Saturday, January 17, 2015

Christian Cliches: "Do Not Deny One Another"

"Do not deny one another" is a misquoted fragment of a passage in 1 Corinthians 7.  Here is the whole passage, from the New American Standard Version, with the words in question in italics:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 1 Corinthians 7:1-8.
This passage is often used to shame marital partners (and particularly women) for refusing sex to their spouse.  He has authority over her body, and though concessions are usually given for her ill health, she is expected to not only consent, but to joyfully desire sex with her husband at all times. Although under this verse the same would apply to the husband, it is usually the wife who is made the primary subject of this teaching.

This Christian website illustrates what I'm talking about.
Paul advocated marriage as a way to avoid sinful sex.
Because this is one motivator for marriage, it becomes ridiculous to enter into marriage and then deny your spouse the very thing that helped drive him or her to marriage. . . Sex is to be exclusively available between a husband and wife to quench their desire for sex. But what sense is it to have a well and then refuse any to drink from it? Hence, Paul stated in I Corinthians 7 that neither the husband or wife have authority over their own bodies. When they married they gave themselves over to each other.
The result is to argue that there can be no such thing as spousal rape.
With the arrival of feminism came the idea that a woman has full control over her body. . . If she doesn't want to have sex, then a husband does not have the right to request sex from her. However, these ideas are in direct contradiction to the plain teachings in I Corinthians 7. It views the husband and wife relationship as independant and perhaps advesarial [sic] instead of a union work toward the benefit of both. . . At the root of feminism is drive to separate husband and wives. . .
The act of marriage includes consent to sex. A husband can abuse his relationship by forcing sex on his wife, and such abuse is sinful, but it should not be labeled "rape." By labeling such abuse "rape," a fundamental view of marriage is changed to state that consent to sex is a moment-by-moment decision that can be granted or denied at the whim of the spouse. Yet the biblical view (and the view held by civil law until recently) is that consent is a part of the marriage relationship. It doesn't come and go at either spouse's whim. "Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (I Corinthians 7:3-4). A husband or wife claiming to withdraw consent to sex during marriage is violating a term of the marriage covenant and, therefore, in sin.
Julie Anne over at Spiritual Sounding Board quotes a similar website:
We believe the teaching on marital rape is a poison in the well of women’s hearts and minds towards their husbands and marriage & does much damage. However, we also do not condone a husband taking his wife against her will and strongly state that a man should not do so. In situations of repeated and enduring refusal, professional help and Matthew 18 need to be worked through & not force to be used. 
We also believe that denying a spouse sex is just as much abuse as forcing sex upon a spouse. [Emphasis added.]
The sad thing about this is how (in a society where power was concentrated in the hands of the man) Paul's careful wording throughout this chapter makes the husband and the wife passages parallel, of equal weight and balance.  Paul said (in a society where marriage was generally required) that followers of Christ were under no obligation to marry. However, if they did marry, each should fulfill their marital duties to one another .  It's interesting to note how, in contrast to our current age where the emphasis would have to be placed on not demanding sex, Paul writes in terms of not withholding sex.  But the whole emphasis of this passage is mutuality and equal consideration.  To use it as a way to bend one spouse to the other's will flies in the face of the teaching as a whole; it is simply opposite to the way it was intended.  And to use it to claim that saying "no" is "just as much abuse" as marital rape is harmful in the extreme.

The fact is that this passage cannot be construed as commanding marital sex, because it explicitly says marital sex is granted as "a concession, not a command."  Jesus had taught that marriage was not a requirement of God's kingdom, and thus, neither was sex:  "[T]here are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it [Matthew 19-12, NIV]." In the 1 Cor. 7 passage, Paul declares himself as one of these when he says "I wish that all men were even as I myself am."  According to Robin Lane Fox (Oxford New College, Ancient History) in his book Pagans and Christians, celibacy became a definitive Christian virtue very early in Christianity's history:
From its very beginnings, Christianity . . . considered an orderly sex life to be a clear second best to no sex life at all. It has been the protector of an endangered Western species: people who remain virgins from birth to death. [p. 355]
This trend continued until Martin Luther and Protestantism reversed it, extolling the virtues of married life, hearth and home and advocating the destruction of monasteries and convents. But the reason Paul emphasized "do not deprive" rather than "do not force" was probably because the tendency in the early church was to resist having marital sex, rather than trying to get it more often! Fox tells us that by the second century after Christ, this concept had grown to the point where sexless marriages, far from the tragedy they are viewed as today, were held up as the virtuous ideal:
[T]he idea of sexless cohabitation was urged, and practiced, by married Christian couples. p. 356. 
Though orthodoxy opposed this extreme and eventually defeated it,[Pagans and Christians, p. 358], the celibacy of Christ Himself must have provided a strong incentive for imitation, and this is probably why Paul (himself celibate) had to write in terms of sex as a marital obligation which should not be shirked, rather than as a marital pleasure which should not be demanded or forced.

Today, however, 1 Corinthians 7:5 often becomes a weapon to shame a married partner (and especially a wife) for saying "no," and 1 Corinthians 7:4 is used to disclaim the existence of marital rape-- as if having "authority" over one another's bodies didn't include the authority to tell your spouse's body, "Stop!"

It's also interesting the way the word translated "deprive" above often gets changed to "deny" when quoted as a cliche.  The Greek word there is "apostereo," which is translated "defraud" in the King James version.  Vines Expository Dictionary defines it as "to rob, despoil, defraud" -- which implies permanently taking something away from someone. The Scripture4All online Interlinear translates it as "depriving," as many translations also do.  The word certainly does appear to mean something much stronger than "Not tonight, honey."

Sheila at To Love, Honor and Vacuum puts it this way:
Deprive is not the same as refuse. I believe many people interpret this verse to mean refuse. Are women obligated to have sex every time a man wants it? Are we ever allowed to refuse?
Well, let’s look more closely at deprive. 
If I were to say to you, “do not deprive your child of good food,” what am I implying? I’m saying that your child should get the food that is commonly recognized for good health: three healthy meals a day, with some snacks. I am not saying that every time your child pulls at your leg and says, “Mommy, can I have a bag of cheetos?” that you have to say yes. You are not depriving your child of good food by refusing a request for Cheetos.
Deprive implies that there is a level of sexual activity that is necessary for a healthy marriage. . .

But it does not mean that it is every single time a person wants sex. 
The fact that the preceding verses in 1 Corinthians 7 say that the husband’s body is the wife’s, and the wife’s body is the husband’s, implies that one person cannot and must not force himself or herself onto the other person. And by force I’m not talking about just physical force. There’s emotional blackmail, there’s shutting down, there’s telling someone, “you’re just not good enough”. . . 
Let’s assume that it’s the wife with the lower libido for a minute (though it certainly isn’t always) and look at it this way: 
If her husband’s body belongs to her, then she has the ability to also say, “I do not want you using your body sexually right now with me.” 
If she feels sick, or is really sad, or is exhausted, then her having ownership of his body also means that she can say, “I just can’t right now” without needing to feel guilty–if she is at the same time not depriving him. 
I believe that the admonition “do not deprive each other” refers to the relationship as a whole, not to each individual moment.
So if, in the relationship as a whole, you are having regular and frequent sex, then if one of you says, “not tonight”, that is not depriving. That is simply refusing for right now. [Emphases in original.]
I would not go so far as this author does, to equate "authority" (Greek word "exousia," meaning, "having rights/power of choice over") with "ownership," but I think the rest of what she says is spot on. It seems to me that to require your spouse to have sex with you any time you want it, regardless of your spouse's feelings on the matter, is the attitude of--let's face it-- a jerk.  Only six chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul sets forth how love is patient, not self-seeking, and how it doesn't dishonor others.  Having sex with someone who really doesn't want to have sex with you, but just gives in because she's not supposed to say no, is not only unloving, it's unhealthy. The Love, Honor and Vacuum blog linked above posted a comment by "Kelly" that says it so well, I'd like to close with it here too:
Yep, some of the comments you read by men on these marriage websites are precisely why Christian women are beginning to advise each other not to risk marrying a Christian man! (I’m not kidding). Look, guys, here’s a quick lesson in the blindingly obvious: there’s no quicker way to make sex unappealing to your wife than by demanding it, regardless of how she feels. No better way of making yourself unattractive and frankly repellent than by sexual coercion. No no effective way of losing your wife’s respect – she wants a real man, not some oaf (because if you can enjoy sex knowing the other person isn’t enjoying it, there’s something very wrong with you). And really, no one past the age of 14 should need telling that. Of COURSE, a sexless marriage has problems that need addressing. Of COURSE you should ask if you want more/different sex to be happy. Of COURSE you can explain to her why sexual rejection hurts. But here’s a little clue (again from the ‘stating the obvious’ files): why do I enjoy nothing more than making love with my husband? Why can I not keep my hands off him? Why am I keen to give him pleasure even if I’m occasionally not in the mood or unable to participate myself? Because, while making it obvious he finds me desirable, he also wouldn’t WANT to have sex with me unless I was an enthusiastic participant. Because he can’t stand the idea of it being a one-way experience.
So if you're one of those who has been on the receiving end of biblical coercion like this-- I hope you'll find a way to let go of the shame and manipulation, and be free.  God never intended the Bible to be used as a set of regulations that turns fun into duty and intimacy into a burden.  If you need sexual counseling in your marriage, I hope you go get some.  If you're a victim of marital rape or abuse, I hope you'll begin to take steps so you don't have to subject yourself to that.

But if you and/or your spouse are just laboring under a heavy burden of "Don't deny one another," placed on you by religious people who don't know you, your marriage or your spouse-- Christ said His yoke is easy and His burden is light.  Lay down that burden and enjoy one another, and the good gifts of God.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Favorite Blog Posts of 2014

I hope everyone had a good Christmas, and I wish you all a wonderful New Year!

In the future I'm going to be posting links to other blogs I enjoy more often than once a year.  But for 2014, these are the blog posts I've saved as my favorites throughout the year.  I hope other readers will find them as profound and compelling as I did.

Trump Verse Hermeneutics  by Ken Schenck at Common Denominator
History has taken away from the American Bible reader the key to success when reading the individual verses of the Bible without contextual training. We have not given them an overall theological compass into which they might fit those individual verses. We have not taught them to see in the individual verses of the Bible the great truths of Scripture. We have not given them the "clear" by which to approach the "unclear" individual verse.
Instead, we have programmed them to come up with a thousand individual truths from a thousand individual verses, ripped from their contexts. We have not given them a dictionary by which to read the individual verses but have programmed them to see each individual verse as an individual truth. Their theologies are a loose collection of direct mandates and atoms to believe.
My Problem with the Bible by Brian Zahnd on his self-named blog.
Every story is told from a vantage point; it has a bias. The bias of the Bible is from the vantage point of the underclass. But what happens if we lose sight of the prophetically subversive vantage point of the Bible? What happens if those on top read themselves into the story, not as imperial Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans, but as the Israelites? That’s when you get the bizarre phenomenon of the elite and entitled using the Bible to endorse their dominance as God’s will. This is Roman Christianity after Constantine. This is Christendom on crusade. This is colonists seeing America as their promised land and the native inhabitants as Canaanites to be conquered. This is the whole history of European colonialism. This is Jim Crow. This is the American prosperity gospel. This is the domestication of Scripture. This is making the Bible dance a jig for our own amusement.
Metaphysical Dilemma Part II by Austin Channing Brown on her self-named blog.
While I appreciate the small steps women conferences are taking to make sure that the line-up isn't all white, it is not uncommon to feel like I need to leave my blackness in the hotel room. It is indeed a metaphysical dilemma. I am both black and woman- both- all the time. Hard as I try, I cannot separate the two. I am sure I will not be able to adequately explain this, but if I cannot be fully black in white spaces, somehow my womanhood is also not fully represented in that same space.

It is not just women conferences where I feel like a metaphysical dilemma. I often feel it at justice themed conferences, too. You may not have noticed, but these conferences have a tendency to be dominated by men. I have found that it is not at all uncommon to find justice conferences perfectly willing to proclaim the equality of potential, value, and role of every human soul before God when talking about color but use an asterisk as a provision to exempt women from that statement.
The Five Stages of White Privilege Awareness by Nance at the Rusty Life blog.
This, here, is the critical juncture. This is the point at which we either keep shouting “not me! not me! not me!” or we admit that even though we may not fully understand it, we are a part of this. We are the dominant race in a country whose kids are choosing white dolls over black ones; whose preschoolers make the black kids play the part of the “bad guys” on the playground; whose black citizens are imprisoned for drug possession at a wildly disproportionate rate compared to their white counterparts; whose white students routinely outnumber Latino and Black students in the gifted programs in our schools despite the fact that science shows giftedness to occur at exactly the same rate across all racial groups. The belief that some races of people are better than others evidently exists at least on some level, although it might be simmering so far beneath the surface for some of us that we are unaware of it.
Does Christianity Really Prefer Charity to Government Welfare? by Elizabeth Stoker at The Week:
  • [T]he notion that the state can play an important role in the best possible exercise of charity has profound roots in the Christian tradition as well. Though the conservatives who mount the case that social needs currently addressed by state programs should be relegated to private charity are often themselves Christian, the Christian ethical case for welfare and private charity co-existing is not often cited. So what is the Christian argument, then, for supporting a compound structure of state welfare programs and private charity when it comes to addressing the stresses of life, which range from poverty to illness and old age? Foremost is the idea that human dignity entitles people to an "existence minimum" which guarantees their basic needs will be reliably met without discrimination based on caprice, race, gender, creed, orientation, or any other marker. . . Another practical Christian consideration ruling in favor of a state-provided existence minimum arises from the troubling power situations created by leaving the necessities of life up to the auspices of private charities — even churches. . . When the wealthy have the power to determine who receives the necessities of life, they tend to reinforce the power structures that led to the entrenchment of their wealth in the first place, rather than to challenge them.
10 Things Real People Do Every Day by Micah J. Murry at Redemption Pictures:
I’m not sure where these mythical “rich successful satisfied extraordinary people” are, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never met one. (Perhaps they’re hanging out with Bigfoot and the unicorns?) 
Meanwhile, I’ve been conducting extensive research (and by “conducting research” I mean “scrolling through Twitter”) and have created a definitive list of what actual non-unicorn people do every day: 
1. Make coffee, then forget to drink it.

Because how can we be expected to remember to drink my first cup of coffee if my caffeine-starved brain can’t function without coffee? But it’s totally ok, twice-microwaved coffee tastes great too, right? (SPOILER: It doesn’t.)
Why I Will Not Leave the Evangelical Church Today by Esther Emery:
I am remembering my instructions.

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
I will not draw a line around the evangelical Christian church. Not as the solely holy saved, but also not as the untouchables. Certainly not as the dead zone in which the failing power of redemptive grace makes change impossible.

This Idaho back country is where I live. And these are my neighbors. This is the religious language of my heritage. And these are the songs I like to sing. I will not leave.

But neither will I be frozen and stuck and let myself feel that I am out of options.
From the Lectionary: An Open Letter to Jesus on this Whole Ascension Business by Rachel Held Evans:
I don’t know, Jesus. I guess I just can’t get over how miraculous and infuriating and profound and ridiculous it is that you trust us, that the God of the universe allows sinners to do His work. It’s quite an unconventional plan. There are days when I’m convinced it’s going to fail.

But we won’t know until we try, right?
So I suppose that on Ascension Day, I best quit standing here staring at the bottoms of your feet, Jesus, and instead get to work—feeding, fellowshipping, healing, teaching, loving, hosting, sharing, breaking bread and pouring wine.

One day at a time.

Ready or not.
A Whisky Priest is Not the Same as a Nazi by Slacktivist:
This is not a matter . . . of fretting over the foibles and peccadilloes of great thinkers. It is, rather, a vitally important matter of identifying the way these men fell into the holes in their own thought so that we can avoid falling into those holes ourselves. We can’t shrug off Yoder’s sexual abuse or Jefferson’s slave-owning as, in Olson’s compartmentalizing phrase, “sides to their personal lives that we cannot be proud of.”
Farewell, Strong Black Woman by Christina Cleveland:
Black women embraced the hard-working, stoic, sacrificial ethic of the StrongBlackWoman and covered up any signs of weakness or vulnerability in order to show the world that black women aren’t immoral, lazy, and selfish. Ultimately, this goal wasn’t achieved as the Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes remain alive and well in the American consciousness today. Meanwhile, the StrongBlackWoman identity, which at first glance seems like a positive identity, has wreaked havoc on black women’s emotional, physical, spiritual and relational health. In an attempt to escape one set of racist/sexist stereotypes, black women have run smack dab into another stereotype, one that is also maintained by societal racism and sexism. The StrongBlackWoman identity continues to ensnare black women like myself, as we work to disprove the racist stereotypes that society simply refuses to relinquish.
Dear White Moms by Keesha Beckford at Huff Post Parents:
Right now my son is a little boy, like yours maybe, or maybe like the one you remember. He's goofy and silly. He loves to do all those stereotypical "boy" things (please don't bring up any gender issues -- you know exactly what I'm talking about). Sometimes he likes to tussle, straddling the line between play and real. Sometimes he can't control his temper. But right now he's like a puppy to most people. He's cute and non-threatening. 
What happens when he's grown up and not so cute and non-threatening? When he's walking through the world alone? No more the floppy-eared, playful youngster -- he's now the feral stray dog, worthy of extermination. 
Can you imagine that? Do you see it?
Insomniac Christians by Benjamin Moberg at Registered Runaway:
Every path we’ve tried to take to get to God has been nothing more than a momentary thrill and then a steep unexpected fall. The prayer doesn’t feel the same when we feel anxious or sad. The books feel foreign when we need the answer now. The isolation sets in and we end up just collapsing in it, waiting and waiting and waiting for some formula of our youth to be complete and for us to feel held again. When we don’t, we think we’ve lost Him. We think we have to win him back. We think we’ll spend all our days hustling after him, trying to get him to look our way, to give us the precious good of his Love. And maybe it’s because somewhere along the line, we understood that love of God is a fragile kind, a fickle easily frustrated kind.

This is the lie of religion. This is what keeps us up, groggy and grumpy, this is what extinguishes the light of our lives. We can’t let go of the control on our belovedness.
My "Enlightened" Christian Friends by Doug Bursch at Fairly Spiritual:
I agree with you up until the point you abandon me; the point where your theology becomes more pristine and mine more antiquated. I’m inspired by your words until they turn against me and accuse me of close-mindedness. I close my heart to you when your enlightenment labels my sacred convictions as ignorance, darkness and immaturity. I don’t want to close my heart, but I can’t help it…I can’t help but feel as if I’ve been betrayed by a friend. Once again, I’m not relevant enough to sit at the cool kids’ table. 
You promote the absence of certainty as a virtue. Often I agree; I agree with your rebuke of angry fundamentalism and the rigid systematizing of faith and God. I often agree with you; I sit at the table and interject my affirmations. You let me talk when I agree, you smile when I agree, you agree with me when I agree. 
But you are so certain of the absence of certainty....My attempt to defend my contrasting truth will simply codify your conviction of my immaturity and closed-mindedness.
Cute Little Black Boys Do Grow Up to Be Black Men - And Now They Are 10 by Heather Johnson-McCormick on the Never a Dull Moment blog:
But the world doesn’t see them as I do. No matter how perfectly they present themselves, no matter how spectacular they are, they will be disproportionately extremely LESS SAFE than if they were white. Kyle and Owen’s stellar reputations and hard-earned achievements and family-privilege will not necessarily get them as far as they choose or could go. Because the world might just choose for them and against them — in ways that would simply not occur if they were white. That is what it means to be entangled in structural, entrenched, historic, and systemic racism. No amount of privilege — or charm, or charisma, or pure raw talent — can protect them from the fact that they are black boys.
And finally this holiday piece: Jesus was Born in Bethlehem, NOT Rome: Choosing to Lose the War on Christmas by Kurt Willems on the Pangea Blog:
If we sell a Jesus who demands to be the center of popular culture, then we fail to remember that Christ came to us from Bethlehem, not Rome. Had Christ wanted to fight the culture wars he would have positioned himself in the center of the “pagan” world, the capital of the Roman Empire. 
Instead, he didn’t demand the central place in culture, but humbly “emptied himself” (Phil. 2). Or as the Message puts it: “When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!”

Jesus reminds us that donating our lives from the margins of culture is where we will most effectively make and impact for the upside-down kingdom of God. The moment we try to “sell Christmas” to culture, or rather, coerce Christmas (our holy version of Christ-Mass) back into the center of public discourse, we’ve failed to model our witness after Christ.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Raised by Strangers"

It's a mantra that I've heard repeated many times, especially in Christian circles.  "A good mother stays home full-time.  Don't let your children be raised by strangers!"

"Raised by strangers."  What mom would want that for her kids?  So I believed, as a young Christian married woman, that of course God would provide a way for me to not work outside the home.  After all, staying home with my kids full-time was what I wanted as a young mother, right?  I mean, if I were really following God's will for my life, this was what I should want.  And this was obviously what was best both for me and for my children, right?  I mean, if God designed it that way, then that's how it should work best!

The problem was that the only way we could have given up my income while simultaneously incurring the costs of infant care was by going on welfare, which (we were taught) was also totally a no-no for good Christians.  We had to choose, it seemed, between being out of God's will one way, or being out of God's will another way.  What was being demanded of us was actually impossible.

So I went back to work after maternity leave-- as part-time as we could afford, but I did go back to work. And I thought God had let me down, because He was supposed to provide so that I wouldn't have to work outside the home.  I also felt guilty because I really liked my job as a legal assistant, which meant, apparently, that I didn't love my kids enough to really want to stay home with them full time.

But working part-time seemed like the best thing to do in our situation.  So that's what we did.

I increased my hours gradually as the children grew up. And I'm very grateful to my boss for being so family-friendly. A lot of women don't have the options he gave me.

It ended up working out just fine for our kids-- and for us, their parents.

I'm not going to cite a bunch of statistics here, or sociological studies or expert opinions on children being in daycare.  Frankly, when I researched this on the Internet, I found that the whole thing is very complicated.  For every study or expert supporting one position, there's another expert or study supporting the opposite.  Practically speaking, the outcomes for children depend not so much on whether or not they're in non-parental child care, but on the quality of the care, the income and education of the family, and the quality of the parenting the kids receive when they're not in day care.

There is one thing I am certain of, though.  There's such a thing as prejudicial language, which is defined as "loaded or emotive terms used to attach value or moral goodness [or badness] to believing the proposition."  And if ever a phrase constituted prejudicial language, "raised by strangers" is such a phrase.

My children weren't "raised by strangers."  I mean, let's look at this practically.  Even with both parents working full time (which wasn't true in our house anyway until the kids reached school age), a child still is at home a lot.  There was breakfast time, dinner time, chore time, playtime, bath time, bedtime. And weekends. And holidays.  And sick days, when the day cares said, "Not in here. You have to keep your kid home."  Some parents risk losing paid hours, or even their jobs, in that situation!  I could only be grateful my boss was supportive and that I had plenty of paid sick leave and vacation time.

Also, guess what-- once you meet a person who is going to take care of your children, you begin to develop a relationship based around the commonality of that child, and she isn't a stranger anymore! I found it was important to me that the children be in home-based day care rather than classroom-type day care, so that's what I picked (and I was privileged to have this option-- a lot of women don't, so we need to cut them some slack!)  What I didn't have was any relative, any grandmother or aunt, who lived in the area and could watch the kids.  But the children grew to love their caregivers as they would a grandmother or aunt.  Did the lack of blood ties really matter?  Both children were happy and secure in their daycare settings, looked forward to going, and enjoyed coming home to be with me as well.

So why are we as Christians putting such burdens and laying such guilt trips on parents who are doing the best they can?

The Bible, in fact, never addresses how much time a mother is supposed to be home with her children.  The Proverbs 31 woman, who is held up so often as the example Christian women should strive to follow, apparently spent quite a bit of time away from home and family, doing things like buying fields, planting vineyards, and selling linen garments to merchants.

It's also important to remember that today's nuclear family was simply not what Paul had in mind when he talked about parenting in the New Testament, because such a thing didn't exist. I mean, of course there was such a thing as a mother, father and children, but they generally were just part of a larger household, and the majority of people were actually slaves. Almost everyone lived in household units that also functioned as economic units, with one older patriarch as ruler of the family, his slaves, wife and children (adult sons, with their wives, and minor children) who were all expected to obey him. Most mothers didn't and couldn't take care of their children full time. The patriarch's wife would spend most of her time managing the household and the servants. Slave women worked in the fields or took care of their mistress's children, presumably leaving their own young children to be cared for by older family members who were past the age of harder work.

This idea that a child can only grow up healthy if her mom is there 24-7 is really a fairly modern invention-- and even now is an option only available to fairly well-off families.  Most women throughout history have not been able to be full-time mothers.  Most women today are not able to be full-time mothers.  In fact, many women (like myself, I discovered, when I was honest with myself) end up discovering they're not suited for or happy staying home full time.

What if God didn't design all women alike?  What if "raised by strangers" is really just rhetoric being used to shame women into staying in a traditional role?

What I say is, no two families are alike, and we all need to just do the best we can given who we are and our situations, and not place burdens on ourselves or each other that are too difficult to bear.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Taxation is Theft?

The first time I came across this idea, I was reading Left, Right & Christ (Russell Media, 2011), in which a Christian Republican and a Christian Democrat each took chapters to address the pressing political issues of our time. The Christian Republican, D. C. Innes, stated on pages 75-76: “The Christian moral objection to the welfare state is . . . that it violates the eighth commandment [thou shalt not steal]. . . Thieves come in different forms. . . [T]he government’s power to secure property is also the power to take it away. When a mob uses government to pillage its more propertied neighbors, we call it progressive taxation, or redistribution of wealth. Sometimes we call it fairness. But it is theft all the same.”

Taxation as theft.  The government as robber, as thief-- as a criminal.  Strong language, to be sure. And apparently there are more and more Christians who think this way, who identify themselves as libertarian and claim that Christianity essentially teaches the same.  Notice how Innes' quote above identifies this mindset as "the Christian moral objection" to taxes.  Innes appears to limit his objection to taxes that support social programs and "the welfare state," but many proponents of this position appear to believe that any taxation whatsoever is a moral, even a criminal, wrong.

Here's the standard argument, quoted from Godfather Politics:
Taxation involves force. If you don’t pay up, you will be fined, have your assets levied, or imprisoned. If taxation means taking someone’s property and giving it to other people, how is this not a moral issue? The Eighth Commandment is quite clear: “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15). There is no “except by majority vote.”
According to this viewpoint, then, "theft" is to be defined in an all-inclusive sense: that there are virtually never any instances in which it is legitimate for a person to be required to give up some of his or her money.

I do wonder how far those who promote this idea are willing to take it. Is it "stealing" if the government forces a parent to pay child support for his or her child? Is a traffic fine "stealing"? What about charging a fee to reimburse a government agency for its costs in giving driving tests?

Perhaps it's ok with these Christians to require payment in these circumstances.  After all, libertarians do believe people should be held responsible for their own actions and should pay for what they get, right?

But the problem I'm having is this.  Other than direct fees for specific services, taxes are how governments function.  To make a blanket statement that all taxation is theft is essentially to render all government illegitimate: it's saying government really ought not to exist at all.

And that means that police officers, fire fighters, judges, lawmakers, all would have to be for-profit, private organizations.*  If the police came to your house to catch a thief, they'd have to charge you a fee.  If you couldn't pay, they wouldn't come to your house next time.  Maybe some people, out of the goodness of their hearts, would choose to help others by paying more than just what it costs to protect their own property-- but would it be enough to protect everyone?

And what about roads and bridges? We all benefit from them. Even those without driver's licenses go to the grocery store and buy food delivered across those roads and bridges. If we made road maintenance taxes voluntary, what would happen?  Would all the roads continue to be maintained, or only those with enough traffic that private owners could make a profit charging tolls?  What would happen if you couldn't afford to pay someone to maintain the road to your own house?

Is a world with no government really what we want?  And since this is the implication of the "taxation is theft" mindset, what is it that makes this anti-government stance so very Christian?

The New Testament never treats taxation as theft, but as the legitimate "due" of government:
For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is duecustom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:6-7, NASB, emphasis added.)
In Matthew 7:24-27, tax collectors ask Peter whether Jesus pays the temple tax.  When Peter asks Jesus, Jesus acknowledges that the "kings of the earth" collect taxes, and says nothing whatsoever to contradict their right to do so.  He only indicates that, since this tax is for the Temple, he (as the Son of the God whose Temple it is, presumably) should be exempt--but then he agrees to pay it anyway.

In my three-part blog post on "The Bible and Human Authority," (which can be read herehere and here, I note that the Bible in general treats human governments as necessary, and that God's plan for the earth includes them.  Though many passages appear to support limitation of human governmental power, the attitude that government should not exist at all, or that taxation in and of itself, absent any abuses, is evil or criminal, is simply absent from the Scriptures.

As I said earlier, some versions of this viewpoint don't consider taxation itself to be theft, but only taxation which redistributes resources from the haves to the have-nots.  In Left, Right and Christ, D.C. Innes declares that the Bible limits the role of government to one thing: “The task of government is simple and limited: punish those who do evil and praise those who do good. . . God appoints government for our benefit, but it is not to provide every good. It is only to prevent bad conduct with creditable threat and punish it. . . .” (pages 58-60).  However, as I explained in an earlier post, the verses Innes uses to support this claim were never intended to give a comprehensive theory of government; they do not, expressly or implicitly, limit government to only the functions those passages highlight.

Certain passages instead seem actually to support required redistribution of wealth as a form of equitable justice. As I said in the same post:
[W]e can glean certain basic principles from the Law regarding how a civil society should govern the treatment of one another. God, working with the people of that time and place, simply did not promote economy liberty over basic equity and fair-dealing. In economic dealings, as in other areas of life, the Law restrained the people from fully exercising their liberty, recognizing that the natural human bent towards selfishness and greed needed to be curbed.
The gleaning law in Leviticus 23:22 amounted to a tax on all landowners of a portion of their income, for the benefit of the poor. The Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:13 amounted to a redistribution of wealth every 50 years, so that each family could return to its own land and possessions—and so that the concentration of all the nation’s wealth in the hands of a few could never take place. One of the most foundational principles of the Bible is that all of humanity is sinful, and therefore cannot be trusted to simply do the right thing as long as you leave it alone. The Law included certain regulatory provisions to make sure that everyone in the society did the duty of the society to the poor among them. Though free-will giving was encouraged, it was not left up to free will alone.
One argument I recently heard raised against this was that it was ok for God to take people's money away from them, because He's God and it all belongs to Him anyway-- but it's wrong for human governments to do any such thing!  However, these passages are not about God requiring money to be given to Him, but to be given to the poor or to those who had lost their ancestral land through financial hardships.  These passages really don't say, "I'm God and all your resources came from Me, so I want you to give some of it back to Me."  There are passages in the Law pertaining to religious offerings that do exactly that-- but that's not what these passages are about.  These passages are about achieving a more equitable society through required redistribution of wealth.

Of course, in our various modern Western societies, most taxation is not even something imposed by "the kings of the earth" upon us as helpless subjects.  Democratic representative government means that our elected officials are sent by us to create tax codes on our behalf, and if we don't like what they're doing, we can protest, we can write or call them, or we can vote against them. Representative government means the government is us, not a monarch or an emperor.  If we through our elected representatives decide on certain taxes, then the requirement to pay is our own requirement, imposed on ourselves as a people.  Taxation with representation has always been an underlying principle of American concepts of freedom. Taxation with representation is not stealing, but a decision by the people, for the people, to pool our money and use it for the common good.

It's true that there will always be those who don't agree with laws passed by our elected officials, but we don't expect to be released from other laws just because we don't agree with them or didn't vote for the representative who helped pass them.  We don't equate other laws with criminal activity just because we are required to obey them.  We don't say, "the officials who installed that stop sign are thugs, forcing me to stop when I don't want to."

Steve Kangas, a Christian liberal, is living proof that "taxation is theft" is certainly not the Christian position on this issue.  He says:
Taxes are part of a social contract, an agreement between voters and government to exchange money for the government's goods and services. . . Arguments like "taxation is theft" are . . . the equivalent of saying "Everything I make is by my own effort" -- a patently false statement in an interdependent, specialized economy where the free market is supported by public goods and services.
Kangas also points out:
No one truly makes 100 percent of his money by himself. Individuals depend on a wide array of government services to support the very free market in which they earn their money. Without these supports, there would be no free market in the first place.
He then gives a long list of social supports and physical infrastructure provided by government that enables citizens to prosper and make wealth.   It hardly seems to me to be a definitively Christian viewpoint that looks on each individual as a sort of island, independent of the community structures that are largely responsible for our financial well-being.

Even many libertarians object to the "taxation is theft" mantra.  Washington DC writer and policy analyst Julian Sanchez, who is himself a libertarian, says:
[A]lmost nobody residing in any actually-existing state can justify their present holdings by reference to an appropriately untainted provenance running back to the State of Nature. 
Serious theorists tend to acknowledge this at least in passing, but it’s one of those elephants in the room. . . If there’s a libertarian theorist who’s grappled with this at the length it merits, I haven’t seen it. I would love to be able to point to a few serious book-length efforts, but the Year Zero approach that just takes current holdings as given and proposes Entitlement Theory Starting Tomorrow have always struck me as the sort of ad hoccery that makes caricatures of libertarianism as an elaborate rationalization for privilege more plausible than they ought to be. So an independent reason to shy away from “taxation is theft” as a slogan is that it can be interpreted as an unreflective endorsement of distributional patterns riddled with profound historical injustices.
As a middle-class white American, the assets I came into the world having (because my parents had them and used them to support me) had a lot to do with exclusionary practices that kept other, non-white, non-middle class people from being able to acquire what I took for granted.  My father went to college on the GI Bill, but if he had had black skin, the GI Bill would not have helped him no matter how long he served in the military.  He also bought land and built a house using a Veterans Housing loan that a person of color could not obtain.

My own ability to earn wealth, similarly, only partially came from my own merit or my own efforts-- a lot of it came from opportunities afforded me due to my social and economic status.  Other opportunities have eluded me at least partly because I am female in a society where women still bear the greatest burden of the care of the young, and where jobs traditionally held by women pay less than jobs traditionally held by men.

So when those who benefit most from these inequitable systems claim some absolute moral right to hold onto what they have, they are ignoring the fact that some people were to all intents and purposes denied a chance to even try for those things.  This article from By Their Strange Fruit details some of the built-in advantages of being white that we did not earn, that have resulted in our simply having more to call our own.  In what sense is this just?

The active undoing of unfairly weighted systems is not injustice, even if it may seem for a time to be "unjust" to the group in power. But when something starts off out of balance, you have to balance it by throwing weight on the other side.  Taxation for programs to help right old wrongs is hardly theft. What it amounts to instead is restitution.
Another libertarian, Loren Lomasky, protests the "taxation is theft" mantra in terms of the radical nature of its criminalizing language:
[I]f it is then taken in its straightforward sense, that pronouncement denies the legitimacy of the social order and announces that I regard myself as authorized unilaterally to override its dictates as I would the depredations of a thief. It says to my neighbors that I regard them as, if not themselves thieves, then confederates or willing accomplices to thievery. Is it pusillanimous to suggest that declaring war, even cold war, against the other 99 percent of the population is imprudent? [Emphasis added.]
Words like "taxation is theft," as Lomasky points out, are "fightin' words."  To say this is to set yourself against the social order, to declare yourself a rebel against the system.  As Christians, is this what we should be fighting against?  To declare our governments illegitimate and criminal-- to fight to hold onto our own stuff against all comers-- neither of these seem like particularly worthy Christian endeavors to my mind.

Taxation is not theft.  And we're not helping anybody when we say it is.

*I don't mention the armed forces because most of the time Christians concede to them, at least, as being an exception.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

About Halloween. . . .

I'll always remember the Halloweens when I was a kid.  Mom decorated the house with cutout witches and bats made with stencils and black or orange construction paper.  We would start planning our costumes, and what faces to put on our pumpkins, weeks in advance.

We lived high in the Rocky Mountains, and the houses in our little community were few and far between.  Every year one of the mothers would volunteer to drive all the kids (there were around ten of us) around to all the houses (about 20 of them). Usually it would be very cold, and often it would be snowing.  Everyone knew everyone else, and at every house we'd be invited in and asked to take off our coats to show off our costumes.  At some houses we'd be offered cocoa.  Often the treats would be homemade popcorn balls or caramel apples.

When I was a little older there was a scare about some people putting razor blades in Halloween treats.  We knew no one in our own neighborhood would do that, but it was a weird thought. According to Snopes there have been a few documented cases of this actually happening, but it's always been very rare.  We didn't worry too much about it.

The real problem with Halloween arose when I became a Christian in the early 1980s.  Committed Christians, I learned, didn't celebrate Halloween-- not if they were truly serious about Christ.  Halloween was an evil, Satanic holiday, a glorification of the occult.  The Christian group I was with in college generally had a prayer meeting on Halloween. With locked doors and lights low to discourage trick-or-treaters, we prayed fervently for God to prevent the devil and his demons from doing any real harm that night. Gullible people, we were told, by celebrating Halloween had "opened a door" in the spiritual realms for demonic forces to dominate during the holiday.  So we did "spiritual warfare" by praying against the powers of darkness, and drew a sigh of relief each year when it was all over.

By the time I had kids (the mid-1990s), attitudes were loosening up a little in our Christian circle. It was conceded that ordinary people who celebrated Halloween were not demonically influenced. The best thing to do was to either use the opportunity to spread the gospel to trick-or-treaters, or to hold our own alternative celebrations. These, instead of focusing on scary things, were designed to thank God for the harvest.  Harvest parties were organized at county fairgrounds and other locations, where church volunteers would lead a variety of games for youngsters.  The kids were even allowed to wear costumes-- as long as they didn't dress up as ghosts, witches, devils, vampires or other occult creatures.

It was nice that things had changed so that our kids didn't have to feel they were missing out. Harvest parties were certainly more entertaining than prayer meetings! I was glad we no longer had to hide in darkened rooms while our neighbors were out enjoying themselves. But I had to admit what the kids suspected-- that the harvest parties just weren't as fun as trick-or-treating.

The year our younger child was two, we gave up on harvest parties and went back to really celebrating Halloween.  It was a pleasure and a relief.  The new church we had recently begun attending, though it helped sponsor the local Christian harvest party every year, believed in letting its members make their own decisions about these things.  This was in fact one of the main reasons we had begun attending!

So the kids began trick-or-treating, both downtown at the local businesses during the afternoon and around the neighborhood in the evening.  They came home with a lot of candy, and we dumped it all out on the carpet and sorted and counted it with them.  We passed out candy to the trick-or-treaters who came to our door and didn't give them any religious tracts.  We relaxed and enjoyed the fun of creepy things, of scary things that never caused real fear because they weren't real.  And I began, finally, to begin to understand Halloween.

Not that my earlier Christian view of Halloween has died out. Sites like Born Again Christian Info still promote the idea that this is an evil, occult celebration that no real Christian would have anything to do with:
It is plain from its roots that Halloween has nothing to do with Christianity, but is simply Satan worship, derived from Babylonian practices. Christians should only ever get involved for one reason: to denounce, expose and destroy it by proclaiming Christ's Victory over all the works of the Devil. . . those who dare to indulge in the occult will not go to heaven. . . You may not be serious, but Satan is. You are being deceived and sucked down a slippery slope. . .  Ignore these warnings and you will lose your children to Satan.
The website cites a number of scriptures against witchcraft and divination.  It cites the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain as a form of sun-worship similar to ancient Babylonian practices, and traces Halloween back to these early pagan rituals.

I understand the religious devotion that gives rise to this viewpoint; after all, I once subscribed to it myself!  But I cannot sanction the practice of listing a set of proof-texts and claiming that they support the one and only clear Christian position on something like Halloween, implying that anyone who disagrees is simply being stupid and rebellious against God.  The modern celebration of Halloween really doesn't include any divination or witchcraft.  It has nothing to do with sun-worship; in fact, it's not about worship at all.

The LiveScience website offers a more objective and accurate overview of the origins of Halloween:
Because ancient records are sparse and fragmentary, the exact nature of Samhain is not fully understood, but it was an annual communal meeting at the end of the harvest year, a time to gather resources for the winter months and bring animals back from the pastures. . . 
[A]ccording to Nicholas Rogers, a history professor at York University in Toronto and author of "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night" (Oxford University Press, 2003), "there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship.

"According to the ancient sagas, Samhain was the time when tribal peoples paid tribute to their conquerors and when the sidh [ancient mounds] might reveal the magnificent palaces of the gods of the underworld," Rogers wrote. Samhain was less about death or evil than about the changing of seasons and preparing for the dormancy (and rebirth) of nature as summer turned to winter, he said. . . 
Some evangelical Christians have expressed concern that Halloween is somehow satanic because of its roots in pagan ritual. However, ancient Celts did not worship anything resembling the Christian devil and had no concept of it. In fact, the Samhain festival had long since vanished by the time the Catholic Church began persecuting witches in its search for satanic cabals.
In any event, the rejection of Halloween by Christians is a fairly recent development.  This archived 2009 post by the late Michael Spencer, the "Internet Monk" laments the change which occurred in the late 1970s and early '80s:
From the late sixties into the early seventies, the churches I attended and worked for–all fundamentalist Baptists– were all over Halloween like ants on jam. It was a major social activity time in every youth group I was part of from elementary school through high school graduation in 1974. 
We had haunted houses. Haunted hikes. Scary movies. (All the old Vincent Price duds.) As a youth minister in the mid to late seventies and early eighties, I created some haunted houses in church education buildings that would win stagecraft awards. 
The kids loved it. The parents loved it. The pastors approved. The church paid for it! . . .
It was fun. Simple, old-fashioned, fun. No one tried to fly a broom or talk to the dead. Everyone tried to have fun. Innocent play in the name of an American custom. 
And then, things changed. 
Mike Warnke convinced evangelicals that participating in Halloween was worshiping the devil. Later, when we learned that Warnke may have been one of the most skillful of evangelical con-artists, lying about his entire Satanic high priest schtick, the faithful still believed his stories.  
Evangelical media began to latch onto Halloween as some form of Satanism or witchcraft, and good Christians were warned that nothing made the other team happier than all those kids going door to door collecting M&Ms. 
Evangelical parents decided that their own harmless and fun Halloween experiences were a fluke, and if their kid dressed up as a vampire, he’d probably try to become one. If there was a pumpkin on the porch, you were inviting demons into your home, just like it says in Hezekiah.
Speaking of Mike Warnke, the website Swallowing the Camel, a fact-checking site similar to Snopes (if a bit snarkier), has archived research on the roots of the whole evangelical Halloween scare.  It's the story of Doreen Irvine, who published an autobiography in 1972:
She was the first of many born again Christians who claimed to be ex-witches and/or ex-Satanists, among them women who claimed to have been high priestesses in destructive Satanic cults, so her testimony provided a sort of blueprint.
Irvine's story of Satanism and Satanic ritual abuse was later determined to be false.  But by far the most popular of such claimants was Mike Warnke.  As a young Christian I listened to Warnke's record albums and read excerpts of his books in which, from his purported expertise as a Satanist high priest of the inner Illuminati, he denounced Halloween as the Satanist high holiday.  It turns out that he was actually capitalizing on Christian enthusiasm for stories like this in order to catapult himself to fame and fortune.

Quite frankly, the stories were lurid and shocking and utterly fascinating.  They showed us that we were not just ordinary people, but heroes in a larger-than-life romanticist saga of good and evil.  We wanted to believe these stories.  And so we did, until in the late 1980s Cornerstone Magazine launched an investigation into the claims of Warnke and others, and discovered that the known facts about their lives utterly contradicted their claims.  Warnke never was a Satanist high priest, but was an ordinary, clean-cut Christian college student during the years he was supposed to have been participating in Satanic ritual abuse.

Discovery of the falsehood of these stories put a real damper on evangelical enthusiasm for them, and probably contributed strongly to the loosening up of taboos that replaced those fearful prayer meetings with harvest festivals that were simply Halloween lite, complete with (friendly-faced) carved pumpkins, costumes and candy.  Evangelical thinktank Christian Research Institute's examination of the 1980's Satanism scare concludes:
There is still no substantial, compelling evidence that SRA [Satanic ritual abuse] stories and conspiracy theories are true. Alternate hypotheses more reasonably explain the social, professional, and personal dynamics reflected in this contemporary satanic panic. The tragedy of broken families, traumatized children, and emotionally incapacitated adults provoked by SRA charges is needless and destructive. Careful investigation of the stories, the alleged victims, and the proponents has given us every reason to reject the satanic conspiracy model in favor of an interpretation consistent with reason and truth.
So what is Halloween really about?

The LiveScience website cited above offers this insight, based on the research of folklorist John Santino:
Halloween provides a safe way to play with the concept of death. . . People dress up as the living dead, and fake gravestones adorn front lawns — activities that wouldn't be tolerated at other times of the year.
Facing our fears by laughing at them or playing with safe versions of them is a very human thing to do, and it seems to be a healthy coping mechanism.  Our English idiom "whistling in the dark" encapsulates the concept, which takes other forms such as jokes about death and dying. The 1970s dark comedic television series M.A.S.H., about a group of field doctors during the Korean War who use humor to deal with daily carnage and chaos, is another prime example.

John Santino was interviewed on the TheoFantastique blog in October 2007, and he shared these further insights:
The study of ritual, festival, and celebration offers concepts for understanding large public events such as Halloween. The idea that there are certain periods when the everyday rules are meant to be broken is one. Also, the idea that during times of transition (in the life cycle or seasonal), all bets are off–the dead can mingle with the living; children are allowed to demand treats from adults, people dress in special costumes; things are turned upside-down and inside-out. These ideas help us to see Halloween for its importance. It is a time when we face our taboos (death being a major one) and playfully accept them as part of life.
I understand people’s objection to Halloween insofar as they believe strongly in the existence of a literal Devil who is engaged in an effort to steal our souls. But I was raised in a religious atmosphere where that simply was not a problem with the celebration. I tend to view it as a healthy occasion for the parading and confronting of aspects of life — symbolically — that we usually pretend don’t exist. Also, Halloween is tied closely to harvest imagery, and I think the lesson is that, as the natural world faces death as a part of ongoing life, so must we. Halloween is many things. It allows us to mock our fears, and to celebrate life. There is room for parody and topical satire in the costumes and displays. But it also deals with deeply important issues involving life and death, nature and culture.
I would go one step further than Santino and say that even Christians who believe Satan is a real being, need not have a problem with this holiday.  Halloween is not about worshiping Satan, and it isn't about glorifying or celebrating evil.  Halloween is about facing our fears through the joint vehicles of pretend and partying.  It's about recognizing that while we live on this earth we are part of the cycles of this earth, and that "seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease (Gen. 8:22)."  To celebrate the harvest is also to accept the dying of the year. Halloween is about both. Christ has taken the sting of death; why not let Halloween help take some of its still-remaining fear?

And I like how Santino points out the way this holiday upends our rules and usual patterns.  The kingdom of God is like that too: the child is the first to enter, the greatest shall be the servant, we save our lives by losing them.  Halloween is the day when we open our doors to whoever knocks and give of our substance to "the least of these" who is standing there with an open bag.  Isn't this a picture of the kingdom?  Why, then, shouldn't we let it teach us its simple lesson?

So this year we'll carve pumpkins again, and we'll pass out candy, and we may even watch a scary old movie about the Wolfman or Frankenstein.  And we will have fun.

I hope you will have some fun too.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Three Years of Blogging

I began this blog on September 27, 2011, with a post called Twelve Good Things I Learned from Being in a Coercive Religious Group.  I have tried to post consistently at least once a week since then (except at Christmas time), and this is my 169th post!

Here are a few things I've learned from my experience of blogging so far:

1.  It's really gratifying to have so many people read something I've written, without having to try to get a publisher!

2.  It's even more gratifying when I can feel that what I've written has helped someone in some way. I started this blog with the purpose of spreading comfort and good news to people (especially my fellow Christians) who have felt constrained, shamed or coerced by religious teachings which don't seem to be the "truth that sets free" that Jesus and Paul both talked about.  (And, incidentally, to just flap my metaphorical gums about whatever interests me, which I love to do too!)

3.  Blogging is like what I've read about newspaper writing:  the blog becomes a beast that has to be fed regularly.  Therefore you constantly surf the blogosphere to see who's talking about something interesting, and you rack your brains for ideas whenever you don't have anything in mind that you particularly want to say that week.

4.  After three years-- well, this starts to get burdensome.  You start a blog to express yourself, and it's fun, but then when your 169th Friday rolls around and you realize that you don't even want to write that week, you start to think about this not actually being a job . . . .

5.  And when you work full time and have kids, there's only so much time you get to take for yourself.  I discovered that writing a blog means I don't have time or energy for other kinds of writing.  And about a year ago, I found a way out of the corner I'd written myself into in the young-adult fantasy novel I'd been working on for years-- but I haven't been able to pick the thing back up again and finish it.

So this blog today is an explanation of why I'm not going to feed the beast every week anymore.  I plan instead to just write whenever I have something I really want to talk about.  This will probably be at least once a month (not counting Christmas time), so if you're subscribing to me, please don't unsubscribe!   And sometimes I'll probably simply post links to other people who are saying things I think are well worth reading.

I've built up a good body of work (see my Topic Index) about walking free of coercive, authoritarian and/or legalistic religious teachings.  I hope people will continue to find those helpful.

To my readers: thanks so much for subscribing, for reading, and for commenting!  You have been more valuable and helpful to me than you know.  Please do stick around; you'll be hearing from me soon!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Forgotten Women in Church History: Antoinette Brown

Oberlin College Archives
Antoinette Brown (1825-1921) is best known as the first American woman ordained to the ministry (in 1853).  However, although some mainline Protestant denominations in the United States remember her (the United Church of Christ regularly honors outstanding women in ministry with the Antoinette Brown Awards), as an evangelical Christian I had never heard of her.* After all, churches that are opposed to women pastors are hardly likely to celebrate the first woman who became one!

Her story, though, like those of other women I have commemorated in this "Forgotten Women" series, shows a woman of great intelligence, leadership ability and devotion; and it's hard not to wonder, if God really never intended women to be pastors, why He made a woman like Antoinette Brown.

According to American National Biography Online, Brown was:
born in Henrietta, New York, the daughter of Joseph Brown, a farmer and justice of the peace, and Abigail Morse. Antoinette proved a precocious child, following her older siblings to school at the age of three. The preaching of evangelist Charles Grandison Finney in nearby Rochester during the Second Great Awakening deeply affected the family, and before she reached her ninth birthday, Antoinette Brown joined the Congregational church. The associated reform movements of the era--antislavery, temperance, and moral reform--also drew support from the Browns, who upheld the educational aspirations of both their sons and daughters. Antoinette attended local schools and the Monroe Academy before becoming a teacher in 1841.
Brown then enrolled in the only college at the time which would admit women: Oberlin College in Ohio.  It was there that she met Lucy Stone, the now-famous Abolitionist and Suffragette.  The two women became lifelong friends, and in time, sisters-in-law as well-- each marrying one of the Blackwell brothers whose sisters Elizabeth Blackwell and Emily Blackwell became the first and second woman medical doctors in America.  Brown felt called into ministry and Stone desired a lecturing circuit-- but as women at the time were expected to stay out of the public sphere, the college refused to train them in rhetoric or debate.  Stone and Brown therefore formed their own women's debating society:
The young men had to hold debates as part of their work in rhetoric, and the young women were required to be present, for an hour and a half every week, in order to help form an audience for the boys, but were not allowed to take part. Lucy was intending to lecture and Antoinette [Brown Blackwell] to preach. Both wished for practice in public speaking. They asked Professor Thome, the head of that department, to let them debate. He was a man of liberal views -- a Southerner who had freed his slaves -- and he consented. Tradition says that the debate was exceptionally brilliant. More persons than usual came in to listen, attracted by curiosity. But the Ladies' Board immediately got busy, St. Paul was invoked, and the college authorities forbade any repetition of the experiment. 
A few of the young women, led by Lucy, organized the first debating society ever formed among college girls. At first they held their meetings secretly in the woods, with sentinels on the watch to give warming of intruders. When the weather grew colder, Lucy asked an old colored woman who owned a small house, the mother of one of her colored pupils, to let them have the use of her parlor.
Though Oberlin College was willing to give Brown the kind of education it thought suitable for a woman, its response to her desire to study theology was less accommodating.  As Distinguished Women of Past and Present puts it:
Oberlin was the first coeducational school to grant college degrees to women and to accept students of all races. Women, however, were expected to clean rooms, wash clothes and serve food for the male students. . .  In 1847 Brown finished the literary course taken by most women. She encountered serious objections from the faculty when she then decided to study theology. They did not think it an appropriate field of study for a woman. However, the school charter decreed that no student could be excluded on the basis of sex, so Brown prevailed and finished the theological course in 1850. The Oberlin College faculty, however, refused to award her a college degree and she did not receive a license to preach. The degree was eventually awarded to her twenty-eight years later.
After college Brown began to accept invitations to speak against slavery and on women's rights. Her work in support of women's rights and her attendance at the first National Women's Rights Convention caused her to lose a position she had obtained lecturing to raise funds for charitable work. She then became an independent lecturer, attracting the notice of Horace Greeley, the Abolitionist New York newspaper editor.  He offered to support Brown's preaching ministry in New York City, but instead she accepted an invitation from a Congregational church in rural New York state to become its licensed minister.  She was ordained on September 15, 1853.

Attending the 1853 World's Temperance Convention, Brown became what American National Biography Online calls "the center of controversy" because of being an ordained minister.  She was shouted off the speaking platform by her fellow delegates.  About a year later she cited theological differences with the Congregationalists (mostly over eternal damnation and predestination) and left her pulpit, eventually becoming a Unitarian.

Back in New York City, Brown began ministering in the slums and prisons, contributing pieces to Horace Greeley's New York Tribune on the plight of the poor, and also writing her first book.  In 1856 she married Samuel Blackwell.  While raising five daughters, she continued her writing career, publishing on a variety of different topics, including egalitarian marriage (a very novel concept!).

According to the German website "FemBio":
The couple consciously tried to live out a model of equality within their marriage: “We will be governed very much by circumstances and what seems best as the years go by, but I think, Sam we can be self sovereigns, we can bend everything within and without to our wills, and our wills to our intellects.” A businessman, Samuel shared household chores and childcare, and Antoinette continued to lecture after having given birth to seven children. The couple raised five daughters to adulthood, two of whom became medical doctors, another an artist.
After her husband's death in 1901, Brown returned to ministry, this time as a Unitarian in New Jersey, where she remained until her death at the age of 96.

I believe Antoinette Brown Blackwell should be an inspiration to all women who seek ordination and/or pastoral ministry, or who believe in full equality in Christian marriage.**  Even though 150 years ago it was much harder than it still is today, she showed that a woman in church leadership and in egalitarian marriage could succeed in both her church and her home.

The then-rampant opposition to a woman simply learning theology or speaking in public would be disagreed with now even by most complementarians.  It's important to question whether, if those issues ultimately were judged as being without scriptural support, how much of the opposition to women as pastors or as full partners in their homes, is based on tradition more than on careful reading of scripture.

I might also point out that attempts to prevent  Antoinette Brown from becoming a minister ultimately failed.  The words of Rabbi Gamaliel about the new Christian sect in Acts 5:38-39 should perhaps be taken note of here:
Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.
Or, in this case, "leave these women alone."   Perhaps its time for the church to stop fighting against women's equality, and leave it in God's hands.

As Gamaliel said, if it is of human origin, it will fail.

But if not. . . .

*I never heard of her, that is, until reading Daughters of the Church by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld.  Her story appears on pages 279-281.

**Some might claim that Antoinette Brown Blackwell's move into Unitarianism, reflecting as it does a departure from Christian orthodoxy, disqualifies her as an example for Christian women or as evidence for women's ordination or egalitarian marriage.  However, no one would ever claim that a man becoming a Unitarian proves that men should not be ministers or leaders in their homes.  And in the early 1900s Unitarians were still a Christian sect, if an unorthodox one.  We don't have to agree with everything Brown came to believe, to honor her integrity and her contributions to American religion.  As she herself said“One thing is certain. I am not afraid to act as my conscience dictates, no matter what the world may think ….”