Apology: Divine Retribution

This is an issue that garners special scorn for extremist Christians, and rightfully so.  It comes up in a big way every time there’s a natural disaster somewhere in the world, or a catastrophic (read: successful) attack on Americans.  It is the view that suffering, whether mass or individual, is God’s judgment on those who suffer, because of their sin.  When it happens en masse, it must be because of institutional or corporate sin (usually not related to corporations, mind you), and when it happens to individuals it is usually because of personal sin – but may also be because of corporate sin.  So when an American soldier gets killed in Iraq, our good friends from the Westboro Baptist Church show up at his funeral and claim that it was because America has let homosexuals into the army.  And when there’s an earthquake in Haiti, high-profile Evangelical Fundamentalists (i.e. Pat Robertson) claim that it’s because the Haitians sold their souls to the devil over a hundred years ago (see a response to it here).

I’m sorry if a Christian has ever told you that all of your problems in life, and natural disasters around the world as well, are the just punishment for your sins.  That’s rude, insensitive, lacking compassion, and completely wrong besides.

What makes it worse is that this is entirely related to bad theology – bad theology that existed, and was refuted, in biblical times.  This is actually the central issue of the entire book of Job: Job experienced incredible suffering, so his three “friends” urged him to repent from all of the awful sin he must have been doing in order to bring such suffering upon himself.  In the end, Job’s friends (and Job himself) are all rebuked by God, and they never find out why Job suffered – but they knew it wasn’t because of his sin.  The same thing comes up in the New Testament: Jesus and his disciples come across a man born blind, and so the disciples ask Jesus “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  And Jesus basically said “neither”; the man was born blind so that God could be glorified when the man was healed (which Jesus proceeded to do, and God was glorified).  The point of that particular incident was not that God inflicts suffering upon people just so that their healing will be all the sweeter, or so that it will call more attention to God; the point was that God can use anything, even someone’s suffering, to bring some measure of good.

So if the Old and New Testaments both seem to refute this doctrine of divine retribution (that is, human suffering as God’s just judgment), then why do some people continue to spout off about it?  Sadly, like so many other false doctrines, it comes because someone spent way too much time reading the Prophets and taking them out of context.

In the Old Testament, God establishes a covenant with Israel.  This covenant, or contract, followed the basic structure of contracts in that setting, including blessings and curses for the parties involved (i.e. consequences for if and when they honour or break their contract).  If Israel honoured their contract with God, they would be blessed according to the terms of the covenant; but if they broke their contract, they would be cursed – with the curses including being invaded by foreign armies, and ultimately, exiled.  This all happened in the first five books of the Old Testament, and most of the rest of the OT is about all of the ways that God kept his side of the contract even while Israel repeatedly broke it.

The Prophets were people who spoke for God, and at a certain point many of them showed up to tell Israel that, according to the terms of their covenant with God, they were going to face judgment.  So the prophets talk a lot about all of Israel’s sins, and how God will punish them for those sins using famines, natural disasters, foreign armies, and ultimately, exile.  Basically, the prophets are all about God saying “it’s time to pay the piper”, so if you spend all of your time reading prophecy, it would be easy to have a doctrine of divine retribution.  It’s almost like a cause-and-effect relationship: you sin, God punishes.

The problem is, you really need to forget about the context of the Prophets in order to get these kinds of doctrines.  First of all, God isn’t all about punishing people: the other two-thirds of the OT are about him showing grace.  And there are legitimate grounds for punishment in the Prophets: the covenant laid it out very, very clearly long before.  Secondly, if you want to apply such doctrines of retribution to people today, the only people that you could apply it to would be Jews, because they’re the only ones that made the covenant with God.  But if you did that, you’d have to forget the fact that God made a New Covenant (or Testament) with the Jews (and extended it to include the Gentiles) that said that he wouldn’t punish them like that anymore (and there are references to this new covenant in OT prophets as well!).

They might argue that the Old Testament still stands – and they’re right, Jesus affirmed and fulfilled the OT completely.  But that leaves you back at only being able to apply divine retribution to the Jews.  Interestingly enough, some Evangelicals have a doctrine that says that the Church has replaced the Jews as God’s covenant people, and so really the only people they could say are subject to God’s divine retribution would be…themselves.  I can’t recall the last time someone stepped up and said “that natural disaster was because of MY sin.”

Now, the problem of pain and suffering has been central to Christian apologetics for centuries, so I can’t claim to solve it in a blog  post, but I do know this: God doesn’t kill people because of other people’s sin, or even because of their own sin.  God doesn’t cause natural disasters because we tolerate “the gays”, and God doesn’t make nations lose wars because national Church attendance rates are down.  God does not cause our suffering to get back at us, nor does he hold us to the terms of a covenant that we Gentiles never made (nor does he hold the Jews to it anymore either).  Quite the opposite, in fact: rather than causing our suffering and saying that it is just, God made himself into a human being so that he could share in our unjust suffering.  When we actually should be suffering because of our sins, God has taken that suffering on himself – and he shares in the unjust suffering with us.

Suffering is recognized by human beings, and by God, as being unjust.  Rather than blaming people for their own suffering, or even for other people’s suffering, let’s work with God in showing solidarity with those who suffer and working to relieve suffering wherever we find it.  Because sitting back and blaming Haitians for selling their souls to the devil doesn’t help anyone, ever.

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Apology: Liberals and Conservatives

 Thanks to everyone who has commented so far in this series; I’m glad to see that not everyone identifies all Christians with ultra-right, fundamentalist, conservative, evangelicals.  But this brings me to another point that drives me crazy about public perception of Christianity: its identification with “right” or “conservative” labels, issues and agendas.

I’ve used the terms “right-wing”, “conservative”, and “fundamentalist” here a few times already, and “evangelical” is lumped together with all of those terms quite frequently as well, despite the fact that it’s possible to be an evangelical Christian (or even a Christian at all) without holding a conservative viewpoint.  But I hate all of these terms, because they’re incredibly misleading, particularly when they’re used interchangeably, as though they all denote exactly the same thing.  When I was looking for examples of literal hermeneutic the other day, I came across this blog post that (on a blog about hermeneutics, of all things!) equates liberal theology with liberal politics:

http://literalhermeneutics.blogspot.com/2010/03/its-all-about-interpretation-dr-bob.html

In his defense, at least this guy is giving an actual argument for the connection between liberal theology and liberal politics – but the point is, this term has several different meanings.

A “liberal” is one who is either 1) in favour of reform, whether political or religious, or 2) in favour of maximizing human freedoms, or 3) not literal, or 10 other definitions (found here).  So in some senses, the term “liberal” might apply to both politics and religion; in others, it can be very confusing.  For example, political “conservatives” are much more in favour of personal freedoms than today’s political “liberals”, even though a favourable stance toward personal freedoms is one of the very definitions of the term “liberal”.  And if you don’t believe me, tell a Tea Party member that they can’t do something like…say, carry a gun.  Yet many conservatives would say without qualification that they are against any and all things liberal.  If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes on Conservapedia – or better yet, check out their definition of “liberal.”

A big issue with this is that it pigeonholes people into one extreme or the other.  If a self-proclaimed conservative calls you a liberal, he means that you support abortion, excessive taxation, pornography, and homosexuality and you are against prayer, the death penalty, creationism, and the Bible, among other things.  The flipside is the polar opposite: a conservative must therefore be against abortion, taxation, pornography (and sex education other than abstinence-only), homosexuality (even practiced in private), and must be a full-on proponent of making prayer and creation mandatory school subjects, as well as instating (or continuing to use) the death penalty.  Inevitably, it degrades down to single issues: liberals love “fags” and taxes, while conservatives love Jesus and war.

Perhaps an even bigger issue is that moral issues are thrown in there, right alongside legal and governance issues.  And because Christianity is so often reduced to morals (which I wholeheartedly disagree with), it gains a certain type of logic to associate liberals with atheism and conservatives with Jesus.  I had a friend in college whose family lives in the US, and when they put a John Kerry sign on their lawn back in the day they got a lot of flack from people in their church – because after all, George W. Bush is a Christian, and Christians always vote Republican!  This is not only disastrous for politics (as the past decade proved) but also for Christianity, because it has become associated with a particular political party and their views, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with scripture.  In fact, it also has an adverse affect on the way people read the Bible, because a good conservative Christian hates everything “leftist”, which usually includes things like helping the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, etc. – and these things are major, major issues in the Bible.  Unfortunately, conservative Christians must somehow reconcile these Bible verses with their understanding of what’s wrong with lefties – which apparently means skipping large sections of scripture, or else twisting them to mean something other than the message of our corporate responsibility for the less fortunate.  Just for example.

It works the other way, too: voting liberal is the common atheist’s choice, because conservatives (however well they can run the country) are all religious extremists who want to force religion on the country, right?  It’s an asinine characterization, but there are enough religious extremists out there campaigning for just such a thing to give such thoughts credibility.

On the other hand, someone who is theologically “liberal” tends to be someone who does not hold to the “fundamentals” – usually, they don’t hold any doctrines strongly, mix religions together, etc.  There are plenty, and they are particularly dominant in certain denominations or religions (Unitarian comes to mind, and often the United Church of Canada, and occasionally the Anglican Church of Canada, among others).  Contrary to the conservative fundamentalism that reads all scripture literally, a theological liberal often will read all scripture allegorically, often interpreting scripture to go along with a pet project or interest or a particularized theology.  Of course, this gets mixed up in and politicized by particular issues, usually homosexuality or something related to it, and the lack of better terms than “liberal” and “conservative” erases the difference between the theological issue and the political or ethical issue, and we’re back to pigeonholing people into one extreme or the other.

So, all of this to say that I, as a Christian and a citizen, apologize on behalf of Christians and politicians who have continually created and reinforced this system of polarization and oversimplification and competition.  There’s no need for such factions, especially because by creating and adhering to them we really dumb down the issues and lose track of what we, really and individually, think about things.  Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said “if you label me, you negate me?” (and if you get the pop culture reference there, you get a gold star)

My understanding of the world is heavily influenced by the Bible.  That being said, I’m still a citizen.  I have opinions about all sorts of issues, and I don’t need a particular party or camp to adhere to in order to hold those opinions.  I think that the practice of abortion is despicable, but sometimes the alternatives are even worse; I advise abstinence to teens and the unmarried, but I think it’s dumb to deny people birth and disease control; I think that God created the world, but I don’t think he told us exactly how he did it and I’m all for real science of every kind being taught in schools; I think we need to take care of the earth, because God made us as his stewards; I am pro-life, and against the death penalty (who would have thought that this would be a controversial combination of opinions?!); I’m a Christian, and against war of all kinds, even wars against Muslims; I could go on and on.  I don’t hold any of these views in spite of my Christian belief; I hold all of these views subsequent to and because of my Christian belief.  Jesus doesn’t tell me how to vote, he shows me how to live.

Apology: The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

If there’s a catchword for religious extremists, it’s probably the term “fundamentalist.”  Which is sad, really, considering the origins of the term.  What it’s supposed to mean to be a fundamentalist is that you believe that the Bible is actually true, and therefore is the primary (and perhaps only) source for theology – i.e. that it’s fundamental to Christianity and Christian theology.  The term arose to prominence in Christian circles just over a hundred years ago (correct me if I’m wrong), quickly associated with the term “evangelical”, with several protestant Christian denominations claiming it as a distinctive belief (i.e. central, setting them apart from other denominations who may disagree).  It came out at a time when “liberal” theology was a growing trend, when people were claiming that none of the stories in the Bible were true, the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus”, etc.  If this sense of the word continued, every Christian denomination in the moderate and conservative camps would wholeheartedly claim the title “fundamentalist”, with only the denominations with the most liberal theology claiming that Jesus wasn’t actually a real person.

Since then, however, we’ve become bogged down in the question of exactly how the Bible is true.  The fundamentalists who get all of the press strictly adhere to a “literal” reading of scripture, and in so doing have bastardized both the term “fundamentalist” and the term “literal.”  When they say “literal”, they really mean “at face value.”  This is what Tim LaHaye said about it in the foreword to The Truth Behind Left Behind: A Biblical View of the End Times by Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice (Multnomah Publishers, 2004):

“People are reading the Bible as never before.  They are reading it and believing what they read.  Just as it is written.  And why shouldn’t they?  After all, it comes from the hand of God himself.  These readers take scripture literally whenever possible – unless some false teacher has clouded their thinking, rendering prophecy virtually impossible to understand by trying to interpret it through symbols or confusing allegories.”

LaHaye goes on to support this by pointing out that his bestselling Left Behind series portrayed events just as they appear in the pages of scripture, and people agree once they’ve read his books.  Oddly enough, that’s a pretty convincing argument if you never actually look into scripture, or learn anything about interpretation, or interpret the Bible as you would any other writing or even human conversation.  The line that really slays me is “after all, it came from the hand of God himself.”  That argument is not only unscriptural, but it’s illogical – but it fools anyone who doesn’t think too hard about it.  It paints an image of the Bible floating down from the heavens, into the hands of the apostles, and eventually to the publishing houses of today.

This so-called “literal” reading is very often anything but.  It basically means that anyone should be able to pick up the Bible, look at the words, and immediately know exactly what they mean.  Of course, that doesn’t take into account the fact that everyone has a slightly different take on what the Bible means, and extreme fundamentalists will always claim that there is only one correct interpretation.  While I agree on the last point (one interpretation), the point is simply that you can’t expect to get a good reading of ANYTHING at face value; there’s a few little things, like context and literary techniques, to take into account.

In season one of the TV show “Heroes”, the invincible cheerleader Claire confesses to her mother “I walked through fire, and didn’t get burned.”  She meant it literally, but of course her mother didn’t take it that way; she thought Claire was saying something deep and profound, to be using such an analogy.  That’s because people often use analogies, metaphors, similies, hyperbole, and other literary techniques to say something deep and profound by using ordinary language.  In fact, this is so common that most people would say that their face-value reading of something would allow for metaphors and analogies – it’s hard to hear “I walked through fire and didn’t get burned” any other way – but this is not the case with “literal” hermeneutics.  So when Tim LaHaye sees the phrase “army of locusts”, he sees real locusts, or perhaps combining the terms, he gets an army that looks like locusts, which of course MUST mean apache helicopters.

For a recent paper I read a book called Four Views on Hell.  John Walvoord, representing the literal view, was extremely arrogant in his assumption that the literal view is the “biblical view”, maintained that things must be read at face value, and then completely butchered texts that had obviously analogous or metaphorical meanings in order to fit them into his hellfire view – claiming that wherever the word fire appears it must refer to real fire, and thus it must be special magical fire because fire and darkness are seen together in several texts.  Because if the Bible says that there are both fire and utter darkness in Hell, and we must take that literally, then it must be special fire that does not emit any light.  Absolutely absurd, but it illustrates the point that the literal view, rather than preserving the integrity of the text, often does it great violence by trying to force it into a wooden frame that doesn’t fit.

It also illustrates one of the main reasons that “fundamentalism” goes together with extremism: because a preacher can interpret scripture however he likes so long as it conforms to someone’s idea of what the words say “at face value”, and people won’t question it because “that’s what it clearly says, and after all, it comes from the hand of God himself!”  Incredible presuppositions can be read into the text very easily, allowing the Bible to be used to justify everything from slavery to racial profiling to sexism to war – and say what you like about liberal theology, but they’ve never produced such abominations of “Christian culture” as the fundamentalists have.

Which of course leads us back to how extremism leads to polarization.  Because the voice of evangelicals and fundamentalists are so hard-core into “literal” interpretation, it appears that the only other option is to not take scripture seriously (which is what fundamentalists usually claim is the only other option).  You’re left with the options presented in the following SMBC comic:

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1903#comic

Finally, a quick look at a moderate view: Jesus is a real guy.  Lots of the events of the Bible actually happened, but the Bible is not to be read as a modern history book, but rather as a theological revelation of God.  It should be read in light of its genre, semantics, and most especially contexts, and allowing for non-‘literal’ interpretations wherever the text indicates.  Basically, if we read it the same way we’d read other literature of similar types, we’ll probably do okay.

Apology: A Moderate Christian View

I’ve been away for a while, and for that I feel I should apologize – by writing a series of apologist posts!

Being a moderate Christian, I often feel like my greatest witness is taken up by responding to situations like the one in this comic and saying “but not all Christians are crazy.  Probably, not even most of us!”

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1851#comic

I’m a Pentecostal, which is a conservative subset of Protestant Christianity, which is itself a subset of catholic (universal) Christianity.  There are over a billion Christians in the world, with thousands of denominations that are divided either by geography or by slight variations in doctrine (religious views) and practice, but all proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all creation.  In spite of all of that diversity, it seems that Christianity is represented by a very small, very vocal minority – basically, there are a few mouthpieces, usually in the US, who get all of the airtime.  And like most things in American media, this issue is polarized: we only hear from the ultra-conservatives, or the ultra-liberals, with neither camp adequately representing the majority of Christians and most especially Christian belief.

I’m a bit disturbed, and pretty angry, that so much Christian witness is reduced to how Christians are portrayed in the media.  I know that there are many people who do a fantastic job of representing Christ to their neighbours and friends and family, showing them what Jesus is really like; on the other hand, I’ve heard this phrase several times:

“Well, I know you’re cool, but this is what ____________ just said on Fox.”

People that I know and love, who have seen the dramatic change in me since I’ve become a Christian, who respect me and my beliefs to a very high degree, still have difficulty reconciling themselves toward Christianity because of how it is represented in the media (that is, the NEWS media – i.e. how some Christians really behave).  And so, as I said above, I spend most of my time explaining what Christians are not, rather than what we are or who Jesus is.  I thought it might be helpful to catalogue some of these explanations, perhaps do a bit of a compare/contrast between moderates and extremists in the Christian faith.

So this is my apology, in both senses of the term.  First, in the sense of rationally defending my faith – I am, in this sense, acting as an apologist.  And secondly, I really do apologize for the excesses, irrationalities, polarizations, and offences of those who claim Christ.  Most of them just don’t know any better, but that’s no excuse.  Let’s try to set the record straight, so that we might all be without excuse – and hopefully, moving toward a positive, moderate Christianity that is capable of expressing actual Good News.  I say “Let’s” because, as always, I crave your comments and feedback.  This blog is not a soapbox or platform for my personal authority (of which I have none); it’s a conversation, a public forum, for the discussion of God and his universe.

And so, for the rest of the summer…I apologize.