Corban, World Vision, and Damning Ourselves For the Sake of Others

All of this stuff about World Vision reminds me of what Jesus said in Mark 7.

That Which Defiles

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.[a])

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’[b]

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe[c] your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’[d] and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[e] 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16] [f]

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” – Mark 7:7-23

Last week, World Vision’s USA office announced that it will no longer discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring practices. That is, they would hire any Christians, including gay Christians who were married. This was a very bold move, particularly as many states are currently having their bans on gay marriage struck down by constitutional courts, or are lobbying to legalize gay marriage, in spite of very outspoken opposition largely from Christian groups. World Vision’s change in policy was a big move for a Christian organization in the US to make, and could have been symbolic of a larger shift toward laws that recognize all humans and their relationships and institutions without prejudice. And given the worldwide persecution that homosexuals are facing, not least in Russia and especially Uganda, where homosexuals are now given life in prison (or are simply being beaten or killed in the street), World Vision’s change in policy gave it some moral authority as it worked to serve the downtrodden around the world.

The next day, World Vision retracted their statement. In 24 hours, or so I’ve heard from multiple sources, 2000 or so people pulled their support from World Vision. Clearly World Vision wasn’t prepared for such a response. They should have been. But that’s not the heart of the issue.

Those who pulled their support did so, or so the internet explained, because they felt that World Vision had betrayed their Christian values. Or to put it differently, “minimizing something as structural as the definition of marriage is a damnable act, and whether or not World Vision suffers financially, it has already suffered, and inflicted suffering, spiritually.” World Vision’s actual statement reversing their decision said “we are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority.” Those Christians who gave to World Vision are the victims here: they were betrayed, experienced spiritual suffering, and were painfully confused.

I’m confused too. I can’t even begin to understand how this decision could inflict pain or “spiritual suffering” (whatever that is), but I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been a bit sarcastic here, but I honestly believe that they’re probably good people who love Jesus. They were hurt by what they perceived to be a betrayal of their values, even breaking an implicit covenant of sorts in which they support World Vision because World Vision represents their values. I suppose that has some logic to it, even if it’s packed full of assumptions and bad theology. I could critique the theology involved here, I could pull out all of the assumptions, and I could point out that none of these people had time to even think it through before they pulled their support, but none of that would get to the heart of the issue either.

At the heart of the issue, I suggest, is that the people who pulled their support from World Vision, the people who railed against them on the internet and accused them of a ‘damnable act’, have allowed their own laws and rules to get in the way of the commandments of God.

The Pharisees Jesus was talking to in Mark 7 (above) had come up with the rule of Corban as a way of structuring their lives in the service of God. The Torah has a few thousand commandments, but the Pharisees had many more, designed to ensure that they kept the commandments of God. In Bible college this is called “building a fence around the law.” The idea behind it is good, but as Jesus points out here, things get complicated quickly when we create our own laws to go along with those we receive from God. What happens when our fence around God’s laws conflicts with God’s laws?

There are laws in the Bible about homosexuality. In spite of what Joe Dallas says about it (above), a lot of people disagree about the exact content and purpose of those laws, or even what’s being talked about in those passages, but let’s even assume that they’re very clear and say that homosexuality in any sense is totally and deeply sinful. Even if that’s the case, there’s no law that says that you can’t donate to a gay charity. There’s also no law that says that you can’t bake cakes for gay marriages, to pick up on another recent controversy. There are no commandments to shun gay people, to discriminate against them in your hiring practices, to keep them out of your churches (unless you get into some creative application of Corinthians), to refuse to participate in worship or charity with them, etc. etc. Those laws weren’t given. All of the ways that Christians have behaved toward homosexuals in North America, under the guise of religious freedom, were not in obedience to any law or commandment of God. They were, instead, things that we felt we had to do in order to defend the idea that homosexuality is sinful.

Pulling support from World Vision isn’t withdrawing finances from an organization. World Vision was not punished by these people. The way World Vision is set up, donors are connected with individual children, who receive (most of) the money that the donors give every month. These children write letters to their supporters, their “family”. Sometimes these relationships can last years, even decades. When people pulled their support from World Vision in response to the news that World Vision will not discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring practices, they weren’t doing it because of a command from God, they were calling their money “Corban” and refusing to give to the children who wrote them letters thanking them for saving their lives. Some of these kids probably live in Uganda, where homosexuals are being imprisoned and killed for simply being gay; do these kids know why their “families” have abandoned them?

I may be being a bit melodramatic here, but not as much as it sounds: these are real kids, and they’re not interchangeable with whatever kids those 2,000 supporters have supposedly sponsored elsewhere. You can’t just pull funding from one organization, and then find another who will allow you to sponsor the exact same child. Real people have been really hurt by this, and they weren’t hurt by World Vision, they were hurt by the people who let their politically charged (electric?) fence around the Law cut them off from the commandment of God to care for “the least of these.”

I’m going to take this a bit further, and say that God doesn’t care half as much about anyone’s sins as he does about their obedience and care for others. I’m going to say that God would rather have a gay person who works at World Vision in this world than 2,000 people who would pull their support because of that gay person. I feel very confident of this, because of a story Jesus told about a good Samaritan.

I’m not going to paste the whole story here, but the gist is: a priest and a levite, both religious leaders, pass by a guy who’s been badly beaten and is laying in a ditch on the side of the road. In fact, they cross the road to stay away from him. What we usually fail to recognize when we hear this preached is that they were following actual commandments of God, which told them that they should stay away from dead bodies. They thought the guy was dead, so they did what they were supposed to do and stayed away for the sake of their ritual cleanness, without which they couldn’t serve God in the Temple. Then a Samaritan, who was a religious outsider who was treated by the Jews very similarly to the way we treat the LGBTQ community and was considered unfit to worship in the Temple anyways (i.e., ritually unclean to the max!), comes along and saves the guy. Jesus commends the actions of the Samaritan over the actions of the priest and levite, in spite of the fact that they were following God’s commands (and not just a fence around the law – actual commands from the Torah!). If we follow what Jesus was saying, he was implying that in order for the priest or the levite to do the right thing, they would have had to be willing to break God’s direct commandments for the sake of a stranger they thought was probably already dead.

Let’s bring this into the issue at hand then: Christians, God would rather have you work with LGBTQ people in your ministry than miss any chance to serve the poor. In fact, God would rather have you hang out at gay bars and rest stops with drag queens and fetishists and show them his love than ignore a single person in need. I can’t say this strongly enough: Christians, God would rather have you be gay, with all of the prejudices and persecution that you would have to suffer for being so, than to have you disobey his command to love your neighbour as yourself. (Gay Christians, God would rather have you be a homophobe who protests funerals but still obeys him by serving others, than an inclusive and kind person who would refuse to help a homophobe. This cuts both ways.)

So don’t blame this on World Vision: they screwed up, but what they did has nothing to do with our responsibility to serve others, or with the relationships that were destroyed for those 2,000 kids. Don’t appeal to Biblical authority, because when it comes to refusing to serve others (for any reason), you won’t find much support there. And don’t even appeal to religious freedom, which is another way we like to use man-made things to help us get away with ignoring the commands of God. No, Christians of North America, we need to own this: the culture wars, the systematic exclusion of LGBTQ people, the endless debates about religious freedom, this is all ours. We’ve made our bed in a white-washed tomb, and we’re lying in it, and we need to get up and start serving the people that God loves: ALL of them.

Unedited thoughts on communities and language-groups

I found out today that I get to give two lectures to a hermeneutics class next week. I’m pretty stoked, but don’t have much time to prepare! So as I sit here in a Chapters Starbucks, waiting to shuttle students home, I wrote down some thoughts. It’s rough, but it’s what I’m thinking about for my first lecture on language groups before Gus takes over to talk about Lyotard. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful; as always, I write here to help myself work out thoughts, because I don’t really understand anything until it’s been put into words.


We’re all members of several communities. I’m a Christian in the broadest sense, united with people around the world by my confession of faith and some specific practices like Baptism and Communion; but I’m also a Pentecostal, united to a smaller pool of people around the world united by a certain expression of Christianity; and I’m also a member of Kleefeld Christian Community, my local congregation (which is technically Baptist). I’m a Canadian, and though I live in Manitoba I still identify mostly with BC where I was born and raised, and I still maintain connections to Toronto and have experienced life in Northern Alberta. Even being Canadian, my worldview is strongly influenced by America, since I take in so much American media; American culture permeates most of the world these days, and is unavoidable. I went to a Pentecostal Bible college, but now I live among Mennonites and Catholics and attend a non-denominational Evangelical seminary where I learn from Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical-Free, and Mennonite scholars, among others. This academic community is itself part of the larger community of “the academy”, the community of scholarship in its broadest sense, including all of the disciplines. Of all of the disciplines, I am part of the smaller community of Biblical and Theological Studies, and the subset of that community, Systematic Theology, and the subset of that community, Ethics, and the subset of that community, Political Theology; but I also dabble in Sociology, Economics, History, and Political Science. I’m also a member of the Green Party of Canada, a national party, and a member of the Green Party Provencher, the GPC’s local body. Though I haven’t worked as one for quite a while, I’m a trucker and the son of a trucker, and I still identify with other truckers. I’m male, one of the most basic communities in the world yet still with particular viewpoints not shared by females; yet many of my friends are feminists, and I live with a woman (my wife), and try really hard to understand how her perspective differs from my own due to our different social realities. And I’m human, sharing a common bond with other humans that does not extend to animals or plants. I’m not sure how much we can describe mammals as a community, or animals and plants as separate communities with shared viewpoints, but it’s easy to see how community and ecology are linked concepts!
But communities also extend through time, and interact with each other historically. Being Pentecostal, I trace my roots back through Wesleyan holiness movements, camp and revivalist movements, Protestantism, Anabaptism, and through the mystics of Catholic and Orthodox churches all the way back to Acts 2, and through Christ and John the Baptist back to the charismatic prophets of the Old Testament. In the same way, my Canadian culture and Western worldview can be traced back through England and France, through Germanic Christian empires, through Rome, to ancient Greece. This development of worldviews through time is called tradition, with each thread representing its own tradition, and each thread being connected to others or emerging from others.
Each of these communities is an expression of a shared tradition, complete with shared actions and ideas. What divides these groups into individual communities is, as much as anything else, language: each community is also a language-group, with shared terminology and understanding of words. Language itself is a system of symbols with agreed-upon meanings, but what those meanings are shift from group to group, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in huge ways. Different regions have specific terms (in Saskatchewan they call a hoodie a “bunnyhug”), different careers or disciplines have technical jargon (a trucker and a mathematician mean very different things by the term “differential”, which is a term that most of us never use at all), and different groups have different nuances, understandings of, or perspectives on the same terms (e.g., white, middle-class, Christian males in Canada have a very different understanding of the word “privilege” than, say, an Aboriginal woman who lives on the streets of Winnipeg; it evokes very different feelings for these different groups!). Not all of the features of these language groups plays a major role in their worldview or theology; I doubt that people from Saskatchewan have a different worldview based on their unique word “bunnyhug”. But the language we use does affect the way we see the world.
A friend of mine was recently telling me about an episode of Radiolab they heard recently about colour, and they mentioned that in the oldest epic poems the sea was often described as being red. It was suggested that this was because when these old epics were written, that language had not yet developed a word for “blue”, and that members of language groups that don’t have a word for blue would also describe the sky as being “white.” Red is apparently one of the first colour-words that a language develops, as it’s the easiest dye to make, while blue is one of the hardest dyes to make and thus usually enters languages last of all colour-words. I grew up close to a lake that we often describe as being green, but it’s actually more of a teal. We’ve invented words to describe shades of blue and green, and those words allow us to understand those distinctions more thoroughly. Then we can make even finer distinctions, and give those names. Inventing a word for something doesn’t invent the thing itself, but it does invent our concept of that thing, and it invents the possibility for us to understand and agree upon that concept or idea, and then take it further.
Helen Keller described her life before she had language as being animalistic. People with limited language are unable to understand higher concepts – not just that they can’t express them, but because they can’t express them, they actually can’t grasp them on a deep level. Because of this, recognizing the particularities of our language groups is essential to a self-aware and self-critical interpretive methodology.
I am a member of many different communities, and the way I read texts (whether actual texts, or the “texts” of the reality in which I live) is formed by all of them. When I read a story about the Canadian tarsands, for example, my understanding of it (and therefore my opinion about it) is shaped by many different words specific to different communities I have some membership in: the word “oiligarchy” is a political word that actually comes from environmental activists to describe a government corrupted by oil money, but the word “petro-state” is a political word that actually comes from economists to describe the same thing; my understanding of the concept is influenced by my time as a trucker in Fort McMurray, where I drove a “honey wagon” but the real shit was being dug out of the ground; “anthropogenic climate change” is a phrase used by scientists and politicians and activists alike to describe the results of burning fossil fuels, and “anthropocene” is a new word created by scientists and sociologists to describe a new era of history in which human beings are the cause of global ecological change; and while we’re talking about the issue on a global and historic scale, my reading of environmental news occurs within the tradition and narrative of Christian theology, in which human beings were created as stewards of the earth and all creation groans in anticipation of being set free and renewed.
I privilege some of these language groups over others without even thinking about it. I’m more involved in some of these communities than others, not by virtue of how completely I’m a part of that group, but by virtue of my language preferences. For example, I am most certainly a human being – 100%, unavoidable fact that I cannot change. Being a Christian, on the other hand, is much more tenuous: it is a chosen association rather than a fact of life (did I mention that I’m an Arminian, or perhaps an Open Theist, or something in between? More groups!), and there’s nothing physically true or apparent about it. But my dominant way of seeing the world as a human being is as a Christian, because Christianity is my dominant narrative and language group: it’s my community, and it’s from this community that I derive my self-understanding. Rather than my Christianity being defined by my humanity, my humanity is defined by my Christianity. Because of this, I’m more likely to describe environmental degradation in terms of creation, providence, and apocalypse, than I am to describe it in scientific terms, even though I’m familiar with scientific terms and they may be better suited to describing the environmental situation. My theological understanding of stewardship of creation has inspired me to environmental activism, so my activist terminology has a decidedly theological tone; and my environmental activism has prompted me to join the Green Party, giving my environmental jargon a political spin and bite. At the same time, my theological language has recently become more and more intertwined with political language, because I wrote my MA thesis on the concept of the Powers and Principalities as the spiritual aspect of social institutions. My vocabulary grew, and words took on new nuances, and political words became theological words. Because of this, I can no longer talk about politics without talking about theology. So I started with theology, moved through environmentalism, to activism, to politics, and back to theology. This mess of interacting language-groups is how I primarily read a story about the Canadian tarsands. My truck driver sensibilities are pretty forcefully pushed out of the conversation at times because most of my theo-politico-ecological jargon has no place in the language group of truckers; it’s just not on their radar, and further, my experience in the trucker community was characterized by concerns about security in an oil-based economy and diesel-driven jobs. These concerns compete with the concerns of my dominant communities, so they get pushed down. If I were still active in the trucking community, and if that were a primary community for me, I would understand the issue of tarsands expansion much differently!
The issue of language groups and the issue of social context are therefore completely linked and work together to form our perspective as we read, and this perspective has a major influence on our theology. This is why we have black theology, and feminist theology, and Latin-American theology, and why all of these are different variations of Liberation Theology, which is itself a theology of the oppressed and contrasts sharply with health-and-wealth theology and the “prosperity gospel” which represent a very different perspective on social inequality. It’s also why we have so many different Bibles: the women’s Bible, the men’s Bible, kids Bibles, youth Bibles, student Bibles, apologetics Bibles, green Bibles, golfers’ Bibles (yes, the Golfer’s Bible is a real thing); because each of them has notes and highlights metaphors that speak to their particular group or community’s perspective.
Each perspective has the ability to write a meta-narrative, or grand story, a way to explain life, the universe, and everything, all from that particular perspective. A communist metanarrative might be to look at all of life from the perspective of the proletariat, the class of people oppressed by the wealthy aristocratic capitalists; a Calvinist metanarrative interprets every event in history as God’s sovereign act as part of a huge and mysterious plan; an atheistic metanarrative would probably be primarily scientific, explaining everything in life as the result of physical, chemical, and biological processes; and so on. Not every perspective is capable of accurately describing everything though: communist metanarratives tend to be reductive in regard to the rich, assuming their thoughts and motivations; Calvinist metanarratives struggle to explain the existence of evil in a world in which God supposedly controls everything; and naturalistic atheists simply lack the conceptual tools to adequately understand or explain values, meaning, and the sublime.
No one perspective, then, is capable of giving us an accurate picture of the world. Thankfully, we’re all members of many different communities, and therefore our views always amalgamate the perspectives and vocabularies of those communities and help us to have deeper, more nuanced views. One of the features of the postmodern world is that we recognize the validity of these other perspectives more and more. This has a few different results: it makes us more accepting of other communities, and it also allows us to adopt their vocabularies and merge them with our own, which makes finer distinctions and deeper nuances possible. At the same time, it makes us suspicious of metanarratives, because we’re more aware of the perspectives that aren’t represented by a particular metanarrative.
So read your Bible as yourself, but recognize that “no man is an island”, and that you always read it as a member of many different communities. Recognize that you share some communities with the writers of Scripture through your shared tradition, but that you have many other communities from which you draw language and meanings. This is both good and bad, but awareness of it allows us to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative elements as we strive for a self-aware and critical interpretation.