt this homey scene and waddle off to the mall is beyond me.  But who am I to judge.

For those of us who, for whatever reason, have lost their families due to death, or divorce, or distance, Thanksgiving is an altogether different and even painful experience.  My own diary entry for today was blank until this past Sunday when an American friend of mine realized that I was alone and invited me to join his circle of American friends for an expatriate American Thanksgiving.  Ironically, I’ll be joining the same set of friends who used to come to MY house when we hosted the big Thanksgiving meal for twenty-five or thirty Americans away from home.  But the last time we did this was in 2011, and that seems like a very long time ago.  And things have changed a bit since then.

So this morning my interest was aroused when the Psalm I was reading (I have a regular program of reading the Psalms through several times a year, and indeed all of Scripture through at least once each year) ‘just happened’ to be on Thanksgiving.  But Thanksgiving in a different light than this American is used to thinking about.  So I’ll just share the several verses that caught my attention.  Maybe they will catch yours, as well.

From Psalm 50:7-23

Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
You burnt offerings are continuously before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of Thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.

But to the wicked God says:
‘What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips?
For you hate discipline, and you cast My words behind you.
You make friends with a thief when you see one and you keep company with adulterers.
You give your mouth free rein for evil and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin and slander your own mother’s child.
These things you have done and I have been silent;
You thought that I was one just like yourself.
But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.’

Mark this then, you who forget God,
or I will tear you apart and there will be no one to deliver.
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
To those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God

The writer of this psalm makes the rather obvious point that  all the religious posturing, all the giving of sacrifices and offerings, all the going to services and saying all the appropriate words means nothing if I am treating someone wrongly at the same time.  My words can hurt or they can heal.  But when I tear someone down, or slander them to another person, or to a group or to an organization, I am simply advancing myself at another’s expense.  This kind of behavior renders my piety useless, it renders my church attendance a farce, it renders my Christian ministry to be hypocrisy.  The Lord Jesus Christ did not die on the cross and rise again from the dead to preside over a kingdom of people who claim to be His followers but who hurt and destroy their [Christian!] neighbor and then in their pride persist in maintaining their rightness even while their life collapses around them, and who even then blame the other for their difficulties and then take steps to ensure than everyone else will blame the other, too.  I really don’t think that this is what Jesus had in mind when he said to his followers the night before He died for them:  Love one another as I have loved you.

Thanksgiving is a lovely holiday.  I will bring my offering of Thanks to the Lord.  And I have taken steps to make sure that I have done everything I possibly can to address the brokenness in my life, and to reach out to those whom I have hurt, and those who have hurt me, to make reconciliation possible if there is a corresponding desire and willingness to be reconciled.  I have done so imperfectly, and there is much that I can - and will endeavor - to do better.  But even in these hard things as I cope with my weaknesses and failures and learn repentance the hard way, I want to be among those of whom God says, ‘Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me’. I want more than anything to ‘go the right way’, because I want more than anything to be shown ‘the salvation of God’. (Psalm 50:23)

But for others, Thanksgiving will once again be an empty gesture.  We gather with friends and family, we have a prayer to thank God for the many good things we have, and then we carry on as before and do nothing about the suppurating brokenness in our hearts and relationships.

In God’s mercy, for me and for you, Thanksgiving is actually one more opportunity, not just to be with loved ones or to gorge ourselves on our favorite foods (or even to do recreational shopping).  It is also another God-given opportunity for us let go of our self-imposed spiritual superficiality and deal with the real issues of our hearts and brokennesses in our relationships.  I imagine that if more of us took that risky but ultimately necessary step (sooner or later, we will have to deal with these issues), we might actually have something to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Dialogue with an LGBT Christian

'Everybody's' preferred weapon: OUTRAGE!

I came across a discussion of an article posted on a  friend's Facebook page, a Conservative Christian’s plea to proponents of liberal identity politics to show the same tolerance to those with whom they disagree (conservative Christians) that they demand others give to them.  I then added my bit and that led to the following discussion with  ‘JK’.  I get annoyed with Fb discussions like this because they never seem to progress to anything beyond declaring one’s own position as stridently as one can whilst assuming (and projecting) the worst about the person with whom one is debating.  What is often useful is the window into the world-views represented in the debate and the assumptions and presuppositions that are informing each side of the discussion, whether or not the participants acknowledge them or are even aware of them.  And that's why I am posting what follows.
In this discussion, I tried in several ways to explain that there isn’t just one perspective (my right one - with the rest all on a sliding scale of wrongness) but that there are a number of valid ways of construing one’s reality (i.e., one’s world view), valid in the sense that they work, that is, they help the one who sees things from that perspective make sense of the world as they experience it.  This is not a new or novel way of understanding the realities of different cultures.  However as you will see, JK never could admit that there were other valid ways of construing reality, because to do so might mean her own way was wrong or her black and white representation of the LGBT cause might be mistaken.  Ironically, she painted herself into the same corner as the Christian fundamentalists she rather despises, only she has replaced a narrow fundamentalist Christian orthodoxy with a narrow fundamentalist liberal one.  
Anyway, here is how the discussion unfolded.  At times we were both arguing past each other, not listening as well as we could have.  But I would ask you the reader to suspend judgment as to who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and instead have a look into the very different world views informing JK and me.  And notice, we have different world views in spite of the fact that we both would call ourselves ‘Christian.’

JK The troubling thing about her complaining that liberal people aren't tolerant of her is the false equivalence she puts forth.  It's fine to think something is wrong. It is not fine to deny me my civil rights because you don't like my sexual orientation. This author also assumes no one is really actively engaging with people completely different than them.  I am a teacher. I work everyday to teach all my students- Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, LGBT families, migrant worker families- to create a safe environment so they can learn.  I have worked and am working, for 23 years in children's hospitals and interfaith children's programs to built relationship between communities and families who appear to have nothing in common.  The writer seems to be only interested in her own comfort, which isn't a crime until she starts to deny the civil rights of others in order to accommodate her own comfort.

BB  The reason there is such a gulf between the two sides is that members of the LGBT etc community unilaterally redefined what had been for thousands of years something considered by the majority culture as a moral issue, and made it instead a 'civil rights' issue. In doing so, they claimed to be following the example of the African American community in pushing the majority culture into redressing the wrongs of racism. But Dr. King used the prevailing moral consensus of the Christian community as the foundation of his critique of those who claimed to be Christians but who were hypocritically racist in their words and deeds. What is interesting to me at least is that, whilst claiming the African American civil rights struggle as a model, the LGBT community chose not to use Christian morality as the basis for their struggle, but rather replaced a Christian world view with an ideology that is foreign to Christian morality. In other words the LGBT community has rejected traditional Christian morality (for rather obvious reasons) and replaced it with a morality based on secular values. Christians have assumed that everybody has been reading from the same page and have been very slow to realize that the rapid changes in our culture in the past three decades have been motivated not from Christian morality but from a different morality informed by a rejection of Christian moral and theological absolutes. So you can reject traditional Christian theology and morality as being relevant to you, your values and agenda. But don't presume to judge another person for being homophobic just because they disagree with your morality (just as Christians should not presume to judge you as damned and going to hell just because you disagree with their morality). In a pluralistic society, which ours now is, the only way it can actually work is if the tolerance for different views is an actual tolerance. But tolerance does not mean that we actually agree with each other or must affirm each other - it means we tolerate each other and respect your right to believe something different from me. This was the perspective of the Gay community when it was marginalized. Now that this community has achieved cultural and political ascendancy, one gets the impression that the same tolerance they desired for themselves is not what they are interested in showing to any other differing morality. It often feels, from the Christian perspective, that those aspects of Western society that are driving the LGBT agenda are simply trying to replace what they feel has been the tyranny of Christian morality with the tyranny of their own.

JK I am a Christian. There are many LGBT who are Christian. There are many Christian communities who love and accept their LGBT brothers and sisters.  As far as the Bible is concerned, the word "Homosexual" wasn't coined until in 1800's.  There is not a biblical understanding of homosexual orientation rather the ancient view was that all humanity was heterosexual. There are mentions of same sex acts but those are in reference to rape and temple prostitution.
There is no mention or knowledge of what we understand today as a same sex orientation.
Through the centuries the church has evolved and changed in many ways and on every front.
Once the church ( and culture) regarded women - and children- as property of the father/husband.
Once a man could have as many wives as he could provide for and concubines.  Paul had a very low regard for marriage saying it would be better if a man be single but if he can not control himself he could marry - better to marry than burn.  If you are going to require biblical marriage to be followed you will be enslaving women and children, not allowing divorce, and stoning for adulterous behavior ( women only, of course.).  The traditional morals found in the Bible were always being challenged by Jesus and his teachings.  His mandate was to love. Love the stranger, love your enemy, love the children, love the lost, love the seeker ( Mary who wanted to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn like the men were doing.).  The Bible is a collection of books all, each one written to move a people out of their traditional morals and into a wider acceptance and love of each other.  Fundamentalist Christians do not contain by any measure the final word on what is Christian Morality.

Now if you are saying LGBT folk are oppressing and dogmatic like the fundamentalist have been to them I would refer you to the, again , false equivalence in your argument which is: Fundamentalist Christians and those who would use this theology to bolster their argument requiring the LGBT person NOT to have any rights as a citizen of the US ( or anywhere else in the world.) They are taking away, or wish to, our right to exist and pursue fulfillment and happiness.  LGBT are not requiring heterosexuals to give up their rights to happiness and fulfillment. The LGBT community is not calling to end heterosexual marriage as they are doing to the LGBT community. Your false equivalence argument was seen through by the Supreme Court as well. You have the right to practice your religion however you see fit, you do not, however, have the right to deny another segment of society their right to exist and to pursue their happiness like any other citizens of the US- Christian or not.

BB  I think you are too easily dismissing significant points by labelling them 'false equivalence'. Whether you personally agree or not, there are a number of people who feel persecuted by members of the LGBT community because of their traditional Christian beliefs. I respect and accept your personal testimony that you are a Christian. However, when a significant minority of Christians, for the sake of 'updating' or 'modernizing' or getting rid of what we feel is offensive about the Christian faith that has come to us, make changes in both the beliefs and morality of that faith, is it still Christianity, or what would have been recognized as Christianity for 19 centuries of it's history? By what authority does one make changes in a religion the way these Christians have done? Thomas Jefferson did similar things when he took a pair of scissors and physically cut out everything from the New Testament that he found offensive or non-sensical (particularly having to do with the supernatural and miracles, to which Enlightenment people like himself were allergic). Are not the current batch of progressive Christians doing the same thing? And what does one have left when you are finished removing everything that you find offensive from your version of Christianity? And who is to say that you are right? What about another person who excises something different than you because they are triggered or offended by what Paul or Jesus says? I'm not asking to go after you, it's just as a historian, there is lots of precedent for the kind of reconstruction we see happening in the LGBT community among those who are trying to preserve what they like about Jesus and all that. In the past, at least, almost every similar attempt ends up with something that is no longer Christian, by historical or theological measures, at least. So I'm curious, after you get rid of all the (many, by your account) offensive bits), what have you got to replace the traditional gospel and traditional theology of Christianity?

JK  The Gospel of Jesus resurrection was first preached to a sexual minority - a eunuch. This is saying something very specific. Christ welcomes all and sexual minorities have always been with us.
If you are saying Christians are being persecuted I think you need to look to ISIS not the LGBT community as your example of persecution of Christians in the 21 st century.  And when LBGT achieve anything chose to a majority rule than you can claim persecution. LGBT folk will always be about 10% of the population - we will always be a sexual minority.  If the social attitude is changing toward American Christianity I think we Christians have only ourselves to blame with the alignment of fundamentalist literal interpretation of scripture ( read "An Angry God") with conservative politics beginning in the late 60's.  Christians in America have a PR problem as the only face of Christ most people are seeing and hearing about is hate speech from: Jerry Falwell Ministries/ Liberty University/Liberty Counsel, Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson Empire, Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund), Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, Faith & Freedom Coalition, Council for National Policy, and the sad Westboro Baptist Church.  The backlash Christians are feeling is because these organizations drape themselves in the flag and couch their bigotry in Fundamentalist Theology- nothing could be further from Jesus mission and message on earth. 

You are not being persecuted. You are being protested against.

The church burned us ( LGBT) at the stake ( hence the name "Fag") the church sanctioned imprisonment, humiliation, when the US military liberated the concentration camps of WW2 they left the LGBT folks in prison. We were not liberated. They agreed with the Nazis that we should be exterminated, we lost of our children, jobs, housing, and basic human and civil rights for centuries. And the church has been the keeps of the keys of our imprisonment.  This is persecution.

Now the church is full of white people suffering from white fragility meaning the white community ( including white churches) are not used to being disagreed with, debated, and protested. In essence, whites are sore losers and cry wolf at the slightest sign of having to share the rights, privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship.  If the church fears losing influence in their culture they should evangelize - win people to Christ- instead of engaging in the politics of hatred.
John Boswell, Yale historian, found in the Vatican the rights of marriage between male priests. (John Boswell, The Church and the Homosexual: An Historical Perspective, 1979)
So at least for a while the early 9th century church was more accepting especially in the eras of fear and hatred of women.  You seem to think that how the church is now is how it has always been. There have been 19 centuries of changing theology and changing society.  If you want to know how a church can be Christian AND accepting/full inclusion of LGBT folks go to any of the 10, 000 +churches and and ask 4,000,000 plus individuals who are welcoming and affirming of LGBT folks. I'm sure the ministers would be happy to speak with you.  We are everywhere, in every state, in every country. Perhaps this is why the majority of white evangelicals are feeling uncomfortable ( and interpreting this as a threat.)

BB  First,when you frame a class of Christians as an existential threat to your person (or to the movement to which you belong), you justify not listening to them and dismissing them as legitimate people with a legitimate perspective. In doing so, you now are treating these people the way you claim they treated you (I am using generalizations). Because members of the LGBT community know how it feels to be unfairly marginalized, it is ironic to say the least that they would then turn around and use the very same arguments and tactics back at members of the Christian community (or in your case, members of the Christian community with whom you disagree, which would be most of them), though they/you themselves/yourselves know that such arguments and tactics are prejudicial and motivated no by a concern to do the right thing but by a concern for what appears to be revenge. Secondly, you seem to be taking the classic post-modern position that there is no such thing as absolute truth, therefore how dare you (in this case conservative Christians) impose your demonstrably flawed and dangerous morality (that makes me feel threatened) on everybody else (i.e. me). The problem is, in this view, all moral and religious claims are subjective, EXCEPT the post-modern claim that there are no absolutes, which is itself an absolute claim. Members of the LGBT community get outraged at the absolute claims of the Christian community on the principle that there are no absolutes, moral or otherwise. But then they (and seemingly you) turn around and impose your own set of moral absolutes on everybody else (especially conservative Christians) and demand that they conform or we'll sue/boycott/call you names/blacklist you. I can understand why you say you feel threatened by them or even me. Can you understand why conservative Christians feel threatened by you? Thirdly, Boswell, as a Yale historian, should have known, or at least acknowledged that he was not reporting evidence but rather interpreting evidence, and that his interpretation was not the only or even the best for the evidence that he was citing. Boswell was very much driven by an agenda. I have no problem with historians (or any other scholars) who have agendas, because all of us do (speaking as a Cambridge-trained historian). I do, however, have problems with scholars who refuse to acknowledge their agendas and how those agendas might influence the conclusions they come to. Because that leaves people like you thinking that these historians have 'proved' something when sometimes they have merely provided evidence for their own prejudice. Fourthly, you cite many, many people, churches and denominations that support the view you take. But obviously you would agree with me that large numbers of people supporting something don't necessarily mean that they are right. Truth is not a democracy. Besides, even more people, churches and denominations would disagree with you on this issue. Does that mean they are right and the rest of you are sadly wrong? It all comes back to how one decides what is true or right. Traditional Christianity has, since the earliest days, understood truth to be intimately related to the person and teaching of Christ and his apostles. Contemporary LGBT activists construe truth differently and have a different ultimate authority governing what they think and do. What about you? I think I'm finished taking up [my friend’s] Fb space here, as these sorts of discussions are rarely profitable. If you want to pursue this further with me, I'll be glad to have a more private discussion via email. You can reach me at ---------. Even though we obviously disagree, I do wish you well.

Civil Society?

So there you have it.  My Fb sparring partner has given a rather fulsome and impassioned justification for LGBT rights and lifestyles from a Gay Christian perspective.  Her reconstruction of Christian history and theology is not new, but standard practice, at least in my experience of discussions with my LGBT friends.  I was not concerned to respond to her arguments that an LGBT lifestyle is consistent with Christian discipleship.  Nor did I want to give a point by point rebuttal of historical or theological perspectives.  Such a debate has never been a winning strategy, at least in my experience.  Rather I was concerned with the dismissal of traditional Christianity as a valid expression of Christianity simply because of its rejection of homosexual practice as not in line with God’s best for humanity.  I welcome your interaction.  I only ask that you be respectful.  Follow the Golden Rule in your comments - Do to others as you would have them do to you.  This post is not about passing judgment on anybody (as if that was in any of our job descriptions).  Rather I am interested in the world-view issues that are raised, and in the implications for conservative Christian interaction with our present and evolving context.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Conservative White Christians Bite Back

Half of the nation's population lives in just 146 of the 3000 counties represented here.
The blue counties went for the Democratic candidate.  They grey for the Republican.  Many of
the urban counties went blue.  Most of the small town and rural went grey.

It was not an outcome that I envisioned.  Like many, I was stunned by the results of the United States presidential election.  Like many, I had decried the many outrageous and demeaning things Mr. Trump said or implied during the course of his tumultuous campaign.  Like many, I didn’t take him seriously.  Like many, I thought for sure his supporters would see through what seemed to me to be his demagoguery and call what I thought was clearly a spade a spade.  I was wrong.  Mr. Trump is now the President-elect.  And his many detractors - in the press and mainstream media, on university campuses, the powers that rule over the left and right coasts - all of the so-called ‘elite’ who presume to know what’s best for everyone else - all of his many detractors have been humiliated and are groping blindly to come up with some answer (or someone else to blame) for their discomfiture.

A quick scan of headlines of some of the nation’s leading papers today, just the third day after one by one the networks called for Trump a cascade a states that were assumed to be Clinton’s, provides evidence that these media outlets, and the people behind them, have learned nothing from their experience over the past 18 months.  For 18 months I have watched and read these papers and long ago made the observation that their editors and writers despise Mr. Trump.  Day after day it was one negative story after another, one shriek of outrage after another, one uber-righteous condemnation of Mr. Trump’s words/policies/actions/ after another, balanced by little if anything positive to say about Mr. Trump or his ‘movement’.  Except to describe them as, in Mrs. Clinton’s unfortunate choice of words, a ‘basket of deplorables’, or as a distasteful assortment of racists, bigots, neo-nazis, homophobes, women-haters or worse.  Obviously these stories and choices of descriptions made the ones making use of them feel better about themselves, but my observation that the open tap of abuse heaped on Mr. Trump and his supporters by these news outlets did absolutely nothing to dent his support throughout the entire campaign.  (In spite of this, these same papers are following the same strategy of abuse now that the election is over.  Who are these people talking to?  Who are they thinking to influence?  Having failed during the campaign, do they think their muckery will succeed now?  Is this the best journalistic strategy they can come up with?)  I think there are a number of probable causes for Mr. Trump’s ascendency, in spite of the media’s rather transparent efforts to undo him and his supporters.  But the one that interests me, for obvious reasons, because this is in many respects my own tribe, is the reason represented by White Conservative Christians.

White Conservative Christians are by no means a monolithic block of voters.  They are broader than just ‘Evangelicals’; they include Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Pentecostals, as well as a remnant from more liberal Protestant denominations as well.  I have observed over the past 20 years, first denial that any kind of ‘change’ might be coming to the America of ‘conservative’ morality that we had all grown up with.  Then came disbelief and shock as American morality was rewritten by the courts and our governing authorities.  It was unfathomable to White Conservative Christians that government would tinker with our morality and would think it could change centuries of Christian consensus as to what was right or wrong.  Even Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t change Christian morality to bring about his revolution on race relations; rather he used Christian morality as his chief weapon in the fight against the blatant hypocrisy of American Christian racists.  

But what happened in our country in the past twenty years was not a use of Christian morality to rid the country of yet more hypocrisy.  Instead it was a calculated and unprecedented replacement of Christian morality with something else.  In fact ‘Christian’ morality was identified as THE PROBLEM and the cause of all distress experienced by the various identity movements that put increasingly potent pressure on politicians, media and entertainment people, corporation leaders and education leaders to abandon moralities that were deemed immoral because of their condemnation of some and exclusion of others from the centre of public life.

Conservative White Christians never dreamed that their status quo would ever be challenged, much less evaporate in toto beneath their feet.  Suddenly, Conservative White Christians found themselves the brunt of increasingly ugly taunts - racists, homophobic, bigots.  And while Conservative White Christians were still framing their arguments on the basis of traditional Christian morality, their adversaries changed the ground of battle to that of civil rights, cleverly mimicking the Civil Rights Movement.  Right or wrong, moral or immoral no longer applied.  Instead, inclusion or exclusion became the legal coin of the land.  And it became clear, after a cascade of legal rulings against them, that Conservative White Christians were not only no longer in a position to define anyone else’s morality - they were no longer in a position to define their own morality!  Because their own morality was deemed discriminatory.  And it was deemed discriminatory because it presumed to say that some people were right and other people were wrong.

Of course there are constitutional and legal firewalls protecting the freedom of religion in America.  But such has been the poisoned relationship between identity movement leaders and White Conservative Christianity that the more angry and radical of them have given every indication of pushing their version of identity morality as the norm in America, to hell with anybody else’s supposed ‘freedom’ to believe anything else.  From their perspective, ‘freedom of religion’ is simply a concept of convenience behind which hides all sorts of justification to deny homosexuals and transgenders and any other identity movement aficionados their ‘rights’ to do and be as they please.  And because such ‘religion’ gives justification to racism, sexism, anti-gay rights, etc, legal protection for these religious institutions should be stricken from our lawbooks for the sake of the inevitable march of progress we are so obviously on.

This election has provided the opportunity for Conservative White Christians to begin to get their heads around what’s been happening in our country with respect to values and what the implications of the current trajectory are.  That being said, too many Conservative White Christians have been shrill, intemperate and judgmental in the way they have tried to cope with what they see.  This of course has simply provided evidence that proves the identity movement leaders’ point about the danger Christians are (to them and to their agendas, at least).  Other Conservative White Christians were genuinely vexed by the choice offered them for presidential leadership this year.  On the one hand, Mrs. Clinton clearly represented all of those who would seek to further erode any kind of Christian morality as being authoritative for anyone.  But on the other hand, there was Mr. Trump, in all his dystopian glory.  For these Christians, it seemed hypocritical to claim moral reasons to support a candidate whose serial inability to speak truth while his own words and moral choices seemed to destroy any moral or Christian reason for supporting him.

But with the mainstream press engaged in a longterm inability to take anything White, Conservative or Christian seriously, and with them thinking that their elitist readership now defined American sensibilities - this along with the increasingly ferocious campaign by identity movement leaders to brand Christians as racist, bigoted, uneducated, hypocritical, homophobic and misogynist, and to label their Christian religion as  the same - White Conservative Christians have begun to realize that they don’t have to just roll over an take it.  Unlike their caricature in the media and the slander of the identity movement people, most White Conservative Christians are not misogynist, most are not homophobic, most are not uneducated, most are not bigoted or racist, and most work hard to bring their lives in line with what they believe.  For naked political gain, identity movement leaders have sought to portray Christians as if their very worst defines them, and then use that caricature as the basis to deny their constitutional right to practice their faith.  Many White Conservative Christians are beginning to see this and are fighting back.  If these Conservative White Christians had not voted for Trump, Hillary Clinton would now be President-elect.

It is one thing to seek to right wrongs, as Dr. King attempted, and from a Christian perspective addressing Christians, and those informed by a Christian morality.  But what we have today is a moral coup d’tat, with the Christian world view and morality that defined our society being overthrown by another morality, an elitist morality, where might makes right.  We’ve seen this before in the previous century.  And when allowed, it always trends towards authoritarianism and then totalitarianism.  In this case, it’s the assumption and imposition of a radical individualism, where my choice defines what is right or wrong, and where your choice against my rights is the essence of racism, sexism and all sorts of other movement-isms.  And since the university intelligentsia and identity movement leaders have been so effective at removing any absolutes from having any bearing on the discussion, all that is left is the cry of individual or group outrage as defining the next ‘right’ or ‘what is right’ for everyone else to digest.  ‘I have a right to use whatever bathroom I want if I think I’m a woman even though I’m a man and if you get in my way of exercising my ‘right’ then you are worse than a nazi.’  By replacing what they perceived as the ‘tyranny’ of Christian morality, these people have given us something very much worse.

White Conservative Christians have begun to experience all of this, and they are angry.  They can't ignore what's going on any more.  As Grandma used to say, 'Oh my, look what the cat dragged in.'  It's offensive, it's gross, and now it's in our kitchen.  Voting for Trump has given them the opportunity to do something, to hell with the appearance of hypocrisy.  The nation’s cultural, media and political elites have wants everyone desperately to think that the current barbaric moral rampage of the identity movements is the wave of the future, and they have all scrambled on board, they have all drunk the kool-aid.  But a case can be made that the nation’s largest minority are not the Hispanics, nor the African Americans, nor the tiny Gay and Lesbian (and the rest of their alphabet) community, and the even tinier transgender community, nor the hyper-elite college and university professors, administrators and graduate students.  The largest minority in our country right now are the the Conservative White Christians.  The Hispanics, Blacks, Gays and Transgenders aren’t the only ones privileged to play the identity politics game. And after having been repeatedly denigrated, provoked and pushed around, it looks like Conservative White Christians have finally opened their eyes, roused themselves, and bitten back.