Christianity Is Not A Belief

Last night at work I had one coherent thought (the Dayquil must have kicked in, however briefly): that Christianity has long been mistaken for a belief. It was one of those things that suddenly seem so embarrassingly obvious.

It is not a revolutionary thought. We’ve all heard the cliche “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” stuff, and that seemed revolutionary at first too, but that message didn’t seem to penetrate. These days, I usually hear that line from people who feel comfortable not bothering to engage with a church, or even any other form of Christian community, much less with the much harder work of actually following Jesus. The revolutionary, iconoclastic, non-religious nature of actually being a disciple of Christ, the call to dig down to the difficult and core notion of what it means to relate to the God of the universe, has become a cliche way to justify shedding the outward trappings of religion in favour of a similar level of complacency – now guilt-free!

So that wasn’t what I was thinking when I had my moment of clarity on the factory floor. What I was thinking is that Christianity is not a system of belief; that’s Christian theology. Christianity, or being a disciple of Christ, is an activity of sorts: specifically, an ethical system or approach that presupposes or assumes the content of Christian theology. Simply put, believing Jesus is God does not make me a Christian; acting like Jesus does.

This also is not new or revolutionary. It’s straight from the epistle of James. I think the profundity of the thought, and what makes it worth sharing here, is how easily and repeatedly we miss this. We have to keep giving it new terminology to keep the message fresh. When “faith without works is dead” (from James) failed to prevent hundreds of years of empty piety and emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) without orthopraxis (right actions) in the name of God’s grace, we went to “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” which itself lasted about ten minutes before it lost any power to actually change our behaviour. How many other warnings, commands, and cliches have there been to tell us that Christianity is something we do more than something we believe or ascribe to?

This brings me back to another question that’s been rattling in my head for the past week: what really makes someone a Christian? Despite James’ insistence that faith without works is dead, when Pastor Tim Keller was asked this question by the New York Times last week he spent the whole interview talking about the things someone must believe. On the other hand, when Jesus talked to his disciples about who his real followers were, it was all about actions:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” – Matthew 25:34-46

Serious stuff. After years of study and familiarity with the Bible, this passage still always chills me, fills me with the “fear of the Lord,” erodes my complacency. Because it gets to the heart of the matter, and I don’t know how I measure up.

Nowhere here does Jesus say that people had to acknowledge his divinity in order to be saved. Nowhere does it say that they must “invite him into their hearts”, that they must attend church and tithe, that they must believe theological statements or hold certain moral values or views. In fact, the people he acknowledges as truly belonging to him are mostly ignorant of having served him at all.

Which is not to say that we should not believe the right things; rather, behaving this way, embodying the Kingdom of God through ethical engagement with our communities and society, is only really possible and makes sense if we have a vision of that otherwise invisible Kingdom. Theology gives us that. Worship is not what defines us, but rather what forms us into people who, in our actions and orientation to God, resemble Jesus. Maintaining Christian community is not the goal of discipleship, it is the context of discipleship – it’s where we serve one another, and it is from where we go out to serve other communities. And holding moral codes is not the content of the gospel, it is our defence from the things that can distract us from our service to God and others. None of these things make us a Christian, but they can all help; but separated from actually following Christ, these things can just as easily be stumbling blocks, giving us a false sense of piety and complacency that keeps us from actually becoming Christians. The “goats” in the passage above (and other similar passages – e.g., Matthew 22:1-14) thought they were on team Jesus, but had missed the most important part.

By putting beliefs, morality, church attendance, etc., ahead of ethics we have developed a religion that is “a form of godliness but denying its power” (see 2 Timothy 3).

Minimalism, Purpose, and Focusing on Christ

I finally took the time to check out The Minimalists podcast. It’s a long podcast (90 minutes!), and over that time I got the impression that I was hearing more or less the entire philosophy through a few particular applications, which suggests to me that I might find it repetitive if I listened to it regularly. At the same time, that also shows that they’ve boiled their philosophy down to something clear, and that they’re consistent in their application of it – which is great, because it makes it easy for me to connect it to my own life.

Their philosophy, in a nutshell, is that they want to only have things that they will use and use well; that they get more enjoyment and use out of things that are essential, that reflect their values, when their lives are not also cluttered by all sorts of other stuff that they don’t actually use or enjoy. The great thing about this philosophy is all of the ways that it connects to so many other values and philosophies I have: for example, the episode I just listened to on parenting had a lot of stuff that sounded like RIE, our favourite approach to parenting; and the regular references to Rob Bell (despite the host mentioning that he does not share Rob’s religious convictions) underscored just how much minimalism connects with Christian ethics and tradition.

What really struck me as I was introduced to the minimalist philosophy is how much it is about refining our sense of self: the process of going through our possessions and getting rid of whatever it is that is not essential to our needs, our daily life, and even our character and values, requires that we know ourselves. The process itself also helps us to know ourselves, because when we see what we do not need, or what does not fit with our values, we have a greater sense of who we are without those things.

Things have a way of not only cluttering our lives, but also of cluttering our reality and our very selves. Parting with things can be extremely difficult because of what we have invested in them: sentimental value, a sense of security, or even a sense of self. Getting rid of something, even if you haven’t looked at it or used it in years, can feel like losing yourself. If I lose my childhood teddy bear, am I losing a part of myself, my history? If I don’t have two of everything, will I be safe or prepared if I lose something? Am I defined by having the newest, coolest stuff – and who will I be if I don’t?

The more I think about this, the more I think of the early church. They obviously didn’t live in a consumerist society in the same way that we do; first century Jews, in Palestine or the diaspora, were lucky to have their basic needs met – and Christians moreso, because they were cut off from a lot of the Jewish community that otherwise would have supported them. Early Christians relied on each other in ways that we do not, and that in itself formed the basis for a lot of their community, and the context for most of the New Testament letters. But even in a context of scarcity, the early church was minimalist.

Consider the 72 disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs:

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ – Luke 10:1-8

Jesus’ instructions strike me as being profoundly minimalist, but they are not minimalist for the sake of being minimalist; rather, they reflect the focused purpose of the disciples. They are sent out into the world with nothing but their message, leaving them with no distractions from their purpose. Where the message is appreciated, their needs would be provided for; where the message was not appreciated, they were instructed to waste no more time there.

Jesus never said that it was wrong to have possessions, but when wealthy people asked him how they might enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them that they had to give their possessions away (Matthew 19:16-30). Then we see in the early church in Acts that believers “were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything that they had” (Acts 4:32). Historically, there has been conflict within the church on the interpretation of this, with some using it as evidence for a kind of Christian communism and others finding ways to dismiss it as a non-binding suggestion for happiness or spiritual enlightenment (often in the context of a defence of capitalism). But seen in the light of the original context (of scarcity), it cannot properly be seen as a mere suggestion for personal enlightenment or happiness; and seen as an expression of the focused purpose of a disciple of Christ, it cannot be seen as a compulsory rule of community (that might be applied today) so much as the basis for that community itself.

The difference between the poor community of early Christians and the wealthy West today is so drastic that it’s difficult to directly apply any “rules” about possessions that we might find in the New Testament. They shared everything they had as a way to survive and thrive as social outcasts; we are all incredibly individually wealthy by comparison, and seek minimalism as a way of finding focus and clarity and peace in a consumeristic world. In both cases, it is an orientation toward possessions that is rooted in our focused purpose and identity in Christ (along with other often neglected disciplines and virtues, such as hospitality). But even back then it was difficult to do, which is why so much of the New Testament is about people looking to Jesus and his coming Kingdom as the example and reminder of who they are becoming. For example:

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:1-3

Minimalism, in and of itself, is a useful discipline to help us have focus. But it is also a natural outcome of discipleship, if we are willing (as the rich young ruler was not) to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven. God is calling us to the kind of focused purpose that puts all other considerations second to the goal of embodying Christ and his Kingdom, to the type of life in which we do not let any material possessions clutter our houses, our lives, our purpose, and our identity. In a society and economy focused on consuming, this is the most counter-cultural (and difficult) part of Christian discipleship.

Seeing it as something difficult that we’re called to do is not particularly encouraging, so it’s important to see the benefits of this kind of minimalism: in a sense, it can serve as a gateway to better living out other values. For example:

  1. Giving away items we don’t need helps us develop the virtue of charity;
  2. Becoming more aware of our own needs helps us to become more aware of the needs of others;
  3. Living outside of a secure state of self-sufficiency leads us to share more with others, building a community of sharing;
  4. Reducing the things we own and do to just the things that we value most can revive traditional skills and communities, such as food preparation and preservation, repairing items, gardening, etc. – things that we can do rather than buy;
  5. Reducing the things we buy and keep helps us to be better stewards of our finances, which ultimately belong to God, and help us to be more aware of God’s providence;
  6. Similarly, minimalism helps us to lower our footprint on the planet, living lightly as better stewards of the earth and seeing how that duty is central to our identity and purpose as human beings and Christians;
  7. Having a stronger focus on the things we really value, and forming communities around charity and sharing, and having a greater sense of our role as stewards of the earth, also helps orient us to be respectful toward other people; showing restraint in the things we buy helps us to show restraint in how we respond to others; etc.

So don’t treat minimalism as an all-or-nothing requirement of Christianity, as if you’re the rich young ruler trying to prove himself to Jesus; like him, I’m pretty sure we’d all walk away under that mindset. Rather, see it as a gateway to greater clarity in your life, your identity, and your purpose as a follower of Jesus, and a practice that supports and enables other virtues to grow and flourish. And look to Jesus, constantly, to renew your sense of purpose and identity: behold what you are, become what you receive.

For other help and ideas, check out The Minimalists podcast, blog, documentary, books, etc.

Reflections on Therapeutic Religion

Therapeutic Christianity is pervasive in the church, but particularly in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches – especially those that lean toward the “health & wealth” phenomenon. According to the health & wealth “gospel”, God wants us to be rich and healthy, so if we are not it must mean that we lack the faith to adequately receive God’s blessings. In such a worldview, God is the source of all good things; finding healing, peace, and success is just a matter of turning to God in the right way, with the right faith, and receiving them.

While health & wealth is the apex of therapeutic Christianity, it is obvious elsewhere too. I live less than a block from a Pentecostal church that, while it is not a health & wealth church, certainly believes that Jesus has the power to heal and that the Holy Spirit embodies that power in believers. I believe this too, but I’m not sure that I appreciate the digital sign out front that rotates through messages such as “Need healing? Come to our healing service!” or “Find inner peace. Sunday service at 10:30” or “Free kids camp! Starts at 10:30 am on Sunday mornings.” I agree that Christ can heal; there are long and deep Christian traditions and practices that promote inner peace; and parents are always looking for ways to stimulate their kids while giving them a few minutes of personal space. But this strikes me as shallow salesmanship, promoting Christ as a product, preaching what Jesus can give you rather than Jesus himself.

At the same time, North American society is almost satirically therapeutic. We live incredibly imbalanced lives, and then look for a simple and easy product or practice that can save us from our own mistreatment of ourselves. We tend to do it in binge doses and fads, drawing a new practice or technique from any source. For a while it was yoga, which was originally a deeply spiritual practice but has since been reduced, in North America at least, to calisthenics and stretching. Meditation is a fad that comes around every few years, renewing its appeal by drawing from a different branch of Buddhism. The religious roots of these practices has traditionally sent conservative Christians into a state of distrust and outright condemnation, because in some circles any therapy that does not come from a Christian source is suspect (though most of us are okay with doctors, of course). We produce Christian versions of yoga, and even devise Christian versions of meditation, completely missing the fact that Christians have been meditating as a religious practice for millennia. The point, though, is that all therapy needs to somehow be connected to Christ.

The craze right now is mindfulness, which is not the same thing as meditation, though meditation produces mindfulness. In our age of technological distraction, digital lives, and stress, we crave things like embodiment, focus, and peace. Mindfulness practices are usually some variation of meditation, but tend to emphasize being present: seeing and hearing the real world around you, noticing fine details, staying in one place for a long period, looking deep into the eyes of another person, hugging or kissing someone for a long period, etcetera. There is incredible value in this kind of emphasis on embodied presence.

In a few minutes I’m going to receive the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. Christians have a long history of emphasizing embodied presence, not only in our gospel of the embodied presence of God in Jesus Christ, but also in our understanding of vicarious representation, in which we see Christ in each other. The Holy Spirit embodies human beings, as God’s continued presence on earth. This is, at least to me, the most important and foundational notion of Christianity: that God is here with us, sanctifying our very bodies and this physical world with a constant presence. So every week I take a day in which I try to stay offline, I walk to church and enjoy the fresh air on the way, and I receive the body and blood of Christ. It is refreshing, empowering, and wonderfully therapeutic.

The difference between that therapeutic experience and what is promised on the church sign is subtle. I have to grant to the health & wealth movement that their emphasis on the way we receive from God has a bit of truth in it: our intentions, attitude, and even our very posture have an effect on the way we understand and approach God, even if our actions are identical. In the eucharist, I celebrate and consume Christ himself; in therapeutic models of Christianity, I am oriented to the therapeutic consumption, rather than being oriented to Christ himself. Health & wealth gets it exactly wrong: they emphasize approaching God in such a way as to receive/consume, and God becomes instrumental – a blessing dispensary. That’s why some theologians have taken to calling this kind of theology “therapeutic deism”, because the actual distinct person of God in Jesus Christ fades into the background and can be completely replaced by a general idea of a distant God who gives us what we desire or need.

I was recently listening to an episode of Note to Self, the tech podcast about being human, in which a former Google guru named Mang talked about why he changed careers from being a tech god to writing and educating people about Buddhist mindfulness as a way of promoting world peace. Mindfulness is all the rage in Silicon Valley, which eats up any therapeutic trend that promises to help maintain the levels of energy and creativity needed to succeed in a fast-paced innovation-driven environment. They pointed out that yoga and Buddhist meditation were once deeply spiritual practices that had been reduced to hollow shells, and I suddenly made the connection to therapeutic deism masquerading as Christianity. It appears that there is nothing unique in the way that Christianity is packaged as a therapeutic product to be consumed: we do it to everything. The distinction is that yoga and meditation are recognized as coming from spiritual practices, but are not generally equated with those spiritual practices, no doubt in large part because North American Christians still want to distance themselves from other religions. We remove them from their contexts and package them into products and classes. Meanwhile, the market for Christian-style therapeutic deism is not so much in DVDs and kiosks, but in actual churches where we put our money into the plate. Our therapy is the performance, our product faith itself (often without referent), and we pay for it like a subscription service – in weekly or monthly payments.

Mang took a minute in the interview to teach a very simple and practical mindfulness technique: focus intently on a single breath. Even driving down the busiest highway in Canada, being conscious of a deep breath was immediately calming and invigorating at the same time. I was also immediately conscious of a little bit of guilt in the back of my mind, because I knew that there are Christian practices that do the same thing and yet there I was taking instruction from a Buddhist. At a few times in my life I have been incredibly blessed by the practice of the “breath prayer”, a traditional Christian mindfulness exercise that combines breathing techniques with a mantra: breathing deeply while mentally reciting a short prayer in time with the breaths. This practice has the calming effect of the breathing, with the centring effect of drawing our focus to Christ. It’s a wonderful practice, but given my epiphany about therapeutic deism only minutes before, it seemed inappropriate.

I want the benefits of these simple techniques, and I’m glad that mindfulness is a craze because I think it’s important. But I don’t want to focus all of my efforts toward mindfulness on Christ because I don’t want to treat him as a consumer product. I know that I will not get the full benefits of Buddhist meditation unless, like Mang, I determine to work hard at meditation; just as doing yoga once or twice a week will not improve my physical fitness significantly. But I don’t really want those things anyway – I don’t want to be a Buddhist or a yogi. Like everyone else, I want quick fixes – and I don’t want to put that on Christ. Perhaps it is problematically colonial for me to be okay with bastardizing Buddhism for therapeutic purposes and not be okay with doing the same with my own faith, but I think it’s still better than the self-worship of bastardizing all things for the sake of my own sense of wellbeing.

I still have a lot to work out in this regard, but in the meantime I want to breathe deep and be present in a generic human way, and actually meet Christ in the eucharist rather than just enjoy the side effects. I don’t think that God desires me to smear Christ all over basic things like breathing, like butter over bread, but rather to consume Christ himself as the bread. I’m in no danger of becoming an accidental Buddhist, even if I appreciate the way that Buddhist teachings and practices help me to become more mindful; and I think that my relationship with Christ is strengthened by removing all temptation to treat him as a therapeutic tool, to seek him for what he can do for me. I believe he can heal me, but that’s not why I love him; I believe he brings peace, but I do not worship peace; and I believe that he blesses people in many ways, but I would love him if he did not. If learning mindfulness from Buddhists and yogis and gurus helps me to keep that perspective, then I’d say that in some sense they help me be a better Christian. This, I think, is much more helpful than the guilty thought in the back of my mind that I’m somehow cheating on Jesus in the way that I’m stretching or breathing.

Scapegoating in a Globalized World

I’m powering through the five-part podcast series “The Scapegoat” on CBC’s Ideas. It was originally aired in 2001, but was re-released recently in the wake of Rene Girard’s death last Fall. It explores Girard’s thought in a series of interviews with Girard and a few other scholars.

Tonight I listened to part 4, which brought up the fact that there are two types of mimetic rivalry: external, and internal. But first let’s talk about mimetic rivalry in general.

Girard’s central insight is that human beings are inherently mimetic: we imitate each other, particularly when it comes to desire. I desire what you have, imitating your desire for what you have. You then see that I desire what you have, and your own desire for it becomes all the stronger. But this shared or mimetic desire therefore leads to mimetic rivalry: we both want what you have, and begin to compete with one another for it. But as I compete with you for what you have, you then imitate my competition, so that eventually the mimesis is not about the object of the initial desire at all, but rather about each other. We each call upon the other to imitate ourselves, while also seeking to imitate the other, and in so doing get in each others’ way. Girard holds that this tension and rivalry is the root of human violence, and that religious sacrifice of a scapegoat is a way of channelling that violence onto a common enemy of the community to discharge the tension that threatens the peace of the community. The incredible contribution of first Judaism and then especially Christianity is that it exposes religious sacrifice for what it truly is, a system of controlling and discharging that violence, and that the victim or scapegoat is in fact innocent.

In part four of this series, Girard talks about two types of mimesis: external, and internal. External mimesis is when we imitate someone with whom we cannot compete, and therefore it is imitation without rivalry. We cannot compete with this other person because of a distance between us, whether that is physical distance (in space or time, such as when we imitate a hero from the past or from another country) or social distance (as when we imitate a parent or a person from another social class with whom we could not effectively become a rival). Girard holds that the course of history is toward more and more internal mimesis, and therefore more rivalry; and while his theory of why this is has primarily to do with psychology, I see a different cause – not that they are mutually exclusive, but sadly, probably cumulative.

Globalization is a complex social process by which the world becomes more and more economically interdependent, socially smaller, and culturally integrated. Globalization, then, has reduced or removed the social and physical distance that keeps some mimesis external, allowing for much more internal mimesis.

As we become more democratic, the social distance between different classes disappears: if a hundred years ago a blue collar worker wanted to imitate a banker, they would have tremendous difficulty doing so, whereas now there are social forums in which their different levels of wealth and connections are to some extent set aside, allowing mimetic rivalry where before none was possible. Further, the American Dream is mimetic: a Donald Trump explicitly invites competition with new rivals, and uses the mythology of the American Dream to level the playing field with would-be rivals in order to better induce their mimesis, using their imitation and perceived competition as a way to gain their identification with him, and therefore to gain their support for his presidential nomination. Democracy and cultural shifts have removed the social distance element of external mimesis, making internal mimesis with those to whom we are physically close more possible and likely.

But globalization has also reduced physical distances, not only through transportation (because you can fly around the world in a day), but also through the internet (a new place that is easily accessible from almost anywhere in the world), and through immigration and cultural integration (or lack thereof). For example, let’s say that I want to imitate Tony Robbins, the self-help guru: we’re both enormously large people (he’s much bigger, which just makes me want to surpass him in other ways even more!) who speak in public and write (hopefully) inspirational things. In fact, his whole schtick as an inspirational speaker is largely inviting mimesis: he invites our imitation explicitly, and also implicitly by modelling success and linking it to the principles he preaches. So if I were to take some of those principles and start preaching them in my own words, perhaps even initially giving him credit, I would eventually run into conflict with him when it turns out that we are each holding super-exclusive conferences in the same city on the same weekend! My imitation of him has now become rivalry with him because of our physical proximity, because these days guys like Tony and I just fly around to new places all the time. Of course, it would likely turn to rivalry much sooner, probably as soon as I first published a blog post on a website that competes with his. A hundred years ago if he was in the US and I was in Canada, our paths would likely never cross and if they did it would be non-confrontational, but in the internet age we are in immediate rivalry.

The immigration aspect of rivalry is a bit scarier, and it incorporates another important sociological and theological concept: representation. For decades now, the “clash of civilizations” model has been prevalent. The basic idea is that Eastern (i.e., Muslim) and Western civilizations cannot coexist, and will eventually come into direct conflict. This is of course not at all necessary or inevitable, but many believe that it is. This idea goes back for ages, but it has taken on a large following in the last few decades because globalization has put East and West in close proximity: a comment on the internet or in the press today can lead to international war tomorrow. While it is common for the scapegoat to come from among us, in cases of war the scapegoat comes from a rival group or clan – in this case, from Islam.

There are enormous tensions in our society (economic inequality, race issues, environmental issues, gender and sexuality, etc.) that can be overcome by giving us a common enemy, the scapegoated Muslim. On the other end there are enormous tensions as well, many of them legitimately linked to the Western military and economic domination of the Middle East for the last 40-50 years, but many internal too – poverty, clan warfare, religious ideological divides, etc. While the West tends to scapegoat a leader (Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden) or a faction (the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh) and use it as pretext for an invasion, angry Eastern militants lack the military power for such tactics, and instead declare war on the West in general and then gruesomely execute individual westerners.

This is where representation comes in. Daesh doesn’t particularly care who they execute, so long as they’re a white westerner, the more prestigious the better. To them, each one of those people is representative of the West, of American military oppression, etc. They are symbolic representatives of their enemies, and therefore symbolic victories. Typically, it is the only type of victory they can achieve against superior military rivals.

For the West, the representation goes the other way: to attack a single person, we invade a nation and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Let that sink in: Daesh kills individuals in order to achieve a type of victory over a massive enemy, while we kill masses of people to achieve victory over individual enemies. (This in no way justifies what Daesh does, but we need to keep our own actions in perspective.)

But with immigration, representation goes the other way for us too. Daesh kills individual white people largely because white people are hard to find in their part of the world – usually only Western soldiers or journalists, perhaps some aid workers. But meanwhile, while we are at war with a foreign group like Daesh who claim to be motivated by Islam, there are millions of Muslims in North America. It is very easy for us to scapegoat those Muslims who live among us for the crimes of Daesh half a world away, and we’ve seen that in an increase in violence against Muslims and vandalism toward mosques in the past year.

So while the fight against Daesh can serve as a scapegoat for all of our internal pressures and politics, relieving the tensions we carry about race and sexuality and other hot-button political issues, the tension we carry about fighting Daesh gets relieved by attacking the individual Muslims or other immigrant outsiders in our own midst. Our scapegoating is now serialized.

This type of serial scapegoating will only increase because of the smaller world created by globalization. Once upon a time, having a common enemy on the other side of the world provided an ongoing release of internal tension by setting up a rivalry that could not be consummated due to the physical distance and sheer cost of doing so – so we could feel free to hate, say, the Chinese, because we would never actually meet them. Once upon a time we could dream about a class revolution, when we would finally get what was ours from the rich bankers and elites who barely knew we existed, but not yet, so we’ll get back to work for now until we have the means to launch that revolution. We could scapegoat without actual violence, because social and physical distances kept us separated from our would-be rivals, and therefore no actual rivalries or violence ensued. Now, it would seem, violence is always available to us, always there to funnel the internal tensions created by our ever-increasing rivalry (which has become the basis for our economic systems), allowing us to drop bombs in Iraq to keep from exploding into civil war or murder at home.

More than ever, we need Christ, who is the anti-scapegoat. Christ not only reveals the innocence of all scapegoats, but also the ignorant participation of all of us in putting them (and him) to death. Girard says that becoming a Christian means acknowledging that you are a persecutor of Christ, recognizing your role in scapegoating, and following Christ in the way of defusing this cycle of rivalry and institutionalized murder. So when someone you know is ranting about Muslim immigrants (or homosexuals, or Mexicans, etc.), first be cognizant of your own status as a participant in the scapegoating and murder of Christ and so many others, and then self-consciously address the scapegoating you see. Like Christ, identify with the scapegoat and absorb that rivalry (and if necessary, that violence) into yourself willingly – not seeking it or stirring it up, but not shrinking from it either, like Christ before Pilate. While representation can lead to scapegoating, it can also undo it if we choose to represent the other, to represent the scapegoat.

Christ is the ultimate imitator, imitating God the Father and asking us to imitate him. This is the ultimate external mimesis, a mimesis without rivalry in which we imitate him who refuses all rivalry. As the conditions for internal mimesis grow, it is more crucial than ever that we imitate Christ, and in so doing, defuse rivalries – starting with our own.

My Journey to Political Theology

I’m back from another brief hiatus. This one was caused by taking on a political campaign for the Green Party in our riding’s recent by-election, which gives me a good opportunity to bring up two of my favourite topics: stewardship of creation, and political theology. You may see these as recurring themes here in the future. Today I’d like to talk about why I’m interested in politics, and maybe later, why I’m interested in Green politics. (I haven’t forgotten about the post on Original Sin – that’ll come eventually!)

My journey toward politics has been a bit of a zig-zag as I follow the ethical implications of my theology (guided largely by the theology and ethical thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). God demanded that human beings act justly and love mercy, and told us how to do that; when we didn’t get the message, Jesus showed us how to do it. At the same time, he painted a picture of what the world would be like if we all did it, and he called it the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom isn’t here in its fullness, but it appears, however briefly, when we gather together in right relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. In short, the Kingdom appears whenever the church acts like the church is called to act.

That said, there are glimpses of the Kingdom outside the walls of our local congregations. The Spirit goes where the Spirit wills, and God has implanted notions of justice and goodness in the hearts of human beings, and there are a lot of people out there who are doing good things. This, too, glorifies God and gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m trying to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven by enforcing Christianity through the state! Far from it: I believe strongly that Christianity is something that must be chosen by individuals (see Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship for an account of that confrontation). I keep referring to the Kingdom because the picture that Jesus paints of it contrasts sharply with our present reality, and acts as a character foil for our social systems and personal choices. It’s the reality that I’m trying to live in, and it makes injustice in the world stand out all the more. It’s what gives me the ability to see that something is wrong, and it’s what calls me to do something about it.

In short, the Kingdom of God has made me an activist. Well, at least a slacktivist.

I say slacktivist because being a true activist involves going out and doing something about society’s ills. I’m much more prone to stay home and blog about it, sign petitions, and even occasionally donate small amounts of money. I feel called to do more because Jesus has given me a glimpse of a better world, but the media has shown me the extent and depth of this world’s dysfunction and distress, and I’m overwhelmed by it. My little acts of kindness and mercy, the outward marks of my discipleship, seem like a drop in the ocean. Perhaps if I could see the church organizing to do something about these issues in a bigger way, I’d be content to have the church be my only political affiliation (and make no mistake, becoming a Christian is a highly political act!); sadly, I don’t see that happening very much. I think that the church has been failing in its divine mandate to hold the other divinely instituted mandates in check (government, work, family – see Bonhoeffer’s discussion in Ethics), and I think that’s partially because Christians from across the political spectrum (with the exception of the far right) have stopped engaging in politics.

This is why I’m getting involved in politics: my discipleship makes me sensitive to injustice and demands action, and I want the action I take to have a far-reaching impact. This doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on small, personal acts of justice and mercy; on the contrary, those little acts of discipleship, and my formation in a community of worship, inform and inspire the action I want to take on a larger scale. But one act of personal kindness can feed one person for one day (or teach them how to feed themselves, as the old adage goes), but one piece of legislation can set up a program to teach a whole nation how to feed itself forever. I don’t think any government has the ability to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven, but we can certainly hold it up as an ideal as we work toward a more just society.

You may still think that I’m somehow trying to enforce my Christian ideals on people – well, all politics is about enforcing some kind of ideals. The trick is, what kind of ideals are we enforcing? People tend to have a problem with faith and politics mixing because, as I said above, religious commitment is a very individual thing that should not be coerced. To put it another way, you can’t enforce morality (at least not effectively, and not in a way that respect’s the Other as other – that is, as a human being who can make their own moral choices). But there’s a whole lot more to Christianity than just a certain morality; in fact, Bonhoeffer once preached that Christianity is distinctly amoral.  So it doesn’t follow that politics inspired by, or even enforcing, Christian ideals or values must actually enforce Christian beliefs or morals.

Besides, providing a moral example is something that the church has, more or less, done fairly well. If anything, the church tends to put too much emphasis on morality, especially in regard to sex (but that’s a post for another day). It was the same in Bonhoeffer’s Germany: in Letters and Papers from Prison he talks about how the church has been reduced to moralism, with nothing relevant to say to society except to dig through people’s drawers and closets in search of secret sin. He argued that our lived morality (that is, ethics) needed to be the primary witness of the church, rather than merely preached morality (moralism). He called this “religionless Christianity,” and it’s still necessary, though it’s not everything the church must be.

Another major way that the church is supposed to impact society (and the other divine mandates) is through its worship of God on behalf of the world; this is the one way that the church in North America is still fulfilling its function. We love to worship! Unfortunately, we tend to have “worship services” that are heavy on worship and light on (or devoid of) actual service. God scolded Israel for this through the mouths of his prophets, saying that their worship without the accompanying acts of justice and mercy was repugnant, wicked, evil. This is the reason he gave for the destruction and exile of Israel.

So here I am, a disciple of Christ and a member of his church. I want to continue to worship God, but for that worship to be genuine it must also involve service to my fellow humans; and for that service to be most effective it requires an organized effort that the church (with notable exceptions such as MCC, Kairos, the EFC, etc.) isn’t really making. Meanwhile, governments are charged with ordering society in a just manner, but often lack the ethical foundations that Christ is actively building into his disciples. This seems like a match made in heaven: someone (like me) who is based in a community focused on ethical formation, self-sacrifice, and social responsibility would be an ideal candidate to serve the function of ordering society justly in an organization (the government) known for its misuse of power and lack of ethical grounding.

Once again, lest you be concerned that a Christian could not function as a representative of all of the people of their political riding, who may or may not share in the Christian faith: the role of politics is to order society justly, not to preach morality. So long as it stays within that function, there is no danger of legislating morality; and even if there were, Christianity need not be moralistic, and may in fact be amoral (as Bonhoeffer suggests). The issues on which the broader population disagrees with Christian ethics are relatively few, and most of them fall outside of the mandate of government anyway, so it’s far from impossible for a Christian who is acting in accord with their faith to represent a non-Christian constituency.

Ultimately, then, I feel that political activity provides the best venue for the ethical, or “religionless”, aspect of my Christianity. Our current society doesn’t tolerate organized Christian groups very well, and much of the church just plain isn’t interested, but we can still fulfill this important function of the church by being the church at the same time as being citizens. These two realms, which we always seem to want to separate, complement one another in our society today, and allow each other to be fulfilled.

This is obviously a big and complex topic, so please leave your questions or comments below!

On the Position and Posture of Politics

Faith and politics is a perennial problem, and one that’s on the minds of many people in Manitoba these days. Bill 18 has brought it to mind, but it’s always been there, taunting us. How should Christians view, or be involved in, politics?

Secularism is a narrow road, and often misunderstood. It was created by Christians (and probably deists) as a way for different denominations of Christians to come together and agree to disagree. It doesn’t actually demand that we stop practising our religions, but only that we limit the ways that we do so for the sake of everyone else. It’s not the worst system, by a long shot, but every now and then it demands more of us than we’re willing to grant it. Its spirit is to lay aside peripheral issues that divide us when we come together so that we can focus on the greater issues that unite us, allowing us to move forward together. But sometimes the demands of the gospel are simply too great to lay them aside or compromise on them under public pressure.

Some Christians hold that we shouldn’t be involved in politics at all; they’re called Christian Anarchists, and their ranks include such greats as Leo Tolstoy and Dorothy Day. Others hold that we shouldn’t get involved any more than we have to, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and then leave him alone. Greg Boyd, a pastor in Minnesota, preached that during an election year and watched a thousand people leave his church. See his book Myth of a Christian Nation for the story, it’s pretty good. On the other hand, many Christians hold that we should be as involved in politics as we can, that it’s our job to ensure that our nation’s laws honour God. Historically, this was called Christendom. That word doesn’t have a very good reputation anymore, but nobody complains when their government stops persecuting them and makes their religion the official, national faith. It’s only really from the perspective of freedom that we can criticize Christian privilege.

I don’t think that there’s a single answer for all Christians on this point. I don’t think that Jesus wants us all to be politicians, or even political; nor do I think that he would stop us from doing so. But while there might not be a clear call for all Christians to be political, there is a clear call for all Canadians to do so. We live in a democracy, which is both a privilege and a responsibility: the decisions we make together affect all of us, and the rest of the world. Whether or not we think that God is commanding us to do so, we have the opportunity to create laws that honour God.

At issue, then, is not whether or not we are Christians; a Christian can be no less. Nor is the issue one of whether or not we are Canadians; we do ourselves and our nation a disservice by being silent in the public square, and we are responsible for one another and to one another. The issue is the extent to which we are willing to lay aside what may be peripheral things for the sake of greater unity, and the extent to which we must insist upon holding a position that our consciences will not allow us to let drop. These are decisions that we all must make for ourselves, and we will all land somewhere on the spectrum between secularism and Christendom. No matter what position we fill on that spectrum, we are not in a position that allows us to judge where anyone else ought to fall on it. But that’s not what this post is about.

There are two things that affect the way that we do politics, whether we’re Christians or not: position, and posture. These two things will dramatically affect both the style of our political engagement, and its character.

Position

Where do we stand in the world? What is our relationship to power? There are two main positions in politics: above and below. At different times and in different contexts, we may be in both positions, perhaps even at the same time.

Politics from above, or top-down politics, is an excellent way to change the world. A few strokes of a policy-maker’s pen can do more than years of grassroots campaigning. Think of government regulations, for example: a grassroots campaign to get people to waste less energy, drive less, turn off lights, take shorter showers, and buy smaller cars, may have little effect even if it runs for years. But one regulation that requires automakers to produce vehicles with better mileage can have tremendous effects on the same issue, without most people even noticing. World Vision campaigns for international aid year-round, but one government program can provide for more food and medical aid than just about any other source. Politics from above can make a difference in the world, and do so quickly.

Of course, politics from above can also enslave people. If you want to make changes and choices on behalf of the people, and you don’t have their support to do so, then you have to control them in order to rule over them. Communism is a great idea, in theory, but in order to work it needs everyone to do their part. When you begin to enforce things on an unwilling population, we call that tyranny. That is, in large part, why we need politics from below.

Politics from below is the grassroots movements, the true democracy, that we in North America value so much. We should. We have unprecedented freedom, in many senses of the word. This is the result of us all coming together and collectively agreeing on a course of action. Inherent to this notion is the implied agreement that the majority shall rule, as well as the implied agreement that we’ll be able to talk things over and try to convince one another. Also implied is that if I can’t convince the majority to agree with me, then I’ll have to be satisfied with what they decide until I manage to sway them to my side. This is a recipe for peace and freedom, provided we have a functioning system of government and people at the top who agree to play by the rules. It also needs a majority that knows what the heck it’s talking about.

Some (cynical) people say that democracy is merely the tyranny of the majority. Certainly, it’s not always great for the minority. Others are frustrated at the slow pace of democratic change: it takes generations to change enough people’s minds about issues to actually change our world, and governments are often deadlocked with the opposition parties.

Ultimately, of course, we need both of these at the same time. Politics, to be effective, must come from above and below. Christianity started as a grass-roots movement, and for the most part it still is, but there was a long period during which it was passed down from above as the official state religion of every Western nation. The latter was a much more effective method of evangelism(!), but meant much less than the genuine choices of people to follow Christ. In our politics, too, Christians will come from both sides: Stephen Harper claims to be a Christian, and Christians may well find themselves called to politics, but far more common is the kind of politics that occurred at Steinbach Christian High School just over a week ago, when 1200 people showed up to pray about Manitoba Bill 18, the Safe and Inclusive Schools amendment. Is one better than another? What kind of position should Christians take?

Posture

Sit up straight. Stand tall. Keep your head up, kid. These references to our physical posture are metaphors for the way we interact with others. These examples of how we carry ourselves speak volume about how we perceive ourselves: confident people have straight backs, push their chests out, and look people in the eye.

Politics uses postural and positional metaphors. Seeing eye to eye, knowing where we stand, standing together, crossing the aisle, etc.

Christians use posture metaphors more than anyone. We sing “we raise our hands, we bow our knees,” even though we rarely actually do either of them; raising our hands is a posture of celebration, while bowing our knees is a posture of humility. We do both of those things before God, at least metaphorically, because we want to be humble and joyful. We open our hands to God to receive from him, and we open our hands to God to give to him. We shake each other’s hands at church and pass the peace, not out of greeting but because the action of doing so opens us up relationally to those around us. Doukhobors bow to each other, bowing to the image and presence of Christ in one another. We bow our heads to pray.

Like position, our posture is in relation to power and people, particularly in politics. If we have it, do we hold it in a closed fist? If we don’t have it, are we grasping for it? Are we treading lightly, or stepping on toes? These postures don’t always amount to one or the other; it might well be possible to charge ahead without stepping on toes, and it’s certainly possible to tread lightly and still crush others underfoot. “Walk softly, and carry a big stick,” as Roosevelt said – but that doesn’t always work either.

In his book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter looks at Christian attempts at social change from the past few decades. He breaks Christian politics down into three different groups: the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. The Christian Right is defensive against the world, which it sees as a corrupting influence on Christian society. The Christian Left speaks out for the world (and defends against the Christian Right), even while it attempts to court the world, even compromise with it for the sake of the other. And Neo-Anabaptists have removed themselves from the world altogether, opting for their own society instead. Ultimately, in spite of their different postures toward the world (people), their posture toward power remains largely the same: grab it, and hold on to it. Remarkably, that’s the opposite of what Christ did.

What was the posture of Christ toward the world?

The Position and Posture of Christ

I hope that the controversy over Bill 18 makes it clear that it’s possible to hold to many different positions and still be a Christian. In fact, there are many Christians who support Bill 18 for exactly the same reason that many Christians oppose it: because they feel that Christ demands a choice from them on the matter. The idea that there are multiple Christian views hasn’t been coming across very strongly so far, but I hope it will. Regardless, my point here is that there can be all sorts of Christian politics, and I’m not trying to convince anyone to my view on Bill 18 here, or any other particular issue. What I want to talk about is the way we do politics: what position and posture should Christians take when we interact with others?

Christ is the ultimate example of power from above: he’s the king of all kings, the lord of lords, creator of the universe. The heavens are his throne, and the earth is his footstool, and all of his enemies are under his feet. Remarkably, this is also the position that Christians hold in the universe: we are co-heirs with Christ, and share fully in his inheritance. When did we forget this? I’ve heard a lot of defensive apologetics (and whining) from Christians lately. We complain that our religious rights are being trampled or done away with. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t just let other people take our rights, but I have two reactions to such complaints: 1) Christians in Canada are among the most privileged people in the world, and even among the most privileged people in Canada; even if we’re losing essential rights (which I’m not sure is really happening), we’re at most being brought down to a common level with others. And much more importantly, 2) do you really believe that the NDP government of Manitoba, or the Liberal government of Ontario, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels or demons or any other power, NDP or Liberals, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nero could not stop Christians from worship, so who’s concerned about Greg Selinger or Nancy Allen? Christians are, and always will be, in the ultimate position of power in the universe, whether or not our regional governments recognize it. We have absolutely nothing to be defensive about, hallelujah!

So our position is, with Christ, from above. But of course, Christ didn’t stay above! He willingly gave up his position, and all of its glory, to become the lowest of the low and start a grassroots movement. Since the beginning of time, God had been ruling from above but gradually giving more and more power to those under him (angels, nations, kings, prophets). Christ took power all the way to the bottom, to the lowest of the low, and in so doing he inverted the pyramid of power. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Christians do not lord it over one another as the pagans do; instead, whoever would be first among you must be the servant of all. Christ, being secure in his position as king of kings and lord of lords, humbled himself to the lowest position, making the lowest position the highest position. That is the position that Christians are to have, not only with one another, but most especially to the world, and not least in politics!

And what of posture? We’ve already seen that Christ did not lord it over others, but made himself a servant – a humble posture if ever there was one! And secure in the knowledge that all power belonged to his Father, Christ did not see power as something to be grasped, but instead emptied himself. Ultimately, his posture is that of cruciformity, the posture of one hanging on a cross. Christ did not defend himself against the world. He turned the other cheek, gave up his shirt when someone sued him for his coat, and walked an extra mile when forced to walk only one. Christ also didn’t cozy up to the world and compromise his teachings for the sake of popularity; rather, in the confidence of his own power, compromised completely with people by forgiving them and seeing past their sins, even while they were killing him. And he definitely did not remove himself from the world; the gospel begins with the amazing fact that he not only came here, but made himself fit in completely, giving up all of his own glory and security to do so.

Marva Dawn’s book Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God speaks very well about the posture of cruciformity. Read it expecting to be humbled.

So what is the position and posture of Christians in politics today? We rule the universe with Christ, from the cross. We hold all of the power, for the purpose of giving it away. Our position as kings is only made apparent when we serve others as slaves. Our dignity and glory comes from our ability to humble ourselves before our enemies. Our rights are secure in heaven, but here in Canada we give them up for the sake of others.

We must never forget that we are crucified with Christ. Can we grasp at power when our hands are nailed to the cross? Can we lord it over others when we are naked and exposed? Can we separate ourselves from the world when we are, in fact, living and dying on their behalf with Christ? Whatever political choices we make, if we express them from the position and posture of Christ – that is, from the cross – we will honour God AND our nation.

Arguments for Gay Rights (from Scripture!)

It’s 3:30am, and my mind has been writing this post all night; I won’t be able to sleep again until I get it out, so here goes.

I watched Milk last night, a fantastic true story about a man named Harvey Milk who became the first openly gay elected official in American history. This didn’t happen until the late 1970’s, and shortly after achieving his political post and making great headway in protecting the civil rights of homosexuals, he was murdered by a fellow San Francisco City Supervisor, along with their mayor. Their murderer was a political opponent of Milk’s, as they voted against each other’s bills, but that doesn’t appear to be the reason he killed them. The official defence (called “the twinkie defence”) was that the man had been eating a lot of junk food, and that this altered his mental state; clearly this is bogus (my wife pointed out that if this was an accepted defence, why didn’t we crack down on junk food?), but he was convicted only of manslaughter and given the lightest possible sentence. The film suggests that the murderer was himself a closeted and repressed homosexual, implying that his repression caused him to do it; he killed himself two years after getting out of prison. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Harvey Milk’s murder was that it didn’t come as a result of his many death threats, but from a coworker who snapped: Milk had expected assassination because of his human rights activism (how very Jesusy of him), but not like this.

Milk’s real political opponents were not just City Supervisors who voted against him in council; there was at that time a movement toward civil rights for homosexuals that was met by a counter-movement of Christian activists who, citing the Bible and God (usually rather vaguely), appealed and overturned many legal protections for homosexuals. A central plot point of the film was Proposition 6, which would have systematically fired any openly gay teachers in the California school system, as well as anyone who supported them. The supposed reason for this was that gay school teachers were “recruiting” children, and teaching them to be gay. I sincerely hope that the arguments were more nuanced than the film portrays them to be, because looking back 35 years later, they’re insultingly illogical and far-fetched.

The biblical arguments portrayed in the film are also fairly shallow, usually limited to “it may not be illegal, but it’s against the law of God” or some variation on a blanket appeal to God or the Bible. The film obviously doesn’t focus on biblical exegesis, but even back then the arguments were more nuanced and thorough than that. Sadly, probably not by much: even today there are some that insist on a certain style of interpretation of scripture that allows them to point to a verse – way out of context – as incontrovertible proof that God hates someone. I’m thinking, of course, of the Westboro Baptist Church, known internationally for their bigotry and terrible reversal of the spirit of scripture.

Now, there are certainly some verses that seem to be a quite straightforward condemnation of homosexual sexuality, particularly in the Old Testament but even a few in the New Testament, but these texts are not the open-and-shut case that they are often claimed to be, and thoughtful and respectful Christians ought to at least hear out the interpreters who argue that they do not apply to homosexuality as we know it today (I find this book to be a good conversation starter in this regard). We also owe it to ourselves, as well as to homosexuals, to think through the matter thoroughly even if in the end we come to quite conservative conclusions (I find this book to be a good example of a thorough approach with a conservative conclusion).

But regardless of where we stand on the issue of whether or not homosexuality itself, or even gay sex, is sinful, we still cannot use that as a reason to deny homosexuals any sort of rights. In fact, I will argue that we cannot in good conscience treat homosexuals any differently than anyone else, even within the Church, and that to do so would be profoundly un-Christian of us. Here are my reasons:

We can’t take the grace of God seriously and still discriminate against homosexuals.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Christians live in a tension: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us; we are now saints; we still sin; we’re still saved. There is an expectation that we will no longer sin, but there is also an acknowledgement that we still do. Arguments against including homosexuals in the Church a) tend to assume that simply being gay is a sin (and is a lifestyle choice rather than something that cannot be chosen or changed), and then b) single it out as a sin that is somehow outside of God’s grace.

The argument for this is usually based on the notion of “cheap grace”: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit,who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming ageand who have fallenaway, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Heb 6:4-6). The idea here is that if Christians continue to sin, they’ve abused God’s grace and will therefore lose it. This might have some traction if homosexuality were strictly a choice, but even if it were only a temptation that some people have (rather than a set sexuality, as most homosexuals today understand it to be), I don’t think this verse would apply (as by that standard, we’d all fall into this camp). Generally, arguments against cheap grace tend to be arguments for no grace – and given the fact that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, I find that hard to swallow.

There are plenty of other verses to support the notion of God’s grace being unconditional, but since it’s a fairly central point of the Christian faith, I’ll leave it here for now.

We can’t take the inclusiveness of the Church seriously and still discriminate against homosexuals.

1. Treating homosexuals differently as a group goes against the unifying nature of the Church. “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This verse points to the three major dividing and classifying factors of first-century life, the three things that made it possible to have an “us vs. them” mentality. There was, of course, still the dichotomy of “saints vs. sinners,” but saints are saints by grace through faith, and if we’re going to kick sinners out of the church then there wouldn’t be anyone left in it. There’s also the dichotomy of “Christians vs. the World,” which is how we tend to treat homosexuals based simply on the fact that we don’t welcome them to church. This is something that we cannot do if we take the inclusiveness of the Church seriously.

2. There is plenty of biblical precedent for including outsiders and sinners in the Church. The most obvious example is the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church, which wasn’t unprecedented (Israel had long included foreigners) but was nevertheless completely revolutionary in its time. What’s amazing is how easily it happened: Gentiles began worshipping God, and God accepted them, as evidenced through his giving them the Holy Spirit (Acts 10-11). The issue was eventually brought up at a council because it was so controversial, but given that God had quite apparently accepted them, the council agreed to as well (Acts 15). The implications of this went well beyond racial barriers, however, because Jews were set apart by their practices as much as their bloodlines; accepting Gentiles into the Church meant effectively throwing out current and traditional notions of religious ethics! They left Gentile Christians with much simpler rules: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” Note that even these commandments are moderated by the following phrase; because God accepted them before even these requirements were set, the council didn’t have much in the way of theological backing for these ethical commandments, and as such they have the moral force of guidelines for good living. Now, even if we were to take these commandments as being God-given, and include homosexuality under “sexual immorality,” all it would take is for one openly gay Christian to exhibit evidence of the Holy Spirit, and thus acceptance by God, to set a similar precedent for the inclusion of homosexuals within the Church on the same basis as the acceptance of Gentiles. Examples are not all that difficult to find. It’s difficult to take God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church seriously if we systematically exclude any other people group.

3. Even those passages in Paul that treat sexual sin very seriously (assuming again that homosexuality is sexual immorality) assume that people who practice sexual sin are within the Church: Paul wasn’t writing to churches to condemn those outside the Church, but to encourage and correct those within it. At the very least, this means that homosexuality (even if it is a sin) should be treated just like any other sin, not singled out.

We can’t take the ethical demands of the Gospel seriously and still discriminate against…anyone.

I don’t want to say that any point of theology isn’t important, but unless you are gay the status of homosexuality as sin is of no practical importance to you. According to Jesus, we’re supposed to treat everyone as if they were Jesus himself: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Or as it was paraphrased in The Message: “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

Jesus showed the radical nature of this not only in his parable of the sheep and the goats at the end of the age (e.g., Matthew 25, which implies quite frankly that salvation is based entirely on how we treat other people rather than on sinlessness or having correct beliefs), but also in the parable of the Good Samaritan:

Luke 10:25-37

New International Version (NIV)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (from Bible Gateway)

We’ve all heard this passage a thousand times, so I’ll try to be brief. The actions of the Samaritan were radical because:

1. The Jew that had been waylaid was technically an enemy of the Samaritan. These are two people groups with a long history of bad blood and battles, not to mention fundamental religious differences. For a Jew to eat a meal with a Samaritan would have probably been enough to make him “unclean,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that feeling was mutual. This is (sadly) somewhat analogous to the relationship between the gay rights movement and some branches of conservative Christianity in the US. The Gospel demands that we go out of our way and spend our money to help those we hate the most.

2. I already mentioned that sharing a meal with a Samaritan would have probably made a Jew “unclean,” and that I wouldn’t be surprised if this notion was reciprocated (I’m no expert on Samaritan religious practices, but I believe it was quite similar to Judaism on many fronts). But more than that, for the Priest and the Levite in the story it would have made them “unclean” to touch a dead body, or probably even to get the poor guy’s blood on them. Being “clean” was a symbol of being guiltless, and so to deliberately do something that would make them unclean was the same thing as taking guilt on themselves – becoming guilty for the sake of someone else. The Gospel demands that we not only spend our time and money on others, but that we even be willing to take on guilt for their sake. This is the type of thinking that got Dietrich Bonhoeffer killed, but he did it because following Jesus Christ demands it.

But how does this relate to the inclusion and rights of homosexuals in the Church today?

I believe that a large reason that many churches today do not accept homosexuals as Christians is because we are afraid of condoning sin. Most of us know a few homosexuals, and have no problem with them as people (this was one of Harvey Milk’s strategies: get as many gay people to come out of the closet as possible so that the average person would realize that they already know some gay people, and that they’re nothing to be afraid of). Most of us have no problem with other people’s sins, so long as they don’t affect us (one argument presented in the film is still common today: “What other people do in their bedrooms is none of my business, as long as I don’t have to do it in mine”), and we tend to recognize that we need to be in a relationship of accountability with someone before pointing out their sin to them can be effective (contra the strategy of the Westboro Baptist Church, who say that they love “fags” more than anyone else because they’re willing to tell them the truth about their behaviour and eternal destination). Most moderate Christians also recognize that allowing for some kind of gay marriage or partnership would be the compassionate thing to do – because enforced celibacy doesn’t tend to lead to healthy people, gay or straight (see: Catholic Priest sex scandals).

But most moderate churches still haven’t done anything about this issue. I’ve been sitting on the fence for a long time, because I haven’t been able to square the texts against homosexuality (I tend to think that the more conservative exegesis fits the texts better) with the compassion and ethic of Christ: law and grace have been at war in me regarding this issue (I don’t mean to imply a dichotomy between the two, but on this issue it has seemed that way to me). Now I realize that I need to be willing to be guilty before God for the sake of others, so that even if homosexuality is inherently sinful, and if this sin is somehow outside of God’s grace, and if as a Christian leader it is my duty to denounce this sin and eject homosexuals from my congregation, the Gospel demands that I be willing to go against all of that for the sake of loving my neighbour. (If you follow the Westboro or Mark Driscoll track and say that it’s more loving to show “tough love,” I respect your position, but do not find it helpful).

So there it is. I don’t want to pretend that I’ve figured out the texts, because I haven’t. In regard to what I have to do as a follower of Jesus Christ, they’re not super important. Even if it were explicitly sinful to allow openly gay people into the Church, to exclude them would (in my mind) go against the teachings and spirit of Jesus Christ, dishonour the grace of God, twist the inclusive nature of the Church, and altogether fail to live up to the demands of the Gospel.

I welcome your thoughts on this!