Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Evangelical Christian support for President Donald Trump, while a political phenomenon, is also a fascinating study in Christian ethics, or, more specifically, the complexity of mixed ethical systems.  In an interview aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on August 29, the Reverend Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, a Southern Baptist megachurch, did a fine job of articulating the complex ethical calculus Evangelicals apply to President Trump.  And before getting into that calculus, we need a brief refresher on Christian ethics.

There are two major ethical systems that we use to guide our decision making.  One is Utilitarian Ethics, in which the primary question to be answered is, In a given situation requiring a decision, which will lead to an outcome expected to yield the greatest good for the most people.  On the up-side utilitarian ethics is practical.  On the down-side it easily leads to the ends justifying the means.  The other ethical system is Virtue Ethics, which asks, In a given situation requiring a decision, which is most consistent with the virtues and values that express one’s understanding of who one wants to be.  Its up-side is a consistent correspondence with one’s understanding of the ethical example of Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers.  Its down-side is a possible lack of practicality and a danger of placing principle over the needs and common good of people.

In the Morning Edition interview, Jeffress articulated his ambivalence with both ethical systems early on, when he said, “I think evangelicals understand there’s a difference between supporting a president’s policies and supporting individual behavior” — a jump from utilitarian to virtue ethics.  Pressed on which policies Trump has supported that he supports, Jeffress side-stepped a little and said of Trump, “He has been the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-conservative judiciary president of any president in history . . . that’s why these evangelicals enthusiastically support him.”  When pressed on Trump’s moral failings, vis-a-vis “sleeping with a porn star . . . paying hush money . . . mistruths the president has stated time and again,” all of which Christians generally find reprehensible, Jeffress said, “The Gospel message is all of us have sinned.  We’ve all fallen short of God’s glory.  We are all sinners.  We all need a savior.”  True, but where Jeffress exposes his ambivalence is in failing to offer the same grace in judgment to Bill and Hillary Clinton.  As the interviewer pointed out, evangelicals were critical of Bill Clinton because of his personal faults arguing that “you cannot compartmentalize someone’s morality.”  Moreover, he flatly stated that “I don’t know in what moral universe anybody could argue that Hillary Clinton is more moral than Donald Trump,” and mentions, without identifying “a litany of Hillary Clinton’s offenses.”  If I understand Jeffress correctly, then one who commits adultery, consistently deceives, and often denigrates persons is as moral as someone who does not commit adultery, has deceived, but in frequently, and does not generally denigrate others.  I have to admit that I do not know in what moral universe such an equivocation makes any sense.  Jeffress needed to simply admit that he is willing to overlook some serious and unrepentant sin in order to support someone who puts forth a policy agenda he believes is needed.  He also needs to own up to his political bias that prevents him overlooking the sin of those with whom he disagrees and does not trust (specifically the Clintons).

Another interesting bit came during a shift in the conversation when the interviewer asked Jeffress about the ways he felt that evangelical Christians are “treated as a persecuted minority in this country.”  He responded that Christians have become marginalized, rolling out the trope, in so many words, that America was once but no longer a Christian nation.  Although I want to save a discussion about this idea for another essay, I do want to answer Jeffress basic complaint that Christians are restricted in serious ways from practicing our religion.  I for one have never experienced this restriction, but then I have never insisted that everyone around me, regardless of their religious tradition (or none at all), practice the religion that I do by virtue of imposing Christian practice and symbolism on people in schools and the public square.  For me, evangelism is not a matter of public policy but relationship as the Gospel is passed from one to the next in places where we have earned the respect to be heard (especially by our moral behavior).

I think I now better understand evangelical equivocation and ambivalence.  It is hard for me to accept, coming as I do from a holiness tradition (Wesleyan Methodism) whose ethics are summed up in this question by its founder, John Wesley, “Are you going on to perfection?”

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Be Advised:  The following is not happy-to-glad and warm-and-fuzzy.  It is an unfortunate expression of my annoyance with my denomination.  If no one reads this, I’ll understand.

I’m torqued-off at my denomination, The United Methodist Church (UMC).  Yes, it’s about the UMC’s almost obsessive focus and arguments on issues around homosexuality.  And, yes, it’s about where the UMC is headed and the position it will put pastors like me in when we get there.

My primary annoyance is with the UMs’ focus on issues around homosexuality, as if we have nothing more important to get sorted.  For example, UMs have no consistent and consensual Christology.  Down into the heart of what it means to be a Christian, we have wildly differing views of Jesus Christ.  There are those of us who hold a traditional, orthodox belief in Christ, which includes acceptance of a virginal conception, the performance of supernatural works, and whole-person resurrection.  Across the spectrum, others of us take a liberal, “Quest for the Historical Jesus” view that posits Jesus as a metaphorical element at the center of a religious-political narrative of a sect of 1st century Jews in and around the Roman province of Palestine.  We don’t talk about this rather important difference of opinion of core belief, yet we are now ready to divide the UMC over an issue the Bible gives almost no ink to and Jesus himself said nothing about directly.  This tells me that we are a denomination that is defining itself on its opinion about a minor issue a long way outside the center of our faith.

My other annoyance is with the options for how the UMC moves forward that will be considered at a special General Conference schedule for February 2019.  One option creates three large conferences bordered not by geography but by belief in and around homosexuality.  If the decision regarding conference membership is pushed down to the local church level, then that will force pastors and congregations to expend a great deal of time, effort, and internal conflict deciding with which conference to affiliate.   At the local church, we have more important things to do.

There are two other, more likely options up for consideration, and they are just as problematic, if not more.  The first is called the Traditionalist Plan, which calls for a strict adherence to UM church law as it stands today and narrows it even further, specifically to declare that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian doctrine and thus clerical leadership, that same-sex marriage is prohibited, and that marriage can only be between two persons of different genders.  An off-ramp is proposed to allow churches who differ with this to exit the UMC with their church property.  In effect, the Traditionalist Plan would split the existing UMC into the UMC and whatever-it-calls-itself-MC.  My problem with this is that it would force me and my congregation to decide which Methodist denomination we would belong to based on our view of homosexuality.  To the outside world we would be a church known not by our proclamation of the Gospel and discipleship to Jesus Christ, but a church within either the homosexual-accepting or homosexual-hating denomination.  How can I and my congregation make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world if we are perceived primarily in these terms by the very people we need to reach for Jesus?!?

The other plan, the one favored by the study group that is reporting to the special General Conference, known as the One Church Plan, would also make my job way more difficult than it already is.  That plan pushes the decisions about issues around homosexuality down to pastors in each church.  I would have to choose, and be responsible, for whether I marry a homosexual couple, for example.  Congregations are rarely of one mind about anything, let alone homosexuality.  If, for example, I chose to marry the gay couple, I would surely anger some of my congregation and, likely, damage my pastoral relationship with them.  Should I refuse to officiate the same wedding, I would similarly anger and alienate others in my congregation.  Today, I can refer back to church law, which thus protects my ability to have a functional relationship with my congregation because they cannot hold me personally responsible.  Having to make decisions about issues around homosexuality without church law as a guide (or shield) would make me personally responsible and the focus of the conflict that might be precipitated from those decisions.  And again, to the world outside our walls, we run the risk of being defined by how we are perceived to embrace or exclude homosexuals.

As always, I put my trust in God to help us get things sorted.  I just hope God has been invited into the conversation.  My fear is that we are either ignoring or speaking over God as we discuss where to take the UMC.

President Donald Trump is a unique individual, with striking behavioral characteristics for one in the world’s most important leadership position.  One of those characteristics is his eggshell-thin self-image.  When criticized or insulted he reacts with vitriolic insults reminiscent of a children’s playground spat.  I was getting used to the idea that this was a behavior unique to Mr. Trump.  But, today, The Guardian has reported that Tesla founder and CEO, the visionary Elon Musk has fired off his own petulant insult aimed at one of the divers who, last week, rescued a group of youth stranded in a flooded cave in Thailand, calling the diver “pedo guy.”

Musk had been brushed back by the diver when he showed up at the rescue site with a small submarine.  The rescue team needed neither the untested and unfamiliar piece of equipment nor Musk and his retinue making an already tense and busy situation worse.  The diver had brusquely waved Musk off and later speculated that the offer of the miniature submarine was a PR stunt.  Musk reacted with an insult, calling the diver a pedophile.

Two powerful, famous, successful, well-positioned, and influential men who can afford and should be standing head-and-shoulders above the rest of us in the honorableness of their behavior lashing out like bruised bullies on a kid’s playground.  Really?!?

Maybe these men believe that their wealth, power, and position gives them the privilege to be childishly petulant.  Maybe they, like the Lemech of Genesis, feel they need to respond to attack with overwhelming verbal violence in order to assert their power and preserve their position.  Maybe their self-image is so fragile that the self-doubt evoked by an insult becomes painful and consuming.

The only way to avoid insult is to either isolate oneself from the rest of the world or not be born in the first place.  Since all of us alive today have failed the latter tactic and are not engaging in the former, we need to have the capacity to constructively deal with criticisms and insults.  We could, of course, devolve into tit-for-tat verbal violence, but that only makes things worse and shows us up to be immature jerks.  Most of us would rather not be seen that way.  Especially for Christians, there is a more excellent way.

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”    – Genesis 1.27 (CEB)

To remember that they are created in God’s image should be enough for anyone to bolster their own self-image.  How can anyone else’s insult overshadow the knowledge that God values us so much as to reflect himself in each of us?  We are, as the psalmist reminds us, “awe-inspiringly and wonderfully made.”  Call me what you will–I’m just fine as I am!

If that’s not enough, we might also consider how Jesus Christ lifted up those in his world whom others disdained, disrespected, or ignored: tax collectors, a multiply-divorced woman shacked up with her boyfriend, the blind, lame, and physically deformed.  By offering the blessing of his attention, friendship, teaching, and/or healing, Jesus respected, honored, and dignified each, and by doing so with those society had written off, he communicates to all of us we are all of sacred and inestimable worth.  No criticism or insult can change that reality.

Of course criticisms and insults sting and anger us.  But we have a choice as to how we respond, both within ourselves and toward those who have provoked us.  As children of God, made in his image and who are lifted up by Christ the King, we can rise above reactive insult and choose to do something more constructive.  If the Donald Trumps and Elon Musks of our world could do this, how might their leadership be better for us all?

I wonder what Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, would say if he was alive today.  Not only did he claim that “the world is my parish,” but he also argued the validity and necessity of interpreting the world through the Bible, claiming that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Though the bulk of his sermons focused on a myriad of theological topics, he had much to say about wealth, economics, and the plight of the poor.  As a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, it does indeed feel natural to, like Wesley did, interpret the world through the Bible (and the teachings of the Church).  But in 2018’s world of extreme partisanship and drastic change, in which social and political norms are in radical flux, and those changes are perceived most often through tribal loyalty rather than dispassionate analysis, interpreting the world through the Bible and church teaching has become difficult and dangerous.

The trouble has nothing to do with the source material.  In fact, our Bible’s venerable prophets would be as busy as ever today.  Just today, in fact, the president of the U.S.A. gave an interview to the U.K.’s Sun newspaper excoriating the British Prime Minister, only to claim later in the day, while standing next to the Primer Minister, that he had not uttered any criticism at all.  Such an action by the leader of the U.S.A. begs a reflection on the sin of deceit, the very first one demonstrated in the Bible.  But should I do so, with a call to my congregation to seek a more excellent way of truthful public discourse by our leaders and representatives, I will alienate and surely anger those I pastor who support our president.  The sin will become less relevant than my apparent partisanship.

For the record, I don’t care who is in office or which party they belong to.  If their behavior fails to honor their leadership position or their decisions cause harm, then I will be critical of their behavior or policies.

But the question remains: How do I, as a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, speak to issues that surround and affect us today and yet continue to be pastor to those whose loyalties and perspectives would be offended by my preaching?  To let anything get in the way of preaching Christ and the Gospel is wrong.  Yet Christ is not divorced from the world.  If we as Christ-followers are to be relevant to the world, then we must engage with it and, if needed, call out that which ought not to be or could be better.  After all, as  United Methodists, we are in the business of “making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I don’t have an answer, so I guess I will continue to do as I do now by preaching along the razor’s edge.

Text:  Mark 7.1-23

“Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.”

Leave it to Jesus to take a conventional assumption about something and turn it inside out so that it becomes a paradox that reveals a counter-intuitive truth.  This is what happens in today’s reading, in which Jesus takes the obvious understandings of ritual purity and contamination and both reinterprets and reframes them.  Focusing on the concept of contamination, he argues the paradox that what contaminates us comes from inside of us, not from what we take in.  In other words, our uncleanliness or impurity comes from within not from without.

This paradoxical view raises several issues.

  1. We are culpable for our impurity, sin, and evil.  We do not ‘catch it’ but generate it.  And this means we cannot blame something external for our ‘contamination’.  We own it.
  2. The ritual washing insisted on by Jesus’ critics means nothing if it is not an outward sign of an inward desire for purification of the heart.  Jesus rightly criticizes those who perform the ritual on the outside while doing nothing to change their hearts and lives on the inside.
  3. To declare Jesus’ disciples as ‘unclean’ or ‘contaminated’ because they did not attend to a specified ritual washing was a way Jesus’ critics and opponents sought to assert power over them by claiming religious authority through their own right religiosity.  Jesus was having none of this.

Once again, Jesus reminds us that religion for any other reason than growth in our relationship with God and betterment of ourselves from the inside out in God’s image is worthless.

Text:  Mark 6:53-56
People immediately recognized Jesus and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was.

So far, Jesus had performed exorcisms, healed many sick people, fed 5,000+ people, calmed two storms over the Sea of Galilee, ate with tax collectors and “sinners,” and baffled people with parables.  Along the way he had preached the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom.  He had become famous in Galilee and crowds flocked to see him, but they did not come to Jesus to hear him preach or learn the finer points of their religion.  They came bringing their sick hoping for healing.

Today’s reading is grounding.  It reminds me that as fascinated as I am by Christian theology, Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology, that fascination is rarely shared by the people I serve as pastor.  Rather, their interests are more down to earth and practical.  They want to know how to live as people of good character who do good in the world, find strength and guidance for the day, and healing in times of suffering.

I have sometimes groused that it seems that too many people come to Christianity and church for free therapy.  They want to an uplifting experience that makes them feel better.  But the stress and anxiety brought on by national and world events over the last year or two have made me more aware that life can be difficult and our need for healing frequent.

Jesus never groused about people coming to him for healing.  He responded to them, not with theologically-centered sermons but with compassion by healing them.  He met needs no one else could meet.  We who serve as pastors would do well to get our heads out of our “-ologies”, offer Jesus’ healing to individuals, and lead our congregations to do works of compassion that bring healing to our world.

Text:  Mark 1.40-45
“Moved with compassion / deeply moved / incensed / splagchnisthais . . .”

No, the last word in the quote above is not a “covfefe” accidentally typed as I fell asleep at the keyboard.  It is a Greek word based on the noun splagchnon, which refers to the inward parts of the body and metaphorically to the heart, love, and affection.  In its verb form it describes a feeling that is heartfelt or ‘from the gut’.  Typically translated in Mark 1:41 to “deeply moved” or “moved with compassion”, I like “incensed” used by the Common English Bible.  To say that Jesus was “moved” seems a bit weak—“moved” how?  Although more paraphrase than rigorous translation, I think “incensed” better captures Jesus’ reaction when approached by a man with a skin disease.

To describe Jesus’ reaction to his encounter with the man by using the word “incensed”  necessitates a careful reading.  A casual reading might imply that Jesus was angry with a begging man with a skin disease.  But this is not the case as implied by the other translations of splagchnisthais, as imprecise as they seem to be.  Jesus does indeed have a strong reaction, but it is not to the man but his situation as defined by his skin disease.  This is why “incensed” works so well to capture his reaction.  When Jesus looks upon a man reduced to begging for help, who, due to the socially alienating nature of his condition was surely used to begging to make a meagre living, he has a knee-jerk reaction.  He becomes enraged that the man on his knees before him suffers physically from a disease that distorts his appearance, socially and economically from the stigma others placed on his condition, emotionally from stress and isolation, and spiritually, since his skin disease made him “unclean”.  In other words, Jesus gets pissed-off at the brokenness and the evil that afflicts the man.

We usually think of an angry God in terms of God’s just retribution for sin, especially idolatry.  Images of Sodom and Gomorrah in flames, the Pharaoh’s army swallowed by the sea, and the slaughter of the priests of Ba’al tend to characterize our view of God’s righteous anger unleashed.  But God’s anger is also present when Jesus looks down at the begging man hoping Jesus would heal his physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually disabling skin disease. Jesus was incensed at what the disease had done to the man and in part because he could do something about it . . . and he did.

Jesus healed the man of his skin disease and sent the man to the nearest priest so that he could be declared “clean”.  Without a doubt, Jesus acted not just from anger but also from love and compassion.  He raged against the brokenness of God’s creation focused in the man’s skin disease but ministered to the man in all his humanity and human need.

. . . Something to think about as we as Christ-followers experience anger-inspired response to the brokenness of our world, for that brokenness always has a human face and a life created in the image of God that is hurting and needs not just social or political advocacy but love and compassion.