Thursday, June 28, 2012

Christian Against Universal Healthcare? No Such Thing.

For a much more eloquent and well-researched article on this subject, please see this recent article posted by my friend and New Testament professor, Dr. David May.
"What Would Jesus Do?" is probably the most useful phrase to come out of the contemporary Christian movement of the last several decades. Since first appearing among Christian youth groups in the early 1990s, WWJD? has become almost as ubiquitous as "John 3:16," showing up on billboards, church signs, and the shirtless chests of body-painted, rainbow-wigged sports fans. Now that the Affordable Care Act (pejoratively known as "ObamaCare") has been ruled perfectly legal by the Supreme Court, it seems that we must take WWJD? more seriously than ever: when it comes to government policies which attempt to make healthcare affordable to families that would otherwise have no way of receiving medical treatment, we must either support these policies in any way we can, or we must cease to define ourselves as Christians.
St. Francis comforts a man with a pre-existing condition.

Please bear in mind that what follows is not an arguement from a medical perspective, from a capitalist perspective, from a political/Constitutional perspective, from a legal perspective, or even from an American perspective. The point of this post is not to show you that many other developed (and developing) countries have had universal healthcare plans for years. I argue this strictly from the perspective of a Christian with an ethical obligation to love and serve my brothers and sisters. And you can feel free to disagree with me—but (you will rarely ever hear me say this so matter-of-factly) you'd be wrong. Wrong.

There are few circumstances for which this argument is either called-for or efficacious—but the debate over healthcare is, I think, one of those circumstances. 

Christians who oppose affordable health care do so without a leg to stand on, ethically speaking. Without some extreme hermeneutical gymnastics, it is nearly impossible to answer the question "What would Jesus do?" with "Deny millions of Americans the ability to afford to have their illnesses treated." After all, Jesus was a healer. But perhaps more importantly, Jesus was also an ethicist, and if we are to seriously consider using the Nazarene as a model of ethical Christian behavior, we must consider the implications of some of his  teachings.
  • Matthew 25 tells the parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats, in which the animals are judged according to how they treated the poor, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, and the imprisoned. As they find out later, those who helped the people mentioned above were actually giving aid to Jesus—the implication being that we are to treat the less-fortunate as though they were Christ himself. If we deny affordable healthcare coverage to the types of people mentioned above, we are effectively denying them to Jesus.
  • The very foundation of Christian doctrine lies in the notion of self-sacrifice for the benefit of our neighbors, regardless of the personal cost to us, and regardless of whether or not we believe they deserve it. As he was nailed to the cross and executed by the Romans, Jesus uttered the prayer, "Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing."
  • The fundamental debate over U.S. healthcare reform is in reality directly related with your individual perception of the poorest among us. I have seen families ruined by outrageous and unjust medical bills and lack of access to affordable care. I've seen brothers and sisters that have had to drop out of college to help care for their injured and ill siblings because their family could not afford long-term healthcare and education. But Jesus showed unwavering solidarity with the poor. Jesus said, "Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God belongs to you." Jesus said, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release of captives and recovery of sight to the blind..." Jesus said, "Go, sell what you own, give to the poor, and follow me." Jesus said "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you." It does not matter if you believe that the poor are lazy moochers who are only looking for a handout, the point is they are poor, and Christ commanded his followers to serve them. End of story.
  • And, in case your concern is that the government is telling you what to do with your money, see Luke 20:25 ("Give to Caesar what is Caesar's") and Luke 6:30 ("Give to everyone who asks of you"). Unless you're willing to go all "Peter and John" on a sick person and say, "Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee..." and heal the person then and there, it looks like you're going to have to show your support monetarily.

At this point, it matters little in what form universal health care materializes: whether it is through the government, like the Affordable Care Act, or through a church or other nonprofit organization. The important part is that it becomes the standard by which we can measure the care of our nation for its citizens. As someone who has been a vehement advocate of the egalitarian and peaceful Kingdom of God, I am by no means a fan of government when it gets in the way of personal spiritual liberty and freedom of the soul. BUT: if it is indeed absolutely necessary to have a governing body, should health care not be one of the primary reasons for the existence of such an institution? After all, it states in the Preamble to our United States Constitution that "We the People" established the document to help (among other things) "promote the general welfare" of the public. If we are to continue to call ourselves followers of Jesus we must come to terms with the fact according to his teachings, we have a moral obligation to ensure a higher quality of life for our neighbors. And if we can't bring ourselves to part with our own possessions to accomplish that goal, then we need to stop referring to ourselves as Christians.

What would Jesus do? Most likely, he would stop whining about paying taxes and pursue the cause which seeks to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, regardless of power, politics, and money. So you may argue the finer details of this debate—it is, after all, a much more complicated discussion than what time and space have permitted me to write about here—but in the end, for the Christian, it ultimately falls to the simple decision of whether or not we are loving our neighbors with our actions. If your argument is more about splitting hairs than about showing love, you are wrong. Wrong.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Queering the Church, Part Two: Praxis

In my last post, I discussed how the letters of Paul are not as clear on the issue of homosexuality as many in the Church would prefer—indeed, of the two primary pericopae often utilized by “Christian” heterosexist pastors and theologians, the language is in some places quite murky. In contrast, however, Paul does iterate multiple times the absolute necessity of unity, fellowship, love, and submission to one another in the body of Christ. How then do we illustrate this to our congregations? How can the quickly growing field of biblical scholarship and gender studies begin to turn around such an ambling, socially and culturally stunted behemoth? I suggest that this might best be done by “queering” the Church.
             This term, coined by literary queer theorists and theologians in the 1990s, refers to the reappropriation by a marginalized group of a word or object that was previously used to degrade, demoralize, and dehumanize members of that group. Great theological strides have been made in recent years in “queering the Bible,” that is, reading and studying the Bible from an LGBTQ perspective. In this particular case, “queering the Church” refers to the act of making the Church—an institution whose most recognizable public trait is homophobia—into not only an institution which is unashamed and unafraid of its gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, but an institution which openly embraces them. But the term “queering” has another connotation, as well: the action of setting apart, or “peculiarizing.” This is a notion that has deep roots in the liberation theology of the Exodus: “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger in your midst, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In queering the Church, we should hope not only to become opened to the LGBTQ community, but stand out among our culture as God’s peculiar, inclusive people, for the simple reason that at some point in our long history, we knew what it was like to be despised, persecuted, “queer.” Is this not the greater mission of the body of Christ?
While it should be observed that no persecuted group has ever achieved justice with a magical catchall sermon or speech, I would here like to briefly outline five specific ways in which our congregations and faith communities might begin to push forward in this dialogue.
1. Begin the conversation
People fear what they do not understand. The more an issue can be discussed, however, the closer our brothers and sisters in the church can be moved toward understanding. David L. Tiede spells out the responsibility of church and seminary leaders to their congregations and students: 
Those who believe that the prevailing mores are unjust or oppressive must either garner the authority of the institutions which articulate and maintain the moral standards of the community or they must challenge that authority. Institutions such as seminaries, congregations, and church offices steward their legitimate authority in these matters more by persuasion than coercion. They must listen to the arguments of those who believe the standards are inept for the many or unjust to the few.[1] 
Sometimes the best way to initiate revolutionary change is to be open with our questions, and not be afraid to push back a little against the presumptions of others.
2. Illustrate the inherent misogyny that underlies homophobia.
As mentioned above, when the Bible is appealed to as a source of wisdom worthy of the so-called “problem” of homosexuality, it may be helpful to very carefully frame the issue within the historical context of misogyny in the ancient world. Most (though not all) modern Christians recoil from the accusation of sexism, and upon further discussion it will become evident to our congregations that our heterosexism is actually just thinly veiled sexism. As Martin claims, “The ancient condemnation of the penetrated man was possible only because sexist ideology had already inscribed the inferiority of women into heterosexual sex. To be penetrated was to be inferior because women were inferior.”[2] If we confront our churches and ourselves with the knowledge that our historical hatred of gays and lesbians is less about sin and morality than it is about deep-rooted assumptions about the superiority of men to women, we can then repent and begin to press beyond such social structures.
3. Be your faith community’s Paul.
            The Apostle Paul was perhaps the very first Christian contextual theologian, and we admire him for this. Should we not fulfill the same role for our congregations and faith communities that are struggling to accept gays into the family of God? Paul wrote on Kingdom ethics from a specific cultural and historical context. We should, therefore, also let our culture and historical context influence how we perceive Kingdom ethics today. It makes little sense to attempt to plug Paul’s contextual theology neatly into our own.
4. Value experience.
Our congregations have too long sat in the festering stagnant water of bibliolatry. When experience ceases to inform reason, and when scripture is treated as a god and not as a tool for communing with God, the Church will lose relevance. To prevent this, we must open ourselves to the moving of the Spirit in our lives, not restricting it to the pages of a book. It is criminally myopic for a church to publicly condemn gays without having ever met one. Actual face-to-face encounters with the LGBT community help to connect faces with the growing number of openly gay Christians who are struggling for a place in the Church, and it is hard to hate someone whom you know and love deeply. We simply cannot afford to place the Bible in such high esteem that we alienate and devalue the experience of others. Our churches need to develop a sensitivity to the Biblical text which is not often seen among people absolutely certain of the truth of their perspective, moving forward with fear and trembling.
5. Love.
Above all, we must love. Often, those claiming to be moderates circumvent the issue of
homosexuality by proclaiming that we should “hate the sin, not the sinner.” Unfortunately,
what we have thus far failed to grasp is that hate is the sin, as described by Paul in the
opening verses of Romans 2. It is easy to isolate two verses in 1 Corinthians 6 and read
what we want to hear from them, giving ourselves permission to discriminate and
marginalize by right of Biblical authority. It is a much more difficult task to take in the
entire letter through the pivotal locus of 1 Corinthians 13: unless we infuse our discourse
with openhearted love, we are but clanging cymbals. And now, perhaps more than ever, is
when the public needs to hear the melody of the Church ringing clearly, a song of freedom
and acceptance.

[1] Tiede, 153.
[2] Martin, 48.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Queering the Church: It's About Time (Part One)

Note: This is Part One of my two-part series on homosexuality and the Church. The first part examines supposed references to homosexuality in the letters of Paul; Part Two, which I will post tomorrow, will outline five primary ways to introduce this information to a church congregation.            

For the Evangelical Christian who leans even modestly leftward, it is not a difficult task to hermeneutically bypass Hebrew scripture that appears to condemn homosexual activity. The admonition found in Leviticus 20:13 that anyone found to be engaged in same-sex intercourse should be put to death can be cast in doubt simply by engaging in the process of questioning: In our current cultural context of modern and postmodern American Christianity, who should be deemed worthy by the public to carry out the sentencing of such a crime? Should it be our officers of the law who are to put all homosexuals to death? The absurdity of the question exposes the cultural and contextual gap between ancient Hebrew Yahwism and twenty-first century American globalism, and is often left unconsidered by many who vehemently defend what they call “traditional marriage.” The New Testament Gospels contain virtually no references to homosexuality at all (with the exception of a few queer theological interpretations of extracanonical Gospels[2]), so little can be argued from the authoritative words of Jesus of Nazareth. On this particular issue, he remains peculiarly silent. But what of the letters of Paul? How do we confront the theology of a man whose writings make up more than a quarter of the New Testament with our rapidly shifting knowledge of gender identity and human sexuality? Such is the aim of this study.

In Part One I will address two primary pericopae from the writings of the Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:24-27, and their literary, historical, and social context. In Part Two of this post, I will help to outline a method in which the material of Part One might be disseminated within a congregational or ministerial setting. 
PART ONE: Textual Analysis
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth deals with several important issues with which the early Christians in that city struggled, particularly unity, holiness, love, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and sexual morality. It is the latter with which this section is concerned. Paul was undertaking no small task to preach to the Corinthians about sexual ethic. Of the cultural setting of Corinth, David L. Tiede writes, “Corinth was a town with a reputation for cosmopolitan airs, for bawdy sex in the marketplace, for crafty dealings among the traders at the port…The human meat markets of every age have looked about the same, and every generation has had its high priests of sexual freedom and pornography.”[3] With this context in mind, two words in particular should be given special attention from 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: arsenokoitai (arsenokoitai) and malakoi (malakoi).
            The fluidity of language has a long history of birthing numerous interpretations of the Biblical text, both in ancient times and throughout recent history. Dale B. Martin, in his excellent study of human sexuality and the Church, Sex and the Single Savior, notes that both of these mysterious terms included in Paul’s Corinthian vice list held, until the 19th or 20th century, a distinctly male connotation, with no respect to our modern concept of sexual orientation. The term arsenokoitai, for example, took on new meaning when the Greek noun—which refers solely to men—was translated in the early twentieth century with the generic label of “homosexual,” thereby feeding the growing misconception that both the male and female gay identity stemmed from what was commonly considered to be a mental disorder.[4]
Furthermore, Martin suggests that arsenokoitai (arsenokoiteV) has a much more specific meaning than any generic homosexual activity. This specific meaning might be lost to us, but contextual hints may be found in the Sibylline Oracles (2nd - 5th cent., CE), an ancient Greek text which utilizes the word in a vice list very similar to (yet totally independent of) Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians. However, arsenokoiteV here takes on a distinctly economic meaning, sandwiched between such admonitions as “Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed,” and “Give one who has labored his wage. Do not oppress the poor man.”[5] In addition, two other early Christian texts, The Acts of John (2nd cent.) and Theophilus of Antioch’s To Autolychus, also include arsenokoiteV among economic vice lists.[6] It is possible that by including aresenokoitai among such sexual sinners as adulterers (moicoi) and fornicators (pornoi), Paul is attempting to single out those who are motivated by their own greed toward sexual exploitation. In any case, it should be pointed out that the exact definition of this term has been and will most likely remain a mystery, and that due to this ambiguity, translations will continue to be influenced by the particular ideological milieu or bias of the translator. 
Unlike arsenokoiteV, however, the word malakoV (plural: malakoi) does have a well-documented meaning. Long before Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to his political opponents as “girly-men,” the ancients used the term malakoV to refer to any man with a less-than-masculine demeanor, a physically feminine build, distaste for hard work, or an otherwise milquetoast disposition. Josephus and Plutarch both use the term in their writings to refer to the cowardly.[7] The Greek word is actually the etymological ancestor of the English word malleable, and means, literally, soft. Often translated together with arsenokoitai as “sexual perverts” or “homosexuals,” a much closer understanding of the word might be its original King James English translation, effeminate, which inadvertently takes into consideration the inherent sexism of Paul’s culture. Men were chiseled and virile, but women were weak, both in will and in physical stature. The ancient understanding of the feminine was very much influenced by the coital act—men were aggressive penetrators, while women were to passively allow themselves to be penetrated. Any man who was seen to be “soft” followed the natural order of distinction bestowed specifically upon women, and was therefore weak and cowardly. As Martin concludes, the difficulty with Paul’s use of the term malakoV is not the inherently sinful nature of homosexuality, but instead the “rank misogyny” implied by the term.[8] This concept will be explored further in Part II of this study, which will be posted tomorrow.
Romans 1:24-27
In this text-segment, as in the Corinthian correspondence, context becomes one of the key issues to interpreting the passage. It should first be noted that the overarching theme of the Romans letter involves the complicated interplay of salvation for the Jews and salvation for the Gentiles, and it is through this lens that Romans 1:24-27 must be viewed. Specifically, when Paul speaks of what many today consider to be a theological re-hashing of the Fall of Humanity, he is actually referring to the idolatry of the pre-Christian Gentiles, as is revealed by the preceding paragraphs.
It should not be overlooked or ignored that the primary sin that Paul is speaking against here is not some modern concept of sexual orientation, but the sin of idolatry. The  “exchanging of natural intercourse [Greek: cresin, or use] for unnatural” among men and women is not the sin being committed, but is instead punishment meted out by God for the sin of worshiping false gods! Furthermore, David L. Balch observes that “Paul is not evaluating homosexual ‘relationships,’ a modern value, but judges the psychological state of the person experiencing addictive desire…Paul's terms desire, passion, inflame, appetite, and error suggest that he is critiquing unbridled eros, sexual passion.”[9] Paul, like many other ancient moralists, viewed homosexual activity as “the most extreme expression of heterosexual lust.”[10] This interpretation of the pericope holds that Paul was instead noting the consequences of idolatry; that is, the total abandonment of will to appetite. Indeed, the link between sexual promiscuity and gluttony has been well-explored by recent scholars:
Sexual desire and hunger for food were thought to be analogous. The pleasure or use of sex is to be limited by satisfaction, as a full stomach limits eating. The Greco-Roman question of sexual use does not ask about the gender of the subject or the object, does not ask whether the activity is homo- or heterosexual.[11] 
Women being inflamed with passion for women and men being inflamed with passion for men is not, then, the result of any innate, natural, sexual orientation that causes one to be attracted to a person of the same sex, but is instead the carrying out of a natural sexual drive to its depraved ultimate conclusion.
Finally, it is a tragic irony that those who utilize this very passage as fuel for the fires of judgment against the LGBTQ community apparently (and most unfortunately) read no further than the end of the first chapter of Romans. The very next portion of the letter contains the following admonition:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 
The same Paul who proclaims that the New Age of Christ has arrived, urging Gentiles and 
Jews alike to embrace one another as brothers and sisters, also writes to the Church in 
Galatia that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no 
longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This understanding of God 
as no respecter of persons bears a remarkable resemblance to Peter’s epiphany in Acts 10
as he preaches to Cornelius following his own vision regarding the acceptance of the 
profane: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a 
Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” As long 
as proof-texting is utilized by those perceived to be in power as a tool for marginalization 
and rejection of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, the church 
will never be seen by the oppressed as the catalyst for the New Age of Christ that Paul 
envisioned it to be.

[2] For more on this, see Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone, Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship (Society of Biblical Literature Semeia Studies) (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), particularly Jione Havea‘s chapter, “Lazarus Troubles.”
[3] David L. Tiede, "Will idolaters, sodomizers, or the greedy inherit the kingdom of God : A pastoral exposition of 1 Cor 6:9-10." Word & World 10, no. 2 (March 1, 1990): 152.
[4] Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 39.
[5] Ibid, 40.
[6] Ibid, 41.
[7] Ibid, 45.
[8] Ibid, 47.
[9] Balch, David L. "Romans 1:24-27, Science, and Homosexuality." Currents In Theology And Mission 25, no. 6 (December 1, 1998): p 437.
[10] Victor Paul Furnish, “The Bible and Homosexuality,” in Homosexuality: In Search of a Christian Understanding, ed. by Leon Smith, p 13, quoted by Martin, p 49.
[11] Balch, 437.