Neither your God nor your non-God are universal.

As usual, I leave some of my best efforts in other blogger’s comment sections.  What follows is adapted from a response to this post, in which the writer criticizes “progressive Christians” for cherry-picking from Christianity only that which we agree with. Ultimately, I take issue with her/his underlying assumptions.


…I don’t know if you read Christopher Hitchens or not, but you and he both seem to be under the same weird notion that in order to be authentically Christian, one must accept everything in the chosen holy books verbatim, and if one doesn’t, her beliefs don’t count. I defy anybody to subject himself to a similarly foolish standard in any other scientific or philosophical field: take all of Plato verbatim, or take none of Plato. Take all of Nietzsche, or none of him. Take all of Sartre, etc. This approach to anything – knowledge, belief, science, etc. – is clearly absurd.

Where did we get this idea that there is no validity to any body of work unless it is all literally true? From Christians? Maybe some of us, sure. But when others of us reject this paradigm, please don’t act as if religion is supposed to operate differently from any other human activity when it comes to how we form our beliefs.

As a progressive Christian, I am a pluralist, which means that one of my foundational beliefs is that God is too big to be fully understood by any humans. Ergo, to quote one of my professors, constructing theology means “groping toward the infinite with the tools of finitude.” Rather than provide a single, unified view of God, I think the Bible’s various narratives and themes instead reflect ongoing traditioning and theological changes and different emphases over a thousand years or more, and such traditioning and changes in interpretation have been ongoing ever since.

I don’t mind anybody calling into question any aspect of faith that is found to be problematic. But I do object to atheists or Christian fundamentalists alike who try to mandate universal definitions to what it means to be Christian, or who God is, or Christ, and so forth, whether for the purpose of rejecting or affirming such dogma. Neither camp is capable of defining the terms and forcing everyone else to adhere to them. So, militant atheists and frothing Christians alike, kindly knock it off already.

Why I support gay marriage

This past Monday was my one-year wedding anniversary.

While I am thrilled to embark upon Year Two with my lovely bride, I have been more anxious than joyful about marriage these days.  No, not my marriage (though there are joyful and anxious moments there among many others), but the marriage rights of thousands presently under siege in California via Proposition 8.

Prop 8 is the effort in California to institute an amendment to the state constitution that will prohibit gay and lesbian people from being allowed to legally marry.  Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court overturned existing prohibitions against gay marriage and effectively legalized gay marriage.  Now, there is conservative backlash in the form of this proposed constitutional amendment that defines marriage in California as being between a man and a woman.

I believe that to deny LGBT people the right to marry is discriminatory, immoral, and anti-Christian.  (I’m sure it goes against tenets of the faiths of many others as well, as well as those who have no faith, but I personally write from a Christian perspective.)  I support equal marriage rights conferred without regard for the sex, gender, or sexual orientation of those involved, for the following reasons:

  1. LGBT people are created as such in the image of God. Thus, they are entitled to the the same religious and civil opportunities as anybody else.
  2. Christian marriage is a religious sacrament, while civil marriage a secular means of securing certain economic opportunities. Religious groups can disagree on whether or not to marry LGBT folk in their religious communities, but equal protection under the law cannot be compromised.
  3. What makes marriage “God-ordained” is the Godliness of the relationship, above all else. Couples of all persuasions can fully meet any criteria for marriage that is based on a holistic view of marital relations – rather than simply sex organs, which is insufficient for securing God’s blessing on a marriage.

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The way, the truth, and the life

As I’ve hinted at previously, I am doing CPE at a home for the elderly, serving in the capacity as Chaplain Intern.  The Chaplain Interns take turns creating the morning chapel services, and last week, I attempted something very ambitious for a non-fundamentalist Christian:  I decided to preach on John 14:1-7.

The Word of the Lord:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.”

What follows is my reflection on this text (delivered 7/7/08).

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Rev. Jeremiah Wright – in context

For two weeks now, the vast majority of media coverage surrounding Barack Obama’s pastor, Rev. Wright, has been a straw man of epic proportions. After combing through countless sermons in order to isolate individual phrases that might be “shocking”, the media has successfully constructed a false caricature of Rev. Wright – and we’ve been beaten over the head with it for the better part of two weeks.

Rev. Wright’s comments seemed crazy. (“God damn America!”) They seemed indefensible. (Following 9/11: “America’s chickens have come home to roost.”)

Then, only after the storm started to die down, Rev. Wright’s comments actually appeared in context:

In Isaiah and elsewhere (how about Rome??), God does indeed curse the nation who puts herself ahead of God. The injection of context to this issue makes it immediately apparent that Rev. Wright has been unfairly demonized throughout this entire process. His words are not only justifiable in context, but dead-on. It’s serious, well-founded theology – and it’s a far cry from the ugly caricature of that we’ve been spoon-fed by the media for the last two weeks.

Now, let’s turn to Rev. Wright’s comments following 9/11. He was roundly criticized for saying that “America’s chickens have come home to roost,” which was the extent of the sound byte. Here’s the full context (it’s long, but it’s glorious):

So let’s get this straight: for two weeks now, the media has been claiming that Rev. Wright has “blamed America for 9/11,” when in fact, Rev. Wright was quoting – in context – a white ambassador? And Rev. Wright gets two weeks of bad press for this???

Say it loud: the talking heads are not your friend!

The willingness of so many to accept the character assassination of Rev. Wright just underscores the need for all of us to think for ourselves during this election season, and not blindly accept ideas constructed from 30 second sound bytes.

For additional reading on how much the “30 seconds per sermon” approach sucks, go here. For more videos of Rev. Wright, go here.

Jeremiah Wright is still damn right

( This is a follow-up to this post, inspired by this comment.)

[UPDATE: If you haven’t seen Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments in their original context, follow this link.]

Each church has a unique context, with members who have particular needs and points of view. Trinity UCC has, since its inception, been one of the most honest churches I can think of in living the gospel and meeting the needs of the greater community on the south side of Chicago (read: low-income black folks, a community that has historically borne the brunt of America’s oppression). Depending on the circumstances that have brought folks to their point of need, “God damn America” can represent a liberating theological notion for those who have been harmed by America – or by the conflation of God/America like we’ve seen following September 11.

The powerful subtext behind “God damn America” is first and foremost that God is NOT America, and does not necessarily bless us just for being Americans. Depending on where you’ve come from, these can be liberating words that can lead people from despair, to God. As a pastor, Rev. Wright’s job at the pulpit isn’t to be politically correct, or to be safe, or comforting, or to not make waves or step on toes, but it is to declare the salvation of God – as effectively as possible, – for the folks who need to hear it. And if you listen to the tiny decontextualized video snippets of any of these “controversial” sermons, you will hear that Rev. Wright’s words deeply resonated with those who were there to hear them.

All I’m saying is, we – and by “we” I’m talking to outraged middle class folks who are so offended by Rev. Wright’s comments that they’re considering not voting for Obama as a result – we must realize that our self righteousness is not necessarily universal. It may well be crazy and indefensible for the pastor of our churches to preach “God damn America,” but then again, context is everything, isn’t it? (Yes, it is.)

Many are now asking, what does this say about Obama, and the emphasis that he has put on our national unity?

To me, it says that he has spent 20 years working in a church that has been a vibrant, saving institution for many low-income black folks in Chicago.

It says that Obama views the gospel message as one that requires adherence to God AND neighbor, just as Jesus commands.

Finally, it says that Obama, who has been through his own share of difficult times, has also spent his life meeting people at their point of need, without losing his optimism for the future of America.

And that is a candidate – and a faith perspective – that I can get behind.

Jeremiah Wright is damn right

[UPDATE: If you haven’t seen Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments in their original context, follow this link.]

Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, former senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, has taken a lot of flak for a handful of statements he has made in a few sermons. The reason we’re supposed to care is because Rev. Wright is the pastor of Barack Obama’s home church. I suppose the thinking goes that if Barack Obama can’t be beaten on issues, perhaps he’ll go down by association if enough dirt can be heaped upon his pastor. Time will tell.

Most famously, he has uttered the words you’re not supposed to say after 9/11: “God damn America.” Here is the “full” quote (and by “full” I mean “a pathetic, 10 second snippet of what was probably a 45 minute sermon”):

27479198.jpg“The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”

Troubling words. But Rev. Jeremiah Wright is prophetic – and right.

It is an utter perversion of Christianity to think that God sanctions everything that America is or does – yet how many Christian leaders behave as if America is God’s Special Favorite? I’m sorry to say it, but we aren’t God’s favorites, just because we fly the Stars and Stripes. America is simply our nation, both great and flawed, with both a proud history of dissent and protecting minority voices, and a shameful history of abuse and oppression from the majority.

To whatever extent God damns anything, you can be damn sure that the God of Jesus Christ would damn slavery.

You can be damn sure that God would damn the government for selling crack in inner cities in order to finance the Contras.

You can be damn sure that God damns the American slaughter of innocent people, whether in Hiroshima or Baghdad.

If our God is a God of justice and mercy at all, it is clear that there are damnable aspects about America throughout her history. It is shocking to hear “God damn America!” But that’s nowhere near as shocking as the notion that God categorically blesses everything America does.

(For more on this, please see Devilstower’s excellent diary on DailyKos.)

Same-sex marriage: Staying out of God’s way

In response to my op-ed on marriage below, in which I suggest that one reason conservatives oppose same-sex marriage is because it threatens the to undermine the power of the patriarchy (go read it), commenter Russ writes the following:

Marriage was created by God and He alone has the authority to define it.

Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The scripture that Russ appropriates comes from Matthew 19:4-6. The backstory is that Jesus is answering the Pharisees’ famous question on tying the knot: “Can two dudes get married?”

Actually, as some of you may know, the topic at hand is about heterosexual divorce, not gay marriage, though it sure would be convenient for Russ and others if Jesus actually did take sides on this issue. But this is what I want to get at here (extracted from my response to Russ’ comment):

As Jesus warns us above, I certainly do not advocate the separation of those whom God has joined together. To the contrary, this is precisely why I advocate marriage for committed gay and lesbian couples. Who are humans, or even government, to stand in the way?

We need to remember that there is more criteria to the Christian marriage ethic than simply whether there is one man and one woman. For example, a marriage predicated on abuse or destructive behavior is not God-ordained. We need to open up to the possibility that God is calling us to unite not only in terms of gender, but perhaps more relevantly, in terms of a relationship that is spiritually fulfilling, mutual, monogamous and wholesome. I know many gay and lesbian Christians whose relationships meet the criteria of the Christian marriage ethic as well or better than many straight couples I know.

Finally, we need to stop assuming that God is somehow in error in creating people to be gay or lesbian. Who are we to question God’s creation, simply because aspects of it transcend our understanding? To be sure: we need to address sin where we encounter it, but the biological fact of sexual orientation is no sin–and it’s not an accident! Humans need to get out of the way and embrace that which the Creator has made good.

For more on this, see Acts 10:9-29.