Saturday, July 28, 2012

What About Birth Control?

Most of Protestant Christianity has taken a laissez faire attitude towards birth control in modern times, giving individuals freedom of conscience to decide for themselves whether or not to use it.  But in recent years, movements like "Quiverfull" have begun to preach decisively against birth control.  They say that the Bible says we are to receive as many children as God blesses us with, and that birth control is against His plan.  Using a question-and-answer format, I'm going to take a close look at the Scriptures they use, and also at the whole of the Bible, to see if their restrictions on freedom of conscience in this area actually hold up.

I'll start with the passage on children being a blessing, Psalm 127:3.

Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them; they shall not be ashamed, but shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

Children are indeed a blessing from God!  This is not the real question, however.  The question is, does the Bible teach that if we just let nature take its course, the amount of children we will have will be God’s plan for us?

Look at the curse that comes upon Eve after the Fall, in Genesis 3:16: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. . .”

The King James Version here brings out very well what the original language actually said. A Hebrew interlinear, which gives a direct, word-for-word translation, reads this way: “I am increasing grief of you and pregnancy of you; in grief shall you give birth.” (Emphasis added.) There are actually two different Hebrew words translated “grief” in this verse (“sorrow” in the King James). They are synonyms, both meaning “labor, hardship, painful toil.” The first of these words is also used of Adam in Gen. 3:17-18, where God says to him, “in sorrow [painful toil] shalt thou eat of it [the ground] all the days of thy life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.” God is telling the couple that the result of their sin is hardship, labor and toil.

The words to Eve in Gen 3:16 comprise a Hebrew poetic structure in which the whole of the phrase, “multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” refers to the whole process of childbearing, from conception to birth. It is not just talking about “pain in childbirth,” as many other translations say. The hardship and painful toil includes the whole process. This would include everything that is difficult or goes wrong for women in pregnancy, from conception to childbirth. It would include pain in labor, certainly; but it also includes miscarriage, stillbirth, difficulty in conception, and even, naturally, the "multiplication" of conceptions themselves-- the ability of the woman’s body to conceive more frequently than is safe or healthy for her, sometimes before she has even recovered from the last pregnancy.

The writers of the Old Testament recognized children as a blessing—but they also recognized all of the different hardships of childbearing (and of course, these are different for different women). “Multiply thy sorrows and thy conception” can mean pain and hardship in conception is increased, but it can also mean that conceptions themselves are increased. The fact that some women cannot conceive is part of the curse. But the fact that some women’s bodies can conceive more often than they can bear in safety and health, is also shown in the Bible to be a result of the curse; it was not God’s original plan.

But Christ came to bring justification to us from the sin that brought death and sorrow to humanity (Romans 5:12). And even before Christ came– through the ages, in fact– men have invented tools to help them deal with the toils and sorrows of tilling the ground. There is no passage in the Bible that says God, in His mercy, ever forbade men to use those tools. Neither does the Bible say God has forbidden women to decrease the toils and sorrows of their particular struggles with conception and childbirth. God does not forbid women to decrease their pain in childbirth through the tools of medication. Neither does God forbid women to decrease their conceptions through the tools of birth control.

Q:  But there was no birth control in Bible times except for coitus interruptus, and in Genesis 38:9-10, God struck Onan dead for “spilling his seed on the ground.“ This must have been about Onan’s crime of birth control ~ since the penalty for simply not giving your brother’s widow a child was only public humiliation, according to Deuteronomy 25:7.

Actually, there were many other kinds of birth control used in Bible times. The Ebers Papyrus of Egypt, which dates from 1500 BC, lists a number of barrier methods. Here is a translation of one of them: “To make a woman not become pregnant for one year, two years or three years, acacia leaves are ground fine with honey, lint is moistened therewith and placed in her vulva.”  Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible places the Hebrews’ time in Egypt (between Joseph and Moses) from 1700-1300 BC. It is impossible, given the Israelites’ presence in Egypt during the same period that the Ebers Papyrus was written, that the Israelites could have been completely unfamiliar with the methods set forth in this papyrus. And yet the Bible says nothing whatsoever about any of these Egyptian remedies. The only time a method of birth control is mentioned is the story of Onan. I'd like to take closer look at that story.

And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord, wherefore he slew him also. Genesis 38:8-10

The context of this passage is Onan’s unwillingness to fulfill his duty in that culture to his brother’s widow. Onan married his brother’s widow and “went in unto“ her as a husband to a wife– but then emitted on the ground, “lest that he should give seed to his brother. This is sometimes compared with Deuteronomy 25:7, where the consequences of refusing to take a brother’s widow as wife are not death, but only public shame. But the situation in Deuteronomy 25 involves only refusing to marry the widow. What Onan did was much worse. He went ahead and married her, but then selfishly refused to raise a child that would be considered legally his brother’s and not his own. It wasn’t that he didn’t want children; it’s that he wanted children only for his own profit! But the woman could not marry anyone else. His act consigned her to childlessness whether she liked it or not. And it was a great deception for Onan to pretend to do his duty to his brother outwardly, but then to go back on it in the privacy of the home. It was not for simple birth control that Omar was judged by God. It was for fraud, greed, deception and covenant-breaking. The birth control was the means by which the crime was committed. The birth control itself was not the crime.

Since this is the only place in the Bible that a method of birth control is even mentioned, and since the Bible is silent about all other then-known methods of birth control– how can we say that the Bible, implicitly or expressly, forbids birth control? The vast majority of details about individual life and choices are neither commanded nor forbidden by the Bible. God permits people to decide where to live, what kind of houses to build, what to do for a living– there are no commands, explicit or implicit, forbidding these choices. Where the Bible makes no command regarding an issue of personal choice, then to take a certain position, insist it is God’s will, and expect everyone else to follow, is unfairly adding to the Scriptures and curtailing others’ freedom in Christ. (Romans 14:2-4, Galatians 5:1.)

Q:  But Psalm 127:3 still says children are a blessing! Even if we don’t have to have more than our bodies can safely bear, shouldn’t we seek to bear as many as we safely can? Isn’t the use of birth control for any other reason than the woman’s health, willfully rejecting the blessing of God and therefore choosing instead the curse of barrenness?

If “A” is a blessing, it does not necessarily follow that “Not A” is not a blessing. The apostle Paul makes it clear that choosing not to marry or have children is a lifestyle blessed by God just as much as marriage is. “I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I.” I Corinthians 7:7-8. Paul’s use of the word “widows” here makes it clear that by “men” he means not just males, but both sexes. It is a gift of God for both men and women to remain unmarried and childless, as he was. This too is a blessing from God, for “the unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit.” I Corinthians 7:34.

Also, if something is a blessing, it does not follow that an unlimited amount of that something is an unlimited blessing. The Bible says nothing like this– and it is contrary to plain logic. In Genesis 13:6, it tells of how Abraham and Lot were blessed of God with wealth, including sheep and cattle– but when “their substance was great” to the point where the land could not support all their flocks and herds, they were forced to separate from one another. Clearly the sheep and cattle were not an unlimited blessing, when they became too numerous for the land to support them.

We must also ask ourselves: are we being good stewards of the resources God has given us, when we have more children than we can financially support? Is it loving to the children we already have, to keep having more, beyond the point where we can give adequate attention to them all? Romans 8:14 says that those who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God. Rather than laying down a law for ourselves about never preventing conception by any means, perhaps we should prayerfully seek to be led by the Spirit as to when we should conceive, and when we shouldn’t. After all, Paul counseled in I Corinthians 7:26 that in times of distress, it is better not to make major changes in our lives. It is not always God’s best to have more, and more, and more children.

Q:  But doesn’t Malachi 2:15 say that the primary purpose for which the Lord created the institution of marriage was to “seek a godly seed”?

Here's Malachi 2:15 in its immediate context.

Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god. . . And this ye have done again, covering the altar of the Lord with weeping, and with crying out, inso much that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand. Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously; yet she is thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Malachi 2:11-15.

The context in Malachi 2:15 is about how the men of Judah, upon returning to the Promised Land following exile in Babylon, abandoned their wives in order to marry younger women from the peoples who lived in the Promised Land, who served idols. The passage makes two main points: 1) they were being treacherous to their wives: “She is thy companion and the wife of thy covenant,” and 2) they were profaning the holiness of the Lord by marrying “the daughter of a strange god.”

This passage is not about the primary purpose of marriage, but about the sins of covenant-breaking and idolatry. But if a “primary purpose” of marriage applies at all here, it is stated to be “companionship.” The original wives of the men of Judah are spoken of as companions to their husbands– not as mothers of their children. The Lord views this covenant made with a woman, for companionship, to be just as holy and binding as any other covenant.

As for “a godly seed,” the emphasis here is on “godly,” not on “seed.” God made men and women of Judah one in marriage so that their seed might be godly– as opposed to the seed that might come from marriage to a “daughter of a strange god,” who might choose to serve the idols of their mother’s people.

Q:  But modern birth control methods are dangerous and can be abortifacient! And natural family planning isn’t very effective. Besides, the Bible says it is God Who opens and closes the womb. Shouldn’t we trust Him with our family planning and not take matters into our own hands?

Modern birth control methods are actually pretty safe when used with a doctor's advice.  It is my understanding there is no actual medical support for the idea that hormonal birth control is abortifacient.  But even if it were, there are non-hormonal methods that work very well instead. The diaphragm, for instance, is a barrier method that has been around for decades, is safe and effective when used carefully, and is completely non-hormonal.  A woman's doctor can help her find the type of birth control that is safest for her and that she feels most comfortable with.

And as for God opening and closing the womb, there are only a few Bible texts that speak of this. Genesis 20:18 says that God “closed the wombs” of all the women in Abimilek’s household because Abimilek had taken Abraham’s wife Sarah (thinking she was his sister). Then in verse 20, Abraham prays to God, and God heals them so that they can conceive again. Genesis 29:31 and Genesis 30:22 refer to God opening the wombs of women who had previously been barren (Leah and Rachel). Afterwards they both had more than one child. The text does not say God had to reopen their wombs each time. Finally, 1 Sam 1:5-6 says that God had closed Hannah’s womb, but when she prayed, God “remembered” her and she conceived (verse 19). Later the text says God “visited” Hannah so that she had three more sons and two daughters (1 Samuel 2:21).

Reading these texts together, they do not indicate at all that God opens every woman’s womb each time she conceives, or that He closes every woman’s womb every time she does not conceive. These texts are not about normal female fertility at all. Instead they speak specifically of barrenness and God’s specific acts to cause or heal barrenness at certain times, in certain women, for reasons unique to each situation. The human writers of the Bible texts knew, as we know today, that conception occurs after sexual intercourse and is based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. As with many other physical laws of our world, God set it up to work this way.

One other verse speaks of God giving conception to a woman: Ruth 4:13, in which God causes Ruth to conceive Obed, the source of David’s line of kings. This verse is speaking about a specific birth to a specific woman for a specific purpose in God’s plan. Again, Bible simply doesn’t say that God directly acts to give conception to every woman who conceives, or directly acts to stop conception in every woman who does not conceive.

As I said, there are many things in our world that God designed to work on their own. In Matthew 4:6-7, when Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, the devil suggested that Jesus cast Himself down from the top of the temple, trusting in God to send angels to bear Him up. Jesus answered, “It is written, thou shalt not tempt [test] the Lord thy God.” Jesus knew that the Father had set up the world so that gravity would cause anyone who threw himself off the temple to die. It was set up that way, and it was going to work that way unless God directly stepped in. It was wrong, Jesus said, to force God to do a miracle.

In the same way God has set up normal female fertility so that a woman’s ovaries will release an egg to be fertilized once a month. If a fertile woman has sexual intercourse with a fertile man during a period when an egg is in her fallopian tubes, she is going to conceive. It’s not unlike the game of “Russian Roulette.” In Russian Roulette, two people will put a bullet into one chamber of a six-shooter gun, and then take turns to point the gun at their own heads and pull the trigger. If the bullet is in the right chamber when the trigger is pulled, that gun is going to go off. If you play Russian Roulette and want to live, you are certainly “tempting God”!

Having sexual intercourse without birth control is not “trusting God.” It’s more like playing Russian Roulette. If the egg is in the right place at the right time, conception will occur. For it not to occur, God would have to do a miracle. Jesus said it’s wrong to force God into doing a miracle. Tempting God is not trusting God. If you’re in a position where a pregnancy would be a hardship and a sorrow (though this isn’t to say you wouldn’t welcome the child if it came!), you don’t have to play Russian Roulette with your womb every month.

As I said before, trusting God actually means being led by the Spirit of God. Romans 8:14-16. God wants us to pray to Him for guidance on when it’s a good time to have a child, and when it’s not—just as we would with any other major decision in our lives.

So to people involved in Christian movements like Quiverfull, I would say this.  Children were precious in the Old Covenant, but in the New Covenant, Christ shows them to be so much more than simply “arrows” for their fathers. In Matthew 19:14 He makes it plain that He loves and calls children to places in His kingdom as individuals in their own right. So if we already have children, few or many, God desires that we should care for them and love them with all our hearts (Matthew 18:1-6). But if we are feeling under pressure from other Christians to have even more– Galatians 5:1 says, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” 

Parenting is a high calling, but no one has the right to add to Scripture and claim there is only one way to serve God– not for men, and not for women either. It is being “a new creature” that matters, says Galatians 6:15, not how many– or even whether– you have children.  Each Christian couple should be free in their own consciences to decide together when-- and whether-- to have children.

For more information see:

Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible, Lion Publishing.
Ancient Inventions, Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Random House, 1994.

Household: Family and Household in Ancient Israel, by Michael Kruse:

The Scripture-4-All Online Interlinear Hebrew Bible:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Message of God's Kingdom: Foundational Equality

Luke 3:4-6 tells of how the ministry of Jesus began with the appearance of John the Baptist, preaching a message from Isaiah 40:4:

A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God’s salvation.'

This passage speaks in terms of land, roads and paths as a metaphor for God's salvation. God will fill up the low places and bring down the high places, straighten the crooked and smooth the rough. It envisions the coming God's salvation (the coming of the Messiah which John was proclaiming) in terms of a great leveling. Applying the metaphor to humanity, then:  the message is that human differences in status, one higher and one lower, will no longer matter. Paul speaks of the same sort of thing in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29: "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him."

And this isn't just about everyone being the same in what we call "spiritual salvation" -- being saved by grace through faith. Joel prophesied this in Joel 2:28-29 (which Peter then preached in Acts 2:16-21 as having been fulfilled):

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Not just in salvation, but in the pouring out of the Spirit, God promises to bless all His people.  "There is no favoritism with God," says Ephesians 6:9 (which, as Retha over at Biblical Personhood so beautifully points out, is the concluding sentence of Paul's household codes in Ephesians, showing us that Paul was teaching his readers how to work within a human system of favoritism, not God's).

In the Old Covenant, God set aside one people, then one family out of one tribe of those people for priesthood, and another family out of another tribe of those people for kingship.  But now we are in the New Covenant.  Members of every tribe and language and people and nation are made into "a kingdom and priests to serve our God."  Revelation 5:9-10.  Peter said in Acts 10:34, after God had poured out His Spirit on Gentiles, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right."

Paul states this as a foundational truth of the Kingdom of God in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17: "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view [other translations say, "according to the flesh"].  Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.  The old is gone, the new is here!"  Paul tells the Galatians that he "opposed [Peter] to his face. . . for before certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles. . . ." (Galatians 2:11-12).  Peter was regarding both the Gentiles and himself from a worldly point of view, or according to the flesh.

But Paul explains later in the same letter, "So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise. . . . [W]hen the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship."  Galatians 3:28-4:5  A footnote in my Bible adds, "The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a legal term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture."  Paul is saying that all who are in Christ Jesus-- Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female-- have received the same promise of the adoption to sonship.  No one who has faith in Christ has any lesser legal standing, powers or privileges than anyone else. 

This is why Paul counsels the believers in Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves." Jesus had taught in Matthew 18:2-4, Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:7 that everyone who wants to enter the Kingdom of God must do it as a little child.  Little children had no status, powers or privileges in that day, so Jesus' words amounted to a statement that we all must lay down our earthly status, powers and privileges in order to enter the new creation Kingdom.

The essence of the Kingdom message is this:  "Stop looking at yourself in terms of status, or lack thereof.  Stop regarding others in terms of their power or position.  Stop expecting to be treated with respect based on your status in the world, and learn to treat all others with respect-- regardless of their status in the world." Paul made it especially clear that he understood this when he refused to have followers who said, "I am of Paul," stating that those who insisted on distinguishing leaders or having jealousy of place or position were "mere infants" and "still worldly."  This idea is so pervasive throughout the entire New Testament that it must be regarded as one of its foundational teachings.

But many Christians believe that God, universally and timelessly, has chosen men to have leadership authority in the church and home, and women to be followers under that authority.   Some even consider it an essential tenet of Christianity that men are meant to lead and women are meant to follow-- so much so that they question whether those who disagree are truly committed to biblical Christianity.  They base this doctrine on a few short texts: 1 Timothy 2:12-15, 1 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-23, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:4-5 and 1 Peter 3:1-6.  They believe these seven texts create an exception to the Kingdom message of no favoritism: that in this one area, we are to view certain believers according to the flesh.   They say that Galatians 3:28 refers only to spiritual salvation.  They say that Joel 2:28-29 and Acts 2:16-21 restrict the outpouring of the Spirit to only what is mentioned in those verses: prophecy, visions and dreams.  They say that God does not and will not pour out any spiritual leadership gifts upon women, except so that they may lead other women.

Apparently the idea is that though we must become as little children to enter the Kingdom, the Kingdom itself then confers upon men, based on their maleness alone, new powers, privileges and status that women cannot have.

What we tend to forget is that we're in a completely different situation than the original readers of the New Testament.  We live in a society where men no longer are considered to have primacy and power, and where women are no longer relegated to the home and children.   It's easy, therefore, to read these verses as if they were against the mutuality of our culture: as if they were counter-cultural statements about God's divine plan for the Kingdom-- statements that place male authority firmly within the Kingdom, to be held against all modern cultural changes.

But how would these passages read if you had always lived in a society where women were required to be not just submissive, but obedient to their husbands?  Where freeborn little boys grew up knowing they would one day become masters of their homes, wives, children and slaves?  Where women were not only forbidden to teach (except in the temples of their goddesses), but viewed as less than fully virtuous if they spoke in public at all?

I think if we lived in those days, it would be much clearer that in light of the Kingdom principle that all believers have the same status before God, the New Testament writers were teaching believers to make necessary concessions for the sake of the church's reputation in the cultures they lived in, and yet without compromising new-creation mutuality.   If you were a new believer in the early 1st century, might you not be saying, "My husband/master has become a believer and has laid down his earthly status.  Does this mean I still have to follow the Emperor's law and obey him?"  Peter's words in 1 Peter 2:12-13 encapsulate the New Testament response: "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds. . . Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority."  

As I look back upon history, it seems to me that the Kingdom principle of the equality of believers has had a profound effect, over time, on the notion of the equality of all human beings.  It is not that our modern culture, by insisting on the full, functional equality of women, has somehow corrupted the Kingdom message as it should be understood in the church.  On the contrary-- the church, ever since the passing of the first Apostles, has been finding ways to exclude women from Kingdom equality.  But our Western cultures today, having imbibed deeply of the Kingdom teaching of equality and applied it to all humanity, are now calling out the church on her hypocrisy.

Maybe it's time we listened.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

My Cousin's Bar Mitzvah

"Isaac, called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah, July 7, 2012."

These words, printed on cards at my 12-year-old cousin's entrance into Jewish adulthood, marked the beautiful celebration my family and I participated in last week.

"Torah," of course, means the first five books of the Hebrew Bible-- what Christians call "the Law."  But it turns out that the word "torah" doesn't mean "law."  It means "learning," and Jewish people treat the Torah as a tremendous gift of God to be celebrated with delight and reverence.  In fact, they treat all forms of learning with joy, and a person's individual, special learning or talent in any area is called his or her "torah."  "Bar mitzvah" means "son of commandment," and it refers both to the ceremony and to the boy undergoing it (a girl would be a "bat mitzvah").  Years of study and preparation go into this one day of joyous fulfillment.

My family isn't Jewish, nor is my husband's-- but each of us has a relative who married someone Jewish.  My Jewish relatives have always lived far away, so I had never been to a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah before.  I was deeply impressed.

The bar mitzvah started the evening before, at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.  We went to the local temple and were led in song by a warm, kind woman rabbi dressed in flowing purple, playing the guitar.  She showed us that temple's Torah-- a tall scroll wrapped in cream-colored velvet with gold thread, topped with silver covers for the two poles, kept in a beautiful wooden cabinet called an "ark."  The Torah was made of lambskins, sewn together with deer sinews, and written by hand in ancient Hebrew by a scribe who used ink made of oak galls, as Torahs have been made for thousands of years.  (My cousin learned to make this ink as part of his studies.)  The rabbi seemed lit from within by joy and peace as she sang the ancient prayers in Hebrew, which we tried our best to follow in our transliterated prayer books.   The English translations of many of the prayers were familiar, from the Psalms or other portions of what I know as the Old Testament.  Shabbat shalom -- peaceful sabbath-- were the words on everyone's lips.

After the service we each drank a small cup of wine or grape juice to consecrate the Shabbat, and then a long, braided rope of sweet bread called "challah" was shared.  When the bread was broken, we each reached out and touched the person next to us until everyone was touching someone who was touching the challah.  Then we shared the bread by taking a piece, tearing off a small bit, and passing it to the person next to us.  I felt a strong sense of community and connectedness as we did this.  It made me wish my own church's communion ceremony could be shared more in this way, so that it would be communion not only with the Spirit of God, but also with one another.

The next day we met in the morning at a local lodge, since there were too many of us to fit in the temple.  Dressed in our best, we again followed the songs in the prayer books as the rabbi led them.   Isaac was introduced as the Bar Mitvah, and was given a new tallit (prayer shawl) and yarmulke (prayer hat) by his parents.  Then the Torah, which had been brought to the lodge for the event and placed in a temporary "ark" (a table with blankets over it) was carefully uncovered and given to  Isaac's mother.  She carried the Torah in procession through the aisles, as people reached out with their prayer books or the tassels of their prayer shawls and touched it, then kissed the book or shawl.  I was again struck by all the joy, and the naturalness with which people enjoyed their traditions.  Evangelical churches tend to pride themselves on not having traditions (though we have them, just the same-- we just don't call them that), and I couldn't help feeling that we are missing something, or have lost it.  The evangelical branch of Christianity originally turned from tradition and liturgy because of a feeling that the traditions and liturgies had become more important than the meanings behind them-- but I felt no sense of that in this ceremony or the people celebrating it.  They knew the difference, and they were not afraid of tradition, but let it help them realize the meaning behind it, not obscure it.

After the procession the Torah was brought back to the stage, or "bimah,"and reverently "undressed" by removing its silver caps and velvet cover, then unrolled on the table. Then groups of people were called to the stage-- Isaac's cousins, aunts and uncles, teachers, etc.-- where a representative of the group would read in English a portion of the story being shared (it was the story from Numbers 22 about Balaam and King Balak who tried to get him to curse the Israelites as they passed through Moab).  Then a Jewish person would chant or sing a portion directly from the Torah in Hebrew, using a silver pointer to find the words on the scroll.  The rabbi would bless each group, which would then leave the stage as the next group came on.  As Isaac's cousin by marriage, I was in one of the groups.  The rabbi enjoyed very much seeing the multitude of Isaac's family and blessing us all.

Finally, Isaac himself was called to read from the Torah for the first time.  He did very well, and I can only imagine his emotion as he performed this rite of passage into adulthood.  His parents gave him words of advice from their favorite quotations (his father broke down in tears, which was very sweet and moving), and the rabbi blessed them. Isaac then gave a teaching from research he had done, and then the Torah was "dressed" and rolled up again and given to Isaac to carry in procession though the aisles a second time.

The ceremony concluded with a delightful play, in costume, by Isaac and his friends, re-enacting the story of Balaam, his donkey, the angel, and king Balak.  If I tell you that Balak's emissaries were re-cast as mafia thugs, bribing Balaam with a briefcase full of play money, you will get some idea of the tone.  We all laughed and laughed.

I was so proud of Isaac; he handled himself confidently and well throughout the whole event, which lasted two hours!

We had a light luncheon of traditional Jewish foods, and later that evening a huge party with feasting and dancing and people being lifted on chairs and carried around. Great fun. There was a cake made to look like a Torah scroll, and cookies with Stars of David on them.   My family and I helped clean up, and went back exhausted and happy to the aunt-and-uncle's house where we were staying.

I think the thing that made the greatest impression on me was how easy it was to worship with these spiritual cousins of my own faith.  I felt the presence of God in the singing, and I easily entered into the enthusiasm of the praise.  The Jewish worshipers so clearly loved God and one another.  Also, it was fun!  I'll always remember this event as one of mingled holiness and joy, in the celebration of faith and family.  I'm honored to have been a part of it.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Thoughts of a Christian Centrist: Is Big Government Really the Big Problem?

As I explained in Part 1, I consider myself a Christian centrist and a questioner. I don’t claim to be an expert on politics, and I don’t plan to do a lot of political posts on this blog-- but one of the questions I have had to ask myself in today’s political climate is whether I agree with the political stance taken by many Christians in the U.S. today—the stance that many non-Christian Americans have come to identify with Christianity: libertarian-style political conservatism. Besides the fact that there are actually many Christians who do identify with centrism or progressivism, it seems inappropriate for Christianity to become so identified with a political party in the first place. But setting that aside for now, the main question I have to ask myself is whether I agree with the stance that big government is our big problem.

The idea seems to be that government is infringing on the rights of businesses and private citizens, who would all be much better off if government stayed out of their business. And this is not just about the national debt and how much government spending we can afford. George Will’s column in my local paper for June 17, 2012 (I’m sure this appeared in newspapers all over the country), said:

“[In] the 1930’s the [US Supreme] Court formally declar[ed] economic rights to be inferior to ‘fundamental’ rights. This begot pernicious . . . tolerance of capricious government abridgements of economic liberty.”

Mr. Will defines “economic liberty” as “private property rights, freedom of contract and freedom from arbitrary government interference with the right to engage in enterprise.”

I wasn’t born in the 1930’s, but I do remember my history. It was the time of the Great Depression. My basic understanding of the economic situation out of which the 1930’s Supreme Court made its declaration, is that “economic liberty,” at that time, included the liberty of banks to gamble with their depositor’s investments, the liberty of corporations to hold wages down below minimum subsistence levels, set 14-hour workdays, and ignore even rudimentary safety standards, and the liberty of landowners to treat migrant workers however they pleased, often subjecting anyone who tried to resist them to violence. The economic liberty of the powerful meant that they could engage the police to uphold and even perpetrate human rights violations against individual workers who merely wanted to earn enough to feed a family. One thing the Great Depression taught the nation was that when economic rights are unrestrained, the strong trample the weak, a certain small segment of society becomes richer and richer, and everyone else suffers.

The question, then, of whether economic liberty is really equal to fundamental, basic human rights like life, dignity, security and personal liberty, is one that I have to ask. And I have to answer that when the economic liberty of one person (I’m mainly speaking about the way a person “engages in enterprise,” as George Will puts it) infringes on the basic human rights of another, economic liberty really must take a back seat. Should government interfere with economic liberty by regulating private enterprise in ways that protect the powerless from the powerful? I have to answer yes.

So here’s what I see as the real problem in my country.

The way I see a lot of people thinking, it is the government alone which can or does oppress people, and it does it through taxation and redistribution (which was equated with theft by a representative conservative voice in my last post) and through regulations that hinder the ability of private businesses to make wealth. But according to passage after passage in the books of the prophets, God faults both the rulers and the private sector for oppression— and especially, as in the verse above, when they conspire together to make laws that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else.

Micah 7:3, one of the prophetic lamentations about the sins of the whole nation of Israel says: “Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire--they all conspire together.” This is what things are looking like in the United States, from where I sit. Powerful business interests are dictating public policy through campaign contributions to our legislators, while the ordinary citizen has little or no voice. What should happen is that government and private enterprise act as checks and balances upon one another. What I see instead is collusion.

The lamentations of prophets like Micah are applicable today in that they identify in a timeless, universal way, what is right and wrong in the way we treat one another, both as communities and as individuals. Of course the actual groups addressed by the prophetic books are not the same as the ones that hold power today. But power is power, and rule is rule. The fact that we have elected officials instead of kings, and high-tech corporations instead of wealthy agricultural land interests, makes very little difference.

Here are some other, similar passages:

Isaiah 1:23 - Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them.

Isaiah 3:14-15 - The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of His people: ‘It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ says the Lord God of hosts.

Isaiah 10:1-2 - Woe to you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!

These passages don’t seem to fit very well with the idea that God is primarily displeased when government interferes with the power of the wealthy to make more wealth. Instead, the prophets’ outcry is against laws created through bribery and undue influence by the powerful on the lawmakers—laws that make things tougher on the poor and the ordinary citizen.

And then there are these passages, which are not clearly aimed at “rulers” at all:

Isaiah 5:8 – Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!

Micah 2:2 - They covet fields, and seize them; house, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance.

To join asset to asset until there is room for no one else— this is what big business does today, and the government has aided them by watering down the laws that used to protect citizens against monopolies. And seizing houses and other assets is most recently the province of the big banks, whose subprime mortgage fiasco led to the seizure of millions of homes from ordinary citizens who were duped by unscrupulous financiers into taking out loans they could not afford. Do the citizens bear responsibility for their own actions? Of course—but who is more responsible, the ordinary citizen with little or no training in finance, or the financiers who led them into trouble?

A few more:

Ezekiel 22:6-7, 12 & 29 - See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. . . in you they have oppressed the alien and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. V. 12 - In you men accept bribes to shed blood; you take usury and excessive interest, and make unjust gain from your neighbors by extortion. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord. V. 29 - The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.

Amos 5:11-12 - Therefore, because you trample on [another reading is “impose heavy rent on”] the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.

Malachi 3:5 - Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against . . . those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear Me, says the Lord of hosts.

It is not just “princes” but “men” in the private sector who are in view in the Ezekiel passage. The other two almost certainly address both. Who are these passages applicable to today? Congressmen and senators who receive campaign finance promises in exchange for promoting laws that profit the donors— often at the expense of the people they were elected to represent. Credit agencies which jack up interest rates. Corporations which pay huge salaries and bonuses to those at the top while their workers suffer wage freezes and layoffs. Real estate management companies which raise rents excessively. Banks and Wall Street moguls using their wealth to influence Congress to make laws which help wealthy investors give one another inside knowledge to avoid weak investments, while average citizens are on their own. And all these things are commonplace.

In 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul cited the Old Testament, “do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” to discuss the principle that a laborer is worthy of his wages. Workers today are working more hours than they have in decades, only to see their real wages—the amount of goods and services that their money will buy—continue to fall. Most people I know have not had a raise in years, but consider themselves lucky to even have jobs. And while wage growth stymies, corporate profits rise. Is this happening because of oppressive government? Only, as far as I can see, in the sense that the government is doing little or nothing to stop this kind of oppression from the private sector.

In order for these things to be stopped, the limitation of powers cannot be one-sided, limiting the government alone. The Lord does not view only government officials as responsible for their use of power. Wealthy private citizens and business interests are also powerful, and also responsible—and only through a balance of power between government and the private sector can the natural greed of humanity be curbed. Campaign finance needs to be regulated. Banking practices need to be regulated. Business and employment practices need to be regulated.

Right now, it seems to me, we are suffering not so much from too-powerful government as we are from too-powerful private interests. Huge corporations that shut down their plants and ship the jobs overseas. Companies that lay off huge numbers of workers, then hire them back as temporary help at half the wages and no benefits. CEOs who take record-size bonuses while the employees on the lines see their wages frozen—for the third year in a row.

I think we need the government to hold accountable the hugely powerful private sector, just as we need the private sector to hold the government accountable. Instead, the wealthy in both are in cahoots with one another to make each other even wealthier. My problem with government right now is not that it is getting too big—it is that it is getting too weak, more and more under the thumb of the private sector through powerful lobbying interests and campaign finance promises, no longer able or willing to do what’s right without an eye to personal profit. There is supposed to be a fine line between campaign finance and bribes—but that line is getting to where only a lobbyist or a politician can actually see it. It all looks like bribery to me.

Good fences make good neighbors, they say, and locked doors keep honest people honest. But people in positions of power and influence, whether public sector or private, do not become virtuous just because they are entrusted with more responsibilities. On the contrary—power corrupts. Where there are no fences and no locked doors, people are going to cross lines. Deregulation and more deregulation of the private sector is not the answer. Neither is lifting the restrictions on how much money a politician can amass, in the name of “free speech.” According to the most basic Christian doctrine of the sinfulness of humanity, power needs to be curbed.

There have been times when too much regulation has been a problem in our nation. But the way it looks to me—that time is not now.

And as for the national debt? I’m concerned about that; I really am. But it seems to me that if more ordinary, working people were allowed to get ahead, rather than working so hard just to enrich their bankers and CEO’s—then we would all be able to both save more and buy more, and we would be paying more taxes on our increased incomes. Increased prosperity would mean that less people needed government services, decreasing spending and increasing revenues at the same time.

And then we wouldn’t be talking about balancing our budget by cutting aid to the most vulnerable in our society. In the long run, that will not help our nation as a whole. In reality, we’re all in this together. When one child who could have become a productive citizen fails to do so because of poverty, it harms our whole economy.

I’d like to see our nation start putting more value on everyone pulling together, and a little less on every man for himself.