a short poem for Easter this year.
In episode 7 on The Abstract Podcast, we wrestled with the idea and implications of the death penalty and looked at what Paul has to say in Romans 13. Below are some of my own thoughts (compiled for a class assignment) and posted here to accompany our discussion on the podcast. There are certainly varying opinions on this matter, but I think it’s an one important to think about.
You can listen to Ep. 7 “Dr. Suess, Firing Squads, and Big Checks for Everyone” using this link – or by finding us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, ect.
The death penalty is a hard issue for me to grapple with. My position comes is that the government does indeed have the right to exercise capital punishment. The pros for this argument seem pretty straightforward. The state is responsible for the protection and well-being of its people. It is tasked with opposing forces which endanger the well being of its people. Often, these enemies are outside the territory, or country as the case may be. The state may deem violence necessary as an act of protecting its people, and it may kill those whom it deems an imminent threat. Similarly, the state may declare a person/force inside the territory to be an immanent threat and decide violence against them is the best move forward.
Paul writes in Romans 13:4, “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” From this scripture, as well as rather simple logic, it seems the state must possess the authority to do violence against threats to the common good for the purpose of protecting its people. Paul assumes in this chapter that the state is set up and operating for the purpose of punishing evil, not good. “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (Romans 13:3).
However, the situation is muddied for a few reasons. Paul writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:1, 4). Paul assumes the “one in authority” has the good of the public in mind. This is obviously not always the case. In most instances of abuse, the abuser is able to perpetrate violence against the victim because of the power situation – the authority was theirs, but they wielded it for harm. Surely, victims in every scenario cannot be expected to submit themselves to violence and abuse simply because they are not in charge. Paul here assumes the general interest of the state/one in authority is the good of the people. Throughout the New Testament, we also witness Paul himself getting thrown into prison time and time again for defying governing authority.
I am not in favor of the death penalty being sentenced in the United States for a few reasons. Firstly, we have the resources to mitigate the threat of persons who are too violent to live freely. They can be put in prison. Their death is not necessary to keep the public safe. Some have argued the death penalty functions as a deterrent to crimes, but this doesn’t seem to be the case when the statistic are examined. Executing terrorists who are an active threat to order and peace is not the same thing as strapping incarcerated people to a chair and electrocuting them (or shooting them at the hands of a firing squad as Utah, and perhaps South Carolina, propose). Executing prisoners with electric, poison, or assault rifles is not only practically unnecessary and barbaric, it negates any possibility of redemption and restoration. This is the Christian’s first and last hope.
In Romans 13:10 Paul writes, “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” The death penalty is the declaration stating a person is not and can never again be a neighbor in any capacity. Perhaps the most striking element of Romans 13, for the contemporary American, is Paul’s tacit assumption that the state will not act in a Christian manner. The state is not capable of the enemy love commanded by Jesus in Matthew 5. The state, which is God’s ordained institution, is not capable of the mercy characteristic of the kingdom of heaven.
Christ tells his followers to expect to be taken advantage of. However, he commands them not to retaliate and to pray for their enemies. This is a higher calling than that of the state – thus the notion of a “Christian state” is untenable. Fundamentally, the state cannot serve its purpose if it institutes the kingdom ethics required of believers. The purposes of the state and followers of Jesus are not one. As a follower of Jesus, I recognize the state’s right to exercise capital punishment, but I am not in favor of it. I recognize the protection afforded citizens comes at the expense of the blood of those who threaten, but I do not want that blood on my hands. I belong to a kingdom of loving enemies and walking the extra mile, of turning the other cheek, and doing good to those who curse. My allegiance is to that kingdom even while I walk the soil of another.
I’m kind of a hoarder, but really only when it comes to things I write (so it’s ok, right?). I’ve got journals from the last 10 years, all the notebooks, songs, poetry, and class notes I’ve ever penned. Or at least I thought I did. Tonight, I was preparing for a comprehensive Bible & Theology exam covering all the Bible classes I’ve ever taken, and I couldn’t find any notes on THE-393 (Old Testament Theology)! As a meticulous keeper of everything, this is pretty upsetting. In the midst of searching, I did come across an angsty poem I penned at the start of 2020. It made me laugh tonight – looking back on it and the year that was to come.
In the final stanza I declared the new year laughed first, but I would laugh last. I’m still not sure how all that panned out. Overall, it was a good year for me. But not without its ups and downs and a particularly rocky start on January 2.
My words to our current new year are much softer and more concise. What a strange trip around the sun we’ve had.
There are two phrases that keep coming back to me.
“It is what it is.” & “It’s not what it could be.”
The new year is a new slate, symbolically anyways. The spike and then steep dive in gym memberships around this time of year tells us flipping the page on the calendar doesn’t intrinsically change us. Or as some like to say, It is what it is. Yet thousands of people who found themselves too busy or lazy to exercise last fall have found the courage to step into the gym. And this tells us something we all want to believe, even if we’ve grown too jaded to really internalize, It’s not yet what it could be. There is a potential we have not yet realized – there are places we could go – “reality” could be better than it is.
A couple weeks ago, I reached out to three local pastors (and one who was quite far away) and asked them what they’re praying for their people in 2021. The past year was a emotionally taxing time to be alive, but our pastors experience that tension in a unique way. While we’re all disagreeing and bashing each other over the head in the comment sections, they’re trying to figure out how to tell us the gospel when we wander in on Sunday. While we soak in about 57 sermons worth of advertising, entertainment, and talking heads during the week, they’re trying to figure out what we need to hear from the Word. They had some good insights, and I’d like to share them with you.
“I’m praying that our people will choose this year to be more like Jesus. I know it sounds cliché, but I think we have missed that being a Christian means that we choose to walk like him. Being a Christian and being an apprentice of Jesus are not separate things. They are the same.”
“I am praying for an increase of what I am seeing in many sincere Jesus-followers. Many are experiencing a deep revealing of how futile it is to hope in this world. There is a hunger for prayer and the Word. I prayed for years that there would be a shake up in our church, and it has come in 2020. As hard as it is, I pray that God continues his work he is doing even if we continue to struggle through this.”
“My prayers center around the posture of our hearts towards people, how we view them, and how we view ourselves. I suppose that has been birthed as of late out of the many behind the scenes conversations centered around the good Samaritan passage and realizing we’re not so much the good Samaritan but the person in the ditch. We’re not so much the voice of reason to any argument (though I think the local church can be) or the “good person” coming to the rescue but the person in need of rescue. Which ultimately goes after the posture of our hearts, that we are just vessels of the rescuer. A Vessel with whom the Spirit dwells and works through. It’s through being a vessel of His Spirit that we invite people to come and see what Jesus has done for us and ultimately change culture toward His Kingdom.”
“I find myself praying more than I ever have in life, and I guess that’s because I find myself in a position of need. I pray Proverbs 30:7-9 for me personally and for the people in my care.
7 “Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
8 Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.
I believe that both requests have great relevance for current engagement. Falsehood and lies being far from me is much bigger than mere truth-telling. [See Psalm 52 for further reference. It depicts someone who actually told factual truth but was designated by the writer as loving falsehood. Interesting.] The second request is a hard one because consumerism, personal comfort, and the right to it is more than a whim. It’s a belief system that has wrapped its hold on us tightly. Give me neither poverty nor wealth…I pray this for me and for the people I love, but I wonder how to engage that fully. I am trusting Him to provide that answer as I keep praying and walking.”
Our pastors are hoping for us: hoping we’ll be more like Jesus; that we’ll hunger for prayer and the Word; that our posture will be one shaped by the Spirit; and that we’ll be kept from lies, resting in a state of reliance on him who is faithful. I think we’d do well to listen to them and their prayers for our new year.
My favorite poet, Jon Foreman, says we exist in the tension between, “who we are and who we could be, how the world spins and how it should be.”
It is what it is – yes I suppose so.
It’s not what it could be – because anything could be.
I’ve decided to write haikus this year to help me process things (like Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople). A haiku is a form of poetry which originated in Japan. Haikus typically contain three lines of poetry; the first line holding 5 syllables, the second 7, and the third 5 again.
In my piece below, the first stanza holds 5 haikus, the second 7, and the third 5.
*A contributor who wishes to remain anonymous helped with this article. *There is a video version of this article at the bottom of the post.
Three lies we have believed as Evangelicals. God have mercy.
1. We Believed Actions Were More Important Than Communication and Character.
We believed you could untangle these three elements of life.
The gospel of Matthew records, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” What we produce both reveals who we are and produces who we are becoming. We believed Donald Trump could act justly out of a corrupt character and while communicating with vileness. We were wrong.
Similarly, we believed we could engage each another in hostile arguments online without damaging “real life.” And many of us have realized the “real world” and the “virtual world” of social media are not easily separated. There are folks in church we don’t like so much anymore, people we take a wide path around in the parking lot because that social media confrontation has us wary of face-to-face interaction. Social media emboldens us to say things we would not in person. We are disembodied and fooled into thinking communication in virtual space gives us license to berate one another. Communication, action, and character are knotted up together.
Throughout the last four years, we have told ourselves time and time again that actions were more important than character and communication. Evangelicals accepted Donald Trump on the grounds that he would do our bidding, even if he did it in a vulgar manner, even if his past was tainted with vileness, even if he openly said vile things. We hung our hats on the argument that character and communication can be separated from action. As long as President Trump appoints conservative judges, stands up to China, and doesn’t raise our taxes, we don’t really care what he says or how he does it.
Every act is communication, to be is to communicate. As I sit in this coffee shop typing silently, I am communicating to those around me. My values, my tastes, my choice of clothing, my flavor of latte – we communicate through our presence in the world. In this way my communication is at once revealing who I am and creating who I will become. It is utterly foolish to believe communication can be untethered from identity. Joshua Gibbs said, “Every act of imitation is an act of becoming.” Yet somehow as the white evangelical church we were fooled into believing Trump’s positive actions could somehow outweigh his questionable character and reckless communication. It is not a matter of one “outweighing” any other – these elements of being are not separable. We act out what we are moving towards. You cannot act justly and communicate unjustly, nor act justly and maintain vile character.
The past week of mayhem serves as a culmination of the last few years and a final revelation of the absurdity of this notion. Donald Trump’s communication, character, and action cannot be untangled or essentialized. Who we are is fundamentally composed and expressed in each of these elements. A virtuous leader must display the integration of wisdom in communication, character, and action. Going one for three will get you into the baseball hall of fame – it makes for a really lousy leader.
2. We Believed Donald Trump Was a Christ Figure.
The church is a bride, and the white evangelical church wed itself to a man who was not Christ.
The language and symbolism of Trumpism casts Donald Trump as a Christ figure. He is said to have “come down the escalator to drain the swamp.” From his high position, Trump is said to have descended to lead the people. He enters into a realm said to be corrupted and dirty (a swamp) to do the work of making the land “great again.” This is clear language of a Christ figure. Jesus himself descended from heaven into a dark land to inaugurate a new kingdom.
In the Christian account, the hero is abandoned by all those closest to him in his final hours. This is significant because Christ is not simply on the side of truth, he is the truth incarnated. As Christ prays in the garden, his disciples fall asleep. At the last supper, the traitor leaves to do his work. After his arrest, Christ is denied by Peter, abandoned by his followers, and convicted by the court system. He goes to the cross alone.
We have been telling this story and replacing Christ with Trump, sometimes without realizing it, and sometimes intentionally. We have become so convinced of his righteousness that his words alone are truth. He has become the symbol of truth. He has been rejected by those near him, by the religious leaders, and by the court system. Yet many Evangelicals remain confident in his words. Trump has even coined a term for anyone who would deny him, “RINOs” Republicans in Name Only. Christ said “Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:33)” Trump has said to be Republican is to stand with him to the bitter end. He has positioned himself as a Christ figure, and we have largely accepted him. Anyone who denies the “Christ” is anti-Christian.
However, Donald Trump is not the truth incarnated. He is not the Christ. And it is for good reason he is being denounced and abandoned, from his own staff and the Republican Party to Christian leaders across the nation.
The Inner Circle
In the days after the insurrection in which Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, scores of folks once loyal to Donald Trump have jumped ship. As of the writing of this article, more than nine members of the Trump administration have resigned from their posts including: Elaine Chao (transportation secretary). Betsy DeVos (education secretary). Mick Mulvaney (former chief of staff, current special envoy to northern Ireland). Mulvaney said, “You can’t look at that yesterday and say I want to be a part of that in any way shape or form.” Stephanie Grisham (First lady’s chief of staff). Sarah Matthews (deputy press secretary). Matt Pottinger (deputy national security advisor). Rickie Niceta (White house social secretary). Ryan Tully (National Security Council’s senior director for European and Russian affairs). Tyler Goodspeed (Chairmen of the white house council of economic advisors). Republican Senator Ben Sasse said, “Lies have consequences. This violence was the inevitable and ugly outcome of the President’s addiction to constantly stoking division.” Trump is being abandoned by those once loyal to him who realize how insanely he’s behaving, how dangerous his claims are, and how he’s “disregarded his oath of office.” These include Lindsey Graham and his own Vice President – and this is certainly for good reason.
The Court System
For months Donald Trump and lawyers have claimed the election was decided unfairly. They brought allegations in more than 50 lawsuits. However, as Russell Moore writes,
“It is not true – and it never was true – that this election was stolen. That’s why such a charge was never even made in any court of law, where perjury penalties would hold but only in social media streams and demagogic rallies.”
On every occasion (save possibly two) they either lost, had their case thrown out for lack of evidence, or withdrew. “At least 86 judges from across the political spectrum, including some appointed by Trump, have rejected at least one post-election lawsuit filed by Trump or supporters” writes the Washington Post. Donald Trump has lost time and time again even in courts where he appointed the judges. The Supreme Court, three members of which Trump appointed, has refused to hear his case for lack of evidence. In a personal call on which Trump groveled hoping to “find” more votes, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State refused to be bullied and told him flatly he was wrong. Georgia had already undertaken multiple recounts.
The MAGA Faithful
Yet when we view Donald Trump as a Christ figure, it doesn’t matter how many staff resign, how many courts throw him out, how many leaders speak up to denounce him. Because he is not merely telling the truth; like Christ, he is the truth. Those at the Capitol were not there on behalf of the Republican party or conservatives. No. They were there on behalf of one man only; they flew his flag and marched in his name. They were whipped into a frenzy by his words. They went so shamefully far as to erect a gallows on which to execute the Vice President because he did not side with their Christ.
David French writes, “There was a giant wooden cross outside the Capitol. “Jesus saves” signs and other Christian signs were sprinkled through the crowd. I watched a man carry a Christian flag into an evacuated legislative chamber.” We Evangelicals were present there, like Peter in the garden, whipping out swords for our Christ. To our great shame, we have believed Donald Trump was our Christ figure, and some of us are adamant we will never deny him. No matter the cost: we would drive to D.C. – we would plunder the Capitol – we would die for Donald Trump, our Christ. God forgive us.
3. We Believed the End Was Nigh.
“If you argue that the very existence of the country is at stake, don’t be surprised if people start to act as if the very existence of the country is at stake.” – David French
Every four years Evangelicals are told the current election is all that stands between order and chaos, the 1st world and 3rd world, capitalism and socialism. Once again, for the umpteenth time, we bought the lie that if the Republican candidate didn’t defeat the more liberal challenger, the USA would delve into a socialist state. We think gas prices will soar, they’ll take our guns, our churches will be stormed, and we’ll be pumped full of vaccines. Yet somehow, each and every time, life just sort of goes on. And it will again this time. In four years from now, we’ll hear these same tired warnings, and they’ll be false again. Perhaps even more absurd than the claim that handing power to the opposing party will inaugurate the end times is the remedies we’ve concocted.
Folks on the ground at the Capitol riot say there was Christian music blasting and “Jesus Saves” flags flying. If all the Evangelicals storming the Capitol had been Muslims playing chants over speakers, we’d all be crying “terrorist attack!” MAGA supporters (Evangelical Christians among them) quite literally stormed the castle in a crazed last grab at power. And no, we cannot pin these acts on Anitfa. As helpful as that may be, it’s pretty clear that’s not what happened. When we raise the stakes of which party will lead us for the next four years to the level of apocalyptic existential crisis, we get an insurrection. We get confederate flags marched into our country’s most sacred building. We get those elected to represent the people of the 50 states ushered into bunkers while crazed rioters break through the doors. We get police trampled, beaten with American flags, and killed.
“The crowd showed him no mercy…immediately trampling him, bludgeoning him with objects and projectiles, dragging him down the steps they were storming — pretty much having their way with his limp body as his colleagues tried pulling him away.” (TMZ)
We need to stop reading the end-times prophecy manuals. We need to stop believing the bitter end is nigh every election cycle. It is not only faithless, it’s stupid and wrong and damaging.
We have believed these three lies. That communication was less important than character and action; that Donald Trump was our Christ figure; and that the end was nigh. My fellow Evangelicals, my neighbors, my friends, let us be people of Christ. Let us put this foolishness of Trumpism behind us. With every word and every act we are transformed into who we are becoming; let us speak and act in love that we might become love. May Jesus, through whom all things were made, be our only Christ. May we do the work of believing and put to rest these recurring fears of apocalypse.
“There have been many voices combating the lies of Donald Trump since he descended his golden escalator five years ago, but most have been easily dismissed by his supporters because the truth was coming from those outside the GOP/Conservative/MAGA community. If the country is to emerge from this dark season, it won’t happen simply because Mr. Trump leaves the White House. It will happen because virtuous leaders find the courage to tell the truth to their own followers.” – Skye Jethani
May these three lies, and the Trumpism which brought them, be left behind.
It’s easy to miss recognizing things working out.
I have a tendency to update my goals as I go, which is good, but it makes it harder to realize how good the present really is. I remember wishing so badly for a “real” guitar to replace the rather chinsy, never-staying-in-tune, stringed piece of plywood I owned. And then I got one! But after a while you start noticing it also has a crooked neck, and the high “e” string tends to break when you tune it. And every time you get a new guitar, you just dream a new dream. It’s easy to never stop to relish the fact that a dream did come true.
I remember being 19 and visiting college campuses, trying to find the right school. This guy walked passed me carrying a leather shoulder bag, and he really seemed to have it together. I wondered what it would feel like to kind of know what was going on, to feel like I’d established myself at college, to have a great leather bag like that. And then it started to happen – I got enrolled, signed up for classes, and even carried a leather bag of my own. But it felt like I hadn’t quite gotten there yet. I wasn’t in the really interesting classes that would come later in my degree. I didn’t know that many people.
And then I got to those really interesting classes and people got to know who I was, and I wondered when I would get to apply the theories and systems of thought to “real” work, to writing that “really mattered.” This is good, but that will be better. I started a podcast with a friend, and we made tons of episodes and enjoyed ourselves greatly. But I always wondered what it’d be like to have a show where lots of people listened, one you even got paid to do. And I had some of my writing published. Yet, every time something good happens, there is a voice in me which soon suggests something else would be much better. I had a small epiphany driving home one day. All these things – this is it. It’s all happening.
This summer, I got married to my best friend. And we get to be together every single day. We have an apartment with all our stuff in it, and a wall painted golden yellow. I get to study communication and theology. I get to write whatever I want, and some of my work was just published by the Rebelution. I have a paid gig to shoot two promo videos for a nonprofit. I’m about to enter my last semester before graduating with a bachelor’s degree. In so many ways, I am now that guy I saw walking passed me when I was 19. It’s easy to miss that. The tendency is to update the dream before it can come true – to be persuaded by the voice who claims well that wasn’t really what we wanted; it could be much better. It’s better to recognize in all those small moments along the way that the dream was indeed becoming true. Billy Collins describes this recognition as the lion of contentment.
“But tonight, the lion on contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen
to the drums of woe throbbing in the distance”
Billy Collins (“Osso Buco”)
To update out dreams, to cast what we want in new light, is a gift.
The Killers wrote a song, and in the second verse Brandon Flowers shouts, “We’re all gonna die!” Each time we selfishly refuse to see the good which has invaded our lives, we exercise the gift of the future – we’re banking on living longer. And not everyone has longer.
In my sophomore year, I was at Tri-County Technical College, still planning on an English degree. I remember taking a literature class with Melissa Blank, whom I always called “Ms.,” but it turns out she was married. She was a middle-aged woman, dark hair, kind of lively and always tired at once. After I passed her class and transferred to another school, I found out she had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Yesterday, I read her post, “5 rounds of chemo did not work, 30 treatments of radiation did not work, 3 brain surgeries did not work…Right now they feel the best option is in home hospice which I began on Monday.” Mrs. Blank is not very old, younger than my parents.
I remember taking the rough drafts of my essays to her office to ask for help. Once, she read over a draft and told me my writing was very good – another time she looked up from the stapled together pages and said, “This is hot trash.” I still laugh thinking about that. I never really expected to see her again after walking out ENG-102 for the last time, but I expected her to be out there, somewhere, doing whatever English teachers do when they’re not lecturing or browsing rough drafts. But she has brain cancer and hospice.
I also remember Mrs. Blank telling me to make a claim. I was prone in my writing to qualify statements: “I think the author may have been trying to say.” She taught me to not do that. Make a claim and stand by it. Say something. She even let me write about how much I hated The Handmaid’s Tale, the book she assigned us to read and write about. So Melissa, if you’re out there, perhaps it’s some small comfort to know that after you’re gone, from cancer or old age, I’ll carry that wisdom. I’ll be making claims. If it is, carry it out of here into whatever is next. And if it isn’t comfort of any match for news of dreams running dry – well, I’ll remember you nonetheless.
Either way, today I choose to recognize that my dreams are coming true. In small, significant ways. And I’ll update them and make my claims about the world keeping in mind we’re not here for all that long. You can’t reimagine what you want from life forever. “You get what anyone gets, you get a lifetime” – Neil Gaiman.
And we’ve got hope for the life to come. After all this has passed on.
a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
We’re all gonna die,
And when they’re closin’ up the door
Nobody wishin’ that they worked more (ha)
Don’t bother with your suitcase
And we’ll beat the birds
Down to Acapulco Bay
Or Honolulu on hearsay
Running at our own pace,
And I’ll be on your side
When the dreams run dry
– The Killers
You can contribute to Mrs. Blank’s GoFundMe with this link.
When I was a kid, I learned how to play poker by watching the weekly Saturday night game played by guys from the volunteer fire department. They just played for fun, but they did have a $2 per game ante to keep people from playing lazily or outrageously. Even a little skin in the game keeps it more honorable and interesting. Recently, a writer friend suggested I tag a small charge onto the more controversial topics I write about. This way, the reader has a bit of skin in the game too. It’s kind of strange writer/reader relationship when one is being laid bare, and the other has nothing at all to lose.
By clicking the “subscribe” button, you’ll be prompted to pay $2 to read my work on this article. It’s a one time payment – not much, but hopefully it will make sure those who read are doing so because they really want to. The process should be really straightforward, but if it gets confusing, just email me and I’ll make sure you get the article (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This piece was written for a class in which we were to examine a cultural phenomenon and identify possible narratives and identities being created.
Purchase article to continue reading.
Read this article when you subscribe today. (10 minute read)
This is not how I planned to wrap up this series of articles. I intended to write an introduction, four articles summarizing four different views, and then end with a concluding post outlining some of my own thoughts and beliefs on the subject of homosexuality and the church. This undertaking was far more bold than I realized. So in this post, I’ll forgo the fourth argument, and instead try to understand why my writing ignited such volatility.
A few weeks ago our pastor at Life Point preached a sermon calling for each person to eat the piece of the pie that’s theirs – when a disagreement happens, you cannot just point your finger across the table. There’s responsibility, or pie, for everyone. I have come to realize that while my writing and exploration was done in freedom and good conscious before God, it had consequence for many other folks. Paul is pretty clear in Romans 12, 13, 14 that we are supposed to live at peace as best as we are able, to not eat (say) what would distress our brother/sister, for none of us lives or dies to himself alone. Love does no harm to its neighbor. These lines get kind of blurry when you write because you don’t dictate who will read. My exploration in a public space caused some of my neighbors great distress and discomfort, and it’s my duty to take responsibility for that. That’s my piece of the pie.
When I was a kid, we used to line up dominoes across the hardwood kitchen floor. Carefully placing each one, and the next, and the next. We formed a long chain, and if one went, they all went with it. There is a tendency in some communities to view biblical teachings (doctrines) as dominoes. In this way, each domino is equally as important as the one before and after it – each one must be handled with the same reverence and care – if one should tumble, we recognize, the whole system will crumble down the line. I’ve always loved the phrase hills to die on – it really rolls out of the mouth. In the domino system, every hill is a hill to die on, because if you lose one hill, they’re all in jeopardy.
Another way of viewing doctrine is by tiers – first level, second level, third level, etc. In this system, only the most important teachings are held in tier 1, things like the death and resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, the belief that God is the maker of heaven and earth, and such. As you move down through tiers two and three, the doctrines are less essential. While the church can have an official stance on all these things, it recognizes its members may vary somewhat in the second and third levels – as long as they still hold to those things of first importance. This is a way for the Calvinist brother and the Armenian brother to be able to fellowship together. The sister who drinks alcohol and the sister who does not. These issues aren’t worth dividing over, and they don’t have to.
In order to find out which doctrines are held in which places, or if tiers exist, we simply look around the room. How much disagreement can one have and still be viewed as “in?” What is it ok to disagree about openly? What I’ve found in writing about homosexuality (writing about, not choosing a side) is that many see this issue equal in importance with the resurrection of Christ. They make no distinction. And they fear very much that a varying belief on homosexuality would topple the domino of the authority of scripture, which would topple the domino of the validity of Christ’s resurrection. Can there be fellowship in the church between those who came out differently on young earth creation? The historical Adam? Predestination? The head-covering? Eternal security? The holy kiss? Electricity in homes? Voting? Color of cars? Abortion? The Lord of the Rings? Harry Potter? Homosexuality?
What We Get
What ends up happening when we use a domino system is the tent of orthodoxy gets really small. The space under the tent of “this is what you need to believe” is very limited. This is evident when there is very little diversity in a church – everyone looks and believes almost exactly the same because everyone has to in order to be “in.” When we are able to see doctrines in different tiers of importance, the tent becomes larger. If you hold to the Apostle’s Creed (the major beliefs), you can disagree about whether we should still be wearing the head covering, whether Christians should vote, what kind of literature Genesis is. This larger tent allows diversity in the church so long as there is unity on the most important issues. There is freedom for each to work out their own salvation within the confines of “orthodoxy.”
When we have a domino view, we have to die on every hill. We rise up against those who raise questions and cast their salvation in question. We create an environment where doubt must be kept secret, wrestling must be done alone, and searching is not safe in the community. When we have a domino view, we bristle at those who would dare to suggest we re-examine a teaching, because we know all the other teachings are bound to that one. When we hold to a domino view, we are militant towards folks who want to talk about homosexuality, about a young earth creation, about gender roles, about different hermeneutical approaches. We are afraid, and rightly so. As one belief goes, so go them all.
Faith of Our Fathers
Every generation is handed the faith of its fathers, and they work out their own from there. I don’t know a single person who believes everything their parents did, or who didn’t get a little upset by a crotchety old fellow in the church where they grew up. It’s a part of everyone’s story it seems. Every faithful generation is led by the Holy Spirit, taking the faith they were given and being guided towards where they stand now. And as a writer and a young person, that’s what I’m asking for as well. The same Spirit that led my elders to this present day will lead me – I am confident of it.
I believe God called me to write, and when I write I feel his pleasure. I intend to fill tablets and hard-drives, the pages of books and articles. The more I write, the more I’m convinced I’ll never get to half of what there is to be explored. I’ve told my wife several times, if I could choose a super-power it would be the power of stopping time. Then I could read enough to know what I need, to be able to write what I want to say. Even now I’m stealing time from tomorrow, writing while you all are asleep. In order to be faithful to my gifting, I need space. I need to know that if I raise a question on the second level, I won’t be condemned, I won’t be accosted, I won’t feel the loneliness of despair and an upset stomach. I need the trust of my community that I too love the Lord – isolation is not nearly so good as freedom, but both are space.
The last three weeks of my life have been lonely to say the least – miserable and depressing probably gets more to the fact of it. I cannot ever recall being met with such hostility, adamant resistance, and incredulity as a writer, or a person in general. I spent many many hours reading, then writing, then editing, before I offered my work. I intended this series of articles, wherein I examined different views about a controversial topic, to be of benefit to me and my community at large. It seems even raising the question, even suggesting homosexuality might not be an issue of pristine clarity, was in some eyes out of bounds. In this way, where I offended, I apologize.
A few days after I published part 3, someone reached out to me. A guy I’ve never met named Trae had read my post (and the threads) and messaged me with a good word and a book suggestion. Not only that, he sent me $10 electronically to buy the book. And it’s a few thoughts from this book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, that I’d like to leave you with.
“I cannot excommunicate my militarist brothers and sisters, and I do not expect them to excommunicate me [who believes in non-violence]. But I do expect that there will be vigorous moral debate in which we try to persuade each other whether Christians can ever rightly take up the sword. Just as there are serious Christians who in good conscious believe in just war theory, so there are serious Christians who in good conscience believer that same-sex erotic activity is consonant with God’s will. For the reasons set forth in this book, I think that both groups are wrong, but in both cases the questions are so difficult that we should receive one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and work toward adjudicating our differences through reflecting together on the witness of Scripture.” – Richard B. Hayes
I do not affirm same sex marriage, and I hope to lend further to the discussion about the faithful witness of scripture on this topic. These are the conversations we have to enter into, now perhaps more than ever. Shutting them down and trampling on those who would raise them ensures only that we’ll be a prophetic voice shouting into an echo chamber with no one listening and ourselves to blame.
*This post is part of a series dealing with a very difficult topic. It contains some mature language and themes.
In part 3, I’ll be looking at the chapter written by Megan K. DeFranza who offers the second affirming view in the four part book, Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church. She received a PhD in religious studies from Marquette University and is “an emerging leader in the theological study of sex, gender, and sexuality.” (13) DeFranza is also an alumnus of Toccoa Falls College.
Approach to the Topic
DeFranza begins by detailing her own journey with this debate, writing, “I never would have anticipated writing a chapter arguing for a more inclusive theology of Christian marriage in a volume of this kind – not while attending [Toccoa Falls College], or after finishing my master’s work at an evangelical seminary, or my doctoral studies in theology, not even after having completed by dissertation on the complexity of biological sex/gender differences.” (69)
“It was my growing awareness of the complexity of biological sex development that opened my mind to consider the possibility that I could be missing something. I learned that not all people are fully or clearly male or female. While most humans seem to be clearly sexed, there is a significant minority for whom being male and female is not obvious or uncomplicated. Intersex persons with Differences of Sex Development (DSDs; historically, “hermaphrodites”) have bodies with both male and female physical features. Approximately 1 out of every 2500 live births is intersex.”DeFranza, 69-70
She writes that ancient Christians and Jews were quite familiar with people whose bodies did not easily fit into either a male or female category. In Matthew 19:12 Jesus speaks of eunuchs, saying some have been so from birth, some were made so by others, and some have made themselves so for the kingdom of heaven. DeFranza details her re-examination of Genesis 1 observing, “this was not a comprehensive account of all God’s good creation. For example, amphibians are not named in the narrative.” (70)
She notes that some people argue humans who do not fit easily into one sex category or the other are viewed as a result of the fall. Yet we never hear that argument made about frogs which are also not mentioned. (71) Many read Genesis 1 as representing the idealized male and female. But “when I read Genesis in the context of the whole Bible, at the beginning of a story that later welcomed those who did not fit into either of these categories (such as eunuchs from birth), I began to see space opening up between the two, between male and female, space for others.” (71)
Gender, Sex, and Ethics
From here, DeFranza moves into examining assumptions about sex and gender and how they affect debates surrounding sexual ethics. She seeks to better understand ancient views on sexuality “in order to better understand biblical instruction.” (72)
DeFranza writes that in the time of Paul, 1 in 5 persons in Rome was a slave, and slaves were often used for sex in the ancient world; Eunuchs were especially desired for this purpose. “Many ancient men lusted after the ‘soft,’ effeminate bodies of these castrated males because androgynous features were considered by many to be more alluring than feminine beauty.” (72) She claims, “Paul would have been concerned to address the rampant sexual abuse which affected many in the early church.” (73)
Where many see I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:9-10 condemn same-sex sexuality in general, DeFranza argues the texts may be referring to the sexual abuse rampant in the ancient culture. The Greek words “arsenokoitai” and “malakoi” are of particular interest, she notes. “This combination of terms is never used in Greek literature before Paul as a way of speaking about same-sex sex.” (73) The term “malakoi” literally means “the soft ones” but sometimes it is translated as “effeminate.” (73) From here, DeFranza moves to examining masculinity and femininity in ancient culture. She notes it was “considered shameful for a man to be penetrated by another man.” (74) Philo, a first century contemporary of Paul, writes about the practice of pederasty (sexual use of boys by adult men) as a violation of Mosaic law. However, the 21st century reader would find Philo’s reasoning for the violation rather strange.
“Philo worried that such a boy would suffer ‘the affliction of being treated like women…being turned into a man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature.” (italics mine) Philo believed the adult shares in the blame since he proved to be a “guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and…effeminacy.”DeFranza, 74
DeFranza references two Old Testament stories in which men are threatened with being raped. In Genesis 19, Lot thinks it best to send his virgin daughters to be gang-raped by the men of Sodom rather than allow his male guest to be defiled. In Judges 19, a traveler finds refuge in a foreign town. But during the night, a mob of men demand he come out and have sex with them. Rather than “be treated as a women,” he sends to the mob his female servant to be raped all night until she is found dead on the doorstep the next morning. DeFranza writes, “these ancient patriarchal values feel far from Christian ethical sensibilities today.” (75)
Looking at the Language
DeFranza further examines the Greek words “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai.” There is debate about whether these words form a word-pair wherein the passive (penetrated) is the malakoi, and the active (penetrator) is the arsenokoitai in male same-sex sexual acts. DeFranza argues, the one participant is “feminized and softened because he was treated like a woman.” (77) Some “scholars have argued for a more narrow interpretation – suggesting the “soft ones” could be prepubescent boys in pederastic relationships with their mentors – a common practice among ancient Greeks but criticized by Romans, Christians, and Jews.” (77) DeFranza highlights the 2011 rendering of the NIV, “men who have sex with men.” She deems this translation unfortunate because it “suggests adult behavior, whereas the Greek does not specify age.” (77) One would need to read the text as only condemning abusive, (older males with younger males) sexual activity in order to claim it is not condemning same sex actions between consenting adults.
After studying the book of Romans, DeFranza does not find the “clear-cut universal condemnation of all same-sex relations that [she] had expected.” (86) According to her reading, “the passage is meant to describe the depravity of those who have rejected God, not faithful gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians seeking to solemnize their relationships with the vows of Christian marriage.” (86)
“Contemporary readers will recognize the importance of speaking against the vices of decadence, lack of self-control, laziness, and sexual excess associated with (malakoi), but modern Christians should reject the cultural packaging which summarized these evils as femininity or effeminacy.” (80)
A “Biblical” View of Marriage?
Next, the author moves from linguistic study to examining what maleness and femaleness meant in the biblical context. She will argue that 21st century marriage as defined by the Christian church looks incredible different than what is prescribed in the Bible. She will point to Paul’s writings, the old testament, as well as church fathers to make this case. If we have rightfully revised our view on maleness and femaleness in the marriage relationship once, she argues, perhaps we have the space to do it again. This time, instead of revising the Christian view to see women as equals, we should revise it to see marriage as a union which can be shared by gay couples.
DeFranza observes, “the unanimous picture of marriage in the Bible is heterosexual…the consistent witness of marriage is…heterosexual.” (87) She also notes the covenant between husband and wife as the metaphor employed by the prophets to illustrate the relationship of God and his people. However, she goes on in an attempt to show that Biblical marriage is consistently patriarchal, and this is why it works as a metaphor for God and his people, as well as Christ and the church. In this view of marriage, the one half is clearly dominant and superior. She points to John Calvin’s assertion 1500 years after Paul that women are “by nature…formed to obey.” (89) DeFranza writes that Christians are content leaving slavery and monarchy in the past “despite their foundation in scripture” and argues that the metaphor of marriage between unequal partners “does not reflect the biblical teaching that men and women are equally made in the image of God.” (89)
DeFranza believes, “arguments from first century understandings of nature are hardly sufficient to ground Christian sexual ethics.” (82) She warns against the implications of referring generally to what is natural, “more often that not, what we find ‘in nature’ are the social conventions of our own context…despite the obvious condemnation of lame same-sex relations in this passage [Romans 1] some scholars still do not believe that all same-sex relationships are therefore censured.” (83-84) DeFranza argues we have revised marriage from ancient patterns and further, that we ought to do so again to “better honor the humanity of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.” (90)
“Contemporary Christian marriage is not biblical marriage of the old or new testament.” DeFranza thinks an affirming view of same sex marriage can be grounded in a Christian theology of marriage. Her argument is that the church’s current view of marriage (two equal partners) is not the biblical view of marriage, and that this is an addition to the biblical patriarchal view. She advocates for an understanding of marriage which alongside traditional theology “recognizes that humans are made for communion and that our sexuality brings us into particular relationships which, because of sin, need to be governed by public vows (96),” but which also includes gay marriage under the umbrella of what faithful marriage can look like.
DeFranza ends her chapter with a look towards the past and the fences with rough splinters which have divided the church. “Christians have learned to agree to disagree over other weighty moral concerns: just war vs pacifism, women’s ordination, infant vs believer’s baptism…we are finding ways to debate and disagree without adding the pain of persecution, or accusing our opponents of abandoning the faith, or rejecting the authority of the Bible.” (100) She points out that Protestants no longer drown one another over baptismal practices as they did in the 1500s. These fences, she writes have gradually been torn down, and fellowship has been restored across the dividing lines. Some fences still stand, though they are worn smoother as the “painful splinters on these rough beams have been worn smooth. Other beams have fallen and not been replaced.” (101) DeFranza hopes, “we will continue to listen to one another, that we will remain open to the leading of the Holy Spirit,” and that more churches will prove welcoming to gay Christians, both celibate and who seek marriage union.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The arguments outlined in this chapter rest on two pillars: (1) the Greek is hard to interpret (we may have gotten it wrong) and (2) Christian marriage now looks very different than it did when scripture was authored. The second argument is the strongest. DeFranza makes brief mention of Calvin’s low view of women “by nature formed to obey.” And she really spares him and many other church fathers here. Origin, Augustine, Luther, Chrysostom, and plenty more had really bad views of women which make us cringe today. It seems clear the views of marriage expressed through the ages, from Paul’s day to Martin Luther, have needed to be updated regarding the status of women. DeFranza’s argument for affirming gay marriage finds its most force here, in arguing for another revision to a Christian theology of marriage.
DeFranza’s argument relies, at least in part, on reading Paul’s writing in a way that does not condemn homosexuality between consenting males. There are many scholars who argue that Paul was fully aware of not only abusive older/younger same sex relationships, but also those between consenting males – and he was condemning both. It seems that to read the texts in way that does not condemn same-sex sexual activity requires hermeneutical acrobatics. Perhaps it is best to trust those who have done the work of giving us our English translations where the language does not seem overly ambiguous. While DeFranza may be able to make a case reading in the Greek, most English readers will not be able to enter the discussion at that level and are left wondering whom to trust.
*more (rather scathing) critiques are leveled in this article.
By DeFranza’s own account, it was not until after she received her third academic degree that she changed her mind on this issue. It’s hard for me to see, given the evidence outlined, how the layperson might be persuaded (most of us never write a dissertation on biological sex/gender difference). With that said, I do think many lay readers fail to consider what the implications of our current views of marriage might be when we consider just how different they are than those of Paul’s day. We have moved away from a patriarchal view, where the male in superior in all manners and dominates his spouse. It is alarming to me that the church fathers who have developed so much of our theology and understanding of other teachings held degrading views of women and marriage which make us cringe and squirm. This is why we need theologians in every age, to do the work of helping us work out our salvation, a task which is not easy and where the answers are not obvious.