Saturday, January 26, 2013

Does Patriarchy Glorify God?

Note:  This post was originally written for No Longer Quivering, which is a website dedicated to helping women who have been harmed by the patriarchy/Quiverfull movement.   The issues discussed here may not apply to complementarianism, which generally differs from the Christian patriarchy movement in the amount of emphasis it puts on men's responsibility to treat their wives with Christlike humility and service.  In question-and-answer format, this discusses why the stated goal of the patriarchy/Quiverfull movement-- to glorify God in portraying His plan and design for marriage and family-- so frequently fails in practice.  

But this essay also deals with the potential for spiritual abuse in any family where enabling and formulaic thinking are practiced.  The piece is addressed to women who might question or consider leaving Quiverfull, but I thought it might be of interest to readers here as well.    

Q: As a Quiverfull couple, we practice headship and submission to strengthen our marriage and bring glory to God. But you are saying that patriarchy hurts the husband and belittles God. Please explain.

What does “glorify” mean when we’re talking about God? A simple definition can be found in what we commonly mean when we say a person is “seeking glory.” It means that person wants the credit for good things that have happened, and to be honored for those things. To glorify God is to seek glory not for ourselves, but for God– to act in ways that point to God, that give God the credit for good things in our lives and the honor that comes from that.

God receives glory when there are good things in our moral character that give Him credit. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” John 13:35. 1 Peter 2:12 says, “Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles, that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.”

Ways of life that glorify God should result in honor and credit to Him, both in our lives with others, and in our relationship with Him.

When it comes to our lives with others, it seems clear that if the Bible really teaches and promotes patriarchy– rather than patriarchy simply being an assumption of the cultures of Bible times, reflected but not promoted in the Bible– then following patriarchal roles of male authority and female submission ought to result in the growth of love and moral character in the lives of men and women and in their relationships to one another. And a patriarchal marriage relationship ought to be the prime place where this takes place.

But is it?

Here is No Longer Quivering founder Vyckie Garrison's testimony about what happened in her patriarchal marriage:

Looking back, I can plainly see that the “assistance” which I rendered to Warren as his “suitable helper” served only to reinforce in his mind the idea of his superior– and divinely sanctioned– importance. My daily submission to his every demand– no matter how petty or self-serving– was about as helpful as giving in to a tantrum-throwing, breath-holding toddler– it’s a very effective way to create a tyrant. That’s unfortunate– because in many ways, Warren is a nice enough guy. I believe that patriarchy legitimized his weakest tendencies and the strict gender-roles which we followed arrested his ability to adapt and capitalize on his strengths. In the end, our pursuit of the perfect, godly family with Warren as “head” and me as “helper” resulted in . . . an extremely unhealthy and seriously dysfunctional way of relating.

Why did this happen? Was Vyckie’s marriage just an anomaly? Or is it that patriarchy itself really isn’t good for the growth of moral character and good works in fallible human beings?

Hebrews 10:24 says, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works.” And Ephesians 4:15 says, “Speaking the truth in love, (we) may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” Wives and husbands are both part of Christ’s church, and as such are not exempt from these exhortations to the whole church, regarding how to relate to one another in ways that glorify God.

But Christians often misunderstand 1 Peter 3:1 (which is a passage meant to be read as a continuation of 1 Peter 2:12-13– that Christians should submit themselves to every human institution in order to be good witnesses to the culture they found themselves in — in this case, the ancient pagan cultures of Greece and Rome), thinking it is referring to Christian marriages instead of to women married to non-believing Greek or Roman husbands who “obey not the word.” That passage was never intended as a command to Christian women to let their Christian husbands get away with any and all selfish and ungodly conduct “without a word”! In fact, in light of Galatians 3:14 (“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”), Peter’s words should be read not as laws or commands, but as advice on how to live out the law of love. “Without a word” was helpful for believing women when their non-believing husbands really didn’t want to hear any more about this new religion. But how is it helpful in a Christian marriage? Does it not contradict Hebrews 10:24 and Ephesians 4:15?

Wives and husbands are equally followers of Christ. Ephesians 5:21 says that all Christians are to be “submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of God.” Ephesians 5:22-32 goes on from there, comparing the relationship of husbands and wives to that of Christ and the church. But this does not mean husbands are “as Christ” to their wives– this takes the analogy way too far and turns husbands into idols in the home, and wives into idolaters. Wives are not “as the church” to their husbands, are they? Husbands are not the saviors of their wives, as Christ is of the church– and wives are not to make husbands their gods, as the church does Christ. Wives, as equal followers of Christ with their husbands, are to “speak the truth in love” to their husbands and to “provoke them to love and good deeds.”

Giving husbands unilateral authority in the home does not help their Christian character of humility and forbearance. Instead, it feeds husbands’ normal, fleshly human nature with power and privilege that may be beyond their ability to handle. Vyckie again:

Though at first glance the hierarchical family structure. . . may appear to be an inviting setup for the men– the day to day reality, and the long-term effect of being indiscriminately catered to– the perpetual indulgence of power and control– turns out not to be such a sweet deal for Daddy after all.

The fact is that though Ephesians 5 and similar passages exhort husbands to self-sacrificially “love their wives,” the indulgence of their “headship” (a term never found in the New Testament– the head-body metaphor in the original Greek does not convey authority-subordination as it does in English) gives them no incentive to do so. There are indeed Christian patriarchal-type marriages where the man doeshumble himself and lay down his own desires on a daily basis for the wife, as the Bible says he should– but this example of Christian character usually displays itself if there is strong outside pressure (such as from other church members) to do so, or if it was character the husband already had. Within the patriarchal marriage structure on its own, wifely indulgence of his husbandly whims in the name of “submission” won’t teach him character. Nor will he feel any obligation to listen to her if he believes he is entitled to always have his own way. Power corrupts, and absolute power in the home can corrupt absolutely.

Wives, self-sacrificially giving in to your husbands in ways that exalt them in power and control over you, does not help your husbands! At best, it acts as a temptation they must resist, in order to continue in the humility they know they should walk in as Christians. And at worst, it inflates their pride, feeds their selfishness, and gives them no incentive to walk in love towards you.

And then there is the vital question of our relationship with God. If patriarchy glorifies God, then living in patriarchal roles ought to increase our love relationship with God and our dependence on His grace and mercy.

Does it?

Teachers of patriarchal roles often set forth patriarchy as “God’s way,” the one right way to live in marriage. Vyckie remembers,

I had to be such a devout, godly woman that my husband couldn’t find any fault in me . . . All I had to do was be the perfect wife and the perfect Christian and God would honor that and save my marriage. [And] when I did it, God would have no choice but to come through for me. . . Everything I did in that respect during that time was my attempt to attach strings of obligation to God so that I could make Him dance like Pinocchio at my bidding. I was the ultimate manipulator– I no longer needed to control Warren directly, because I could influence God to do that work for me.

Another No Longer Quivering woman (who wished to remain anonymous) tried hard to make a patriarchal marriage work. Here is what she says she learned:

If they say, do _____, and your husband will be transformed, spare yourself some agony and don’t waste your time. . . . Because life and relationships and communities aren’t appropriate grounds for formulas. . . . It’s tempting [to follow formulas], because it takes away the fear factor. It takes away the “What if?“ It takes away the realization that, ultimately, we don’t have a lot of control over other people and their choices. . . .

The land of formulas [is] the land where you can rest assured that everything will go as you want it. . . if only you perform properly (or try to make other people perform properly). Even though it puts all the work back on your own shoulders . . . it still gives a sense of peace, a sense of control– and therein lies the seductive lure. . . We/I can keep you safe. We/I can keep things under control. We/I know what we’re doing. We’ve/I’ve got an answer. We’ve/I’ve got the Right Way to Do It, guaranteed to keep you secure and free of pain. [But] the formula plan is a lie. It is a beautiful sweet juicy. . .lie.

The problem with patriarchal roles is that they set out formulaic boxes within which Christians are to perform. All husbands are to always act one particular way, and all wives are to always act another. The individual dynamics of interpersonal relationships can be lost as we fit ourselves into cookie-cutter lifestyles and live within strict boxes. And this also puts God in a box– a box where God is expected to perform in a certain way based on our own performance. Our relationship with God becomes a thing of duty– our duty and performance of the formula for Him, and His duty and performance of the blessing in response.

Except that God doesn’t fit very well into boxes. And when our expectations of what should happen in our lives falls short of what we feel He has promised– then we fall back on Scriptures such as “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him (Job 13:15).” We don’t understand why God isn’t coming through for us, but we hold onto the hope that if we just keep performing, then He eventually will.

The problem is that our once simple love for God, our once peaceful rest in God’s grace, has turned into a matter of works. In Galatians 3:1-3, Paul asks of a church that has fallen into just such a mentality, “O foolish Galatians. . . This only would I learn of you. Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?”

Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

If you are finding very little rest for your soul– if your yoke feels heavy and hard– it is probably not a yoke that comes from Jesus. And it doesn’t glorify God for you to carry it. It doesn’t help you or your spouse grow in love and Christian character. It doesn’t increase the grace of God in your life, or your dependence on His mercy rather than your performance. And it’s not something that God can bless.

Patriarchy, its roles and rules, does not glorify God. Isn’t it time to turn away from it and seek God to guide your own individual life and your own individual marriage, not according to formulas, but as He sees fit?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Husband of One Wife"?

When I was a little girl, my father used to sing us a folk song which had been recorded by the Kingston Trio.  I remember the chorus went like this:

It takes a worried man
To sing a worried song
I'm worried now
But I won't be worried long

The thing about this song is this.  It never occurred to me or my father-- and I'm pretty sure it never occurred to the Kingston Trio-- that the meaning of these words included the idea that a worried woman couldn't sing a worried song.  In those days the masculine gender in the English language was the default.  It could mean just males, but unless the context indicated otherwise, it was generally assumed to mean both sexes.  The song is saying that only a worried person can sing a worried song.  The song could have used the word "person" there, but just because it says "man," doesn't mean the meaning isn't "person."  And no one, as far as I know, has ever thought otherwise.

The Greek language spoken and written by Paul and the Apostles was similar.   The Scripture 4 All Online Interlinear New Testament shows that when James wrote in Chapter 1, verse 8 of his epistle, "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways," he used the Greek word for "man," which is transliterated as "aner."  The ancient Greek did have a gender-neutral word which meant "person" -- "anthropos"-- and this word is often used in the New Testament.  In fact, James used this word in verse 7, immediately before:  "let not that person ("anthropos") think he shall receive anything from the Lord."  (Emphasis added.)  But in verse 8 James used the word that meant "man."  Did he mean that a double-minded woman was not unstable in all her ways?  Is it only double-minded male humans who are unstable?

It seems pretty doubtful, doesn't it?  Especially since James also used the word "anthropos" to refer to the same hypothetical double-minded person one verse before, in the same passage.

In 1 Timothy 3:1-2 a similar situation occurs.  Scripture 4 All shows that this passage begins with a gender-neutral word (here, the Greek word is "tis" meaning "someone" or "anyone"), and then goes on to use a phrase usually translated "husband of one wife" -- a masculine construction.

Here's the passage in the King James version:

This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach. . .

Notice how the King James version substitutes "man" for the gender-neutral word "tis."  In the day when the KJV was written, the masculine gender was the default, and it would not have been impossible for a reader to understand this as meaning either a man or a woman -- but it is more likely that the translators simply assumed that Paul intended what they called a "bishop" to be men-only.

Here's the same verse in the New International Version.*

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. . .

The words translated "husband" and "wife" in these verses are the Greek words "andra" and "gunaikos," which are variants of "aner" and "gune."  That is, "man" and "woman."  The ancient Greek had no specific words for "married man" or "married woman."  They just used "man" and "woman," and the context told whether the man and woman being referred to were husband and wife.

So what is happening here is the same thing happening in James 1:7-8: a gender-neutral word for a human being in the first verse is then followed by a word meaning "man" in the second verse.

Why is it, then, that this passage in 1 Timothy is commonly believed to exclude women, while the passage in James is not?

"Well," you might answer, "the text obviously does mean 'husband of one wife,' even though the Greek didn't have those words.  And 'husband' is simply never an inclusive term, even in the King James version!"

Well, yes.  But here's the thing.  When the masculine gender is the default in a language, this means that the masculine gender is used to describe any person or group of people containing at least one man.  The feminine gender would only be used when referring to a female person or a group of people who are all female.**  So when giving the qualifications for who can belong to a group, if Paul intended men to be included, he'd have to use either gender-neutral or masculine-gendered words.  Since the Greek didn't contain our English gender-neutral word "spouse," the only way he could talk about a group containing husbands, would be to use the masculine word "man."

And here's another thing. According to New Testament/Greek scholar Philip B. Payne, the Greek term   "one woman man" was an idiomatic phrase that, interestingly enough, meant pretty much the same thing we mean by that phrase today, as used at the end of the song by Tommy Jones:

You're a one man woman
I'm a one woman man

Tommy Jones' song is about a "two-timing" man who has decided to change his ways and become a "one-woman man" in order to deserve the faithfulness of his "one-man woman."  As Payne puts it, "The closest English equivalent to “one-woman man” is 'monogamous,' and it applies to both men and women."

Is Paul actually simply saying, "If anyone wants to be an overseer, that person should be monogamous"?

I believe very strongly that this is what his original readers (Timothy first, and anyone later whom Timothy read the letter to) would have thought he meant.

New Testament/Greek scholar Marg Mowczko's important blog New Life, in her post Paul's Qualifications for Church Leaders, states:

The phrase, a one-woman man, is. . . an idiom, and there are dangers in applying it too literally. Because it is an idiomatic expression, many people have had difficulty explaining and adapting its meaning in the context of contemporary Western church culture; a culture that is vastly different to first century church culture.

If taken literally, the one-woman man requirement would rule out unmarried, widowed and divorced men, as well as women, from being church leaders; yet Paul says that being single and celibate enables people to serve God better (1 Cor 7:32-35). The real intent of this phrase is marital faithfulness in the church leader who is already married.  Emphasis added.

Mowczko also adds this about the masculine pronoun "he" which appears in these verses:

While 1 Timothy 3:1-7 . . . is completely free from masculine pronouns in the better, older Greek manuscripts, pronouns need to be added in English translations to make sense of the sentences. In English, the literary convention has been to use masculine pronouns, even if the subject matter applies to women also. . . [I]n Greek also. . . the literary convention was to use masculine pronouns when speaking about a representative person, or groups of people that included men.

So in the original text, not only is the masculine word "man" not used, but even the pronoun "he" does not appear!  It does look as if the convention of using 1 Timothy 3 to exclude women from church leadership is merely that-- a convention.

And then there's the whole issue of Phoebe.

In Romans 16:1 Paul says,  "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae."  (Emphasis added.)  A footnote to this on the Bible Gateway website adds:  "The word deacon refers here to a Christian designated to serve with the overseers/elders of the church in a variety of ways; similarly in. . . Tim. 3:8,12."

Of course, 1 Timothy 3: 8-12 is a continuation of Paul's requirements for church leadership.  Verse 12 (KJV) reads: "Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well." Emphasis added.

So if Phoebe is a deacon, and "husband of one wife" means "must be male," then the only conclusion from this is that Phoebe was man.  Which, of course, is simply not true.  Philip Payne again:

The clearest NT identification of an individual with titles associated with senior local church leadership is not a man at all, but a woman: “Phoebe deacon (διάκονος, not feminine in form, which could imply ‘servant’ or ‘deaconess,’ but masculine in form, hence ‘deacon’) of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to received her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a leader (προστάτις ‘leader, chief,’ ‘president or presiding officer,’ ‘one who stands before,’ LSJ 1526) of many, including myself also”” (Rom 16:1-2). Since Romans was written before any surviving reference to the office of a local church “overseer,” “deacon” may have been the only officially recognized title for a local church leader at that time and/or place. If by προστάτις (“leader”) Paul identifies a church office here, then he describes Phoebe using two titles for a church office that may have been equivalent to the later-documented titles “overseer,” “elder,” and “pastor.”  
Emphasis added. 

Payne goes on to point out the translator bias in this passage:

Translations such as the NIV, which repeats the word “give her any help … for she has been a great help,” hide the fact that the Greek verb translated as “help [her]” (παραστῆτε from παρίστημι, “I help,” which combines παρά = “along side” + ἵστημι = “I stand”) is almost opposite in meaning to the word describing Phoebe as a προστάτις “one who leads,” which combines πρό = “in rank before” + ἵστημι = “I stand.” Paul’s logic is natural, “Help her in whatever matter she has need, because she is a leader of many, including myself also.” It is natural that Paul, who calls all believers to submit to one another (Eph 5:21) should himself submit to the local leadership in churches he visited. If Paul had intended to say simply that Phoebe had “helped” others, it would have been natural for him to repeat παρίστημι to make his reason parallel his request. 
Emphasis added. 

As far as I can see, the identification of Phoebe as a deacon according to the description of 1 Timothy 3:8-12 proves that "husband of one wife" cannot mean "must be a man."  And if it doesn't mean "must be a man" for deacons, the same phrase used for overseers in verses 1 and 2 cannot mean "must be a man" either.  Theologian Peter Kirk puts it like this:

[A]ccording to Romans 16:1 the woman Phoebe was a deacon, and indeed the most natural interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11 is also a reference to women deacons. In this case, “husband of one wife” in 3:12 cannot be understood as a rule applicable everywhere allowing only men to be deacons. And as the phrase surely has the same meaning in 3:2 and Titus 1:6 these verses cannot be understood as forbidding any women from being overseers or elders; for precisely the same condition is applied to . . . [the] two types of Christian ministry.

Therefore, when Christian teachers insist that the phrase "husband of one wife" means that women can't serve as church leaders, they are mistaken.  It's high time this mistake was rectified, because the Lord Who raised up Phoebe has never changed His mind about raising up women to lead.  It is we humans who have misunderstood and hindered His work.

*Note: the New International Version was updated in 2011, but I quote from the 1984 version here to show that the controversy over "gender-inclusiveness" in the 2011 is not at issue here.  Both versions use "anyone" for the Greek word "tis."

**Paul does, in fact, use the female-only construction "one-man woman" or "wife of one husband" in 1 Timothy 5:9 when speaking of widows to be put on a list to receive church support.  A man whose wife had died would still be able to support himself, so Paul only has in mind women whose husbands have died.  Thus he uses the feminine gendered "wife of one husband" because the group he is speaking of consists only of women. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I've Got a Guest Post on Rachel Held Evans' Blog!

I'm deeply honored and amazed that Rachel Held Evans, whose book A Year of Biblical Womanhood I reviewed here, has posted a guest blog from me on her important and very interesting Blog.

The guest post is a condensed version of my three-part series "Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church?"  and appears here. 

She also very kindly recommended that her readers subscribe here, and I'm gratified (and a little overwhelmed) to see that my subscribers have increased by nearly a third in just one day.

Thanks so much to Ms. Held Evans.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Abraham, Revisionism and "Privilege Distress"

I've been reading an amazing book:  Abraham by Bruce Feiler.  As the book jacket describes it, "Abraham stands as the shared ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims. . . Bruce Feiler set out on a personal quest to better understand our common patriarch."  The book explores how each of these three related world faiths views its father Abraham-- where they are similar, where different, what parts of his life they stress, and why.  Feiler is Jewish, but he treats each of the three faiths with fairness and insight, uncovering commonalities and revealing along the way the shared humanity of three kinds of believers in one God.

The biggest eyeopener in this book, for me, was a trend Feiler uncovered in each of the three faiths: Abraham lived prior to Judaism, Christianity or Islam, but each group, at certain points in history, has done what it could to claim him for its own, to the exclusion of the other two.  Jewish interpreters  painted him as knowing and observing Torah long before it was even written.  Muslim interpreters claimed that Ishmael was actually the favored son and Isaac a mere interloper.  Christian interpreters claimed that Abraham knew by special revelation the gospel of Christ.  As Feiler puts it:

Abraham has been transformed so wildly by his own self-proclaimed descendants that he bears little resemblance to the portrait now left to fade in the Bible.  The biblical story itself. . . manages to convey a more general message of God's grace than. . . the portraits Abraham's supposed spiritual inheritors were busily creating. p. 154-155.

Revisionism. We humans are prone to it.  We look at history, a piece of writing or a set of facts, and we ignore what we don't want to see and overemphasize what we do want to see, in order to make our viewpoint stronger and opposing ones weaker.  Bruce Feiler interviewed Rev. Petra Heldt, head of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Jerusalem, and came to this understanding:

"If you look at history," she told me, "each religion, at different times, for different reasons, tried to establish itself as the dominant religion.  Claiming Abraham for yourself is just one way to establish your authority." This power grab usually occurs at historical turning points, she noted.  For Jews it was after the Second Temple was destroyed and they had to buttress their sagging identity.  For Christians it was after the fall of Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries, when they lost their political protection.  "It's a psychological need triggered by political circumstances.  You use your culture to establish your triumphalism because your political power may be waning.  You want to show that you've always been there.  Abraham is a great way to prove that." p. 156.

This idea rang a bell.  I immediately thought of a similar pattern that's occurring here in the United States today:  the insistence by the Christian Right that America was founded as a Christian nation. The Shades of Grace website has good examples of this argument, providing selected quotes from the Founding Fathers intended to prove that the United States has belonged to Christians and Christianity from its inception.  But a quote such as this one from John Adams:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.

-- should be balanced by what he wrote in the Treaty of Tripoli when he was President:

As the government of the United States of America is not on any sense founded on the Christian Religion, - as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of of Musselmen (Muslims), - and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

It seems to me, when these two quotes are taken together (along with many others), that many of the Founding Fathers believed Christian principles lay behind the founding of the United States, but they did not consider the Christian religion to be America's national religion.  In fact, there has always been a tension in my country of birth between its ideal of providing a haven to people of all faiths, and its historical tendency to privilege Christianity (this due largely, I think, to the dominance of European whites in its leadership from its inception).  As David Lose put it in The Huffington Post:

[T]he United States has always been home to a multitude of faith traditions and, indeed, was imagined from the beginning to be a religious haven. . . [But] those who support the notion of a "Christian America" can convincingly argue that the de facto stance of this country has been to privilege the belief of, if not simply Christianity, at least what's often called "the Judeo-Christian tradition" because of its central place in this nation's evolution.

In fact, the more pluralistic the United States now becomes, and the more it gives a voice and a place to religious and non-religious minorities, the louder the voices seem to grow that want to make it clear that Christianity is the dominant religion in America-- the one that has "always been there," just as Feiler's book describes in the Middle East's struggles over ownership of Abraham.  "This is a Christian nation" is a way of saying, "We Christians are America; it has always belonged to us, and we can take it back."

What is the proper response to this?  Do we mock and ridicule those who want to shore up their power and influence in this way?  Does an us-against-them mentality (even in response to that mentality in others) do any good? Is just saying "they're wrong"-- even if they factually are-- helping the situation?  Bruce Feiler, exploring the roots of Abraham in the turbulent Middle East, sees another way.

I needed to believe that loving God, that being prepared to sacrifice for that belief, and that [also] believing in peace had not somehow become incomprehensible. . . We can, like Abraham, leave behind our native places-- our comfortable, even doctrinaire traditions-- and set out for an unknown location, whose dimensions may be known only to God but whose mandate is to be a place where God's blessing is promised to all. p. 215-216.  Emphasis added.

I was very interested to read this article on the "Weekly Sift" blog called The Distress of the Privileged.  It largely echoes the historical principle Rev. Heldt found in the conflict over Abraham: when a group's political power is waning-- even if as a result of a call to fairness in sharing power with other groups-- the group experiences that as a painful loss which it must try to remedy.  Ignoring the pain of others-- even of the privileged-- is unfair in itself, and counterproductive:

As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.

If you are one of the newly-visible others, this all sounds whiny compared to the problems you face every day. It’s tempting to blast through such privileged resistance with anger and insult.

Tempting, but also, I think, a mistake. The privileged are still privileged enough to foment a counter-revolution, if their frustrated sense of entitlement hardens...

Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.

Doug Muder, the blog author, offers a different alternative to the scorn and contempt which is the most common response to the Christian Right by those it is challenging.  He says:

Ultimately, the privileged need to be won over. Their sense of justice needs to be engaged rather than beaten down. The ones who still want to be good people need to be offered hope that such an outcome is possible in this new world.

I used to be part of the Christian Right.  Many of my friends and fellow-church members still are.  And they are good people who believe in love-your-neighbor, and who do have valid things to say to and about the American political process. I don't think the answer is to shame them or treat them as the enemy, which they certainly are not.  These are people who help me when I'm in distress, who hug me when we meet, who laugh and cry and pray with me.  The answer is to do unto them as I would want done unto me-- to listen, to hear their real distress, and then to appeal to their sense of justice and their principles of Christian love.  It is possible, as Muder points out, for a privileged person like me to do this (I know, because I've been trying to do it):

[S]he could learn to be a good guy by the lights of this new society. It would be hard. [S]he’d have to give up some of [her] privileges. [S]he’d have to examine [her] habits to see which ones embody assumptions of supremacy. [S]he’d have to learn how to see the world through the eyes of others, rather than just assume that they will play their designated social roles.

Bruce Feiler ends his study of Abraham this way:

At the start of the twenty-first century, the idea that one religion was going to extinguish the others was deader than it had been in two thousand years-- and possibly ever. . . A new type of religious interaction was needed, involving not just swords, plowshares and the idea of triumph but conversation, interaction, and the idea of pluralism. . . Fourteen hundred years after the rise of Muhammad, two thousand years after the ascent of Christianity, twenty-five hundred years after the original of Judaism, and four thousand years after the birth of Abraham, the three monotheistic religions were inching towards a posture of open-- and equal-- deliberation.  This state of affairs set up a new question for the faiths to ponder: Can the children of Abraham actually coexist? p. 196, emphasis in original.

Feiler goes on to paint the last picture in the Bible from Abraham's life:

Finally, in Genesis 25, verse 7, Abraham dies . . . At Abraham's burial, his two most prominent sons, rivals since before they were born, estranged since childhood, scions of rival nations, come together for the first time since they were rent apart nearly three-quarters of a century earlier.  The text reports their union without comment.  "His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah. . . in the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites."  

But the meaning of this moment cannot be diminished.  Abraham achieves in death what he could never achieve in life: a moment of reconciliation between his two sons, a peaceful, communal, side-by-side flicker of possibility in which they are not rivals, scions, warriors, adversaries, children, Jews, Christians, or Muslims.  They are brothers.  

The fact is that we're all human, and all prone to the weaknesses of humanity.  If some of us revise history in an attempt to strengthen our challenged assumption that our rightful place is in the center of power, this isn't anything that the rest of us aren't capable of doing, or have never done.  Jesus talked about forgiveness, about not judging one another. He talked about doing to others what we would want done to ourselves.  He talked about giving being greater than receiving.  

He talked about seeing one another as brothers and sisters, and that what we do to "the least of these" is what we do to Him. 

I think in the long run, these things will be the answer. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

My Favorite Blog Reads of 2012

I wanted to celebrate the New Year this year by turning this blog into a celebration of things other people have said in the blogosphere in the year 2012.  These are the messages that had the most impact on me in the last year; these are the things people said that made me gladdest that someone had said them.

So in no particular order, here are my favorite blog reads of 2012, with quotations from each and brief statements of my response and why I liked them.

Disability and Autonomy

Suzanne McCarthy over at "BLT: Bible Literature Translation" discusses dignity and autonomy as basic human needs, and how the authority/submission relationship paradigm espoused as "biblical" by patriarchal Christians is actually dehumanizing and thus contrary to the teachings of Christ:

Today, working with children who have severe cognitive disabilities, I rejoice at the child who learns the first step of the pyramid of learning – to initiate. The child with no language must learn that he can initiate communication. This is done with pictures, accompanied by words, if and when that is possible. But here is the thing. You have to have something that the child wants badly and it has to be something that you can give him or her over and over. In my case, it is the train track. The child requests each piece, and he can also request the engine and the cars, the straight track or the curved. This is the first task of human dignity – to initiate, to want, to request, to build.

In another episode this afternoon, another child protested, “I don’t want to. Stop! I want this.” Yeah, I know, I did close that browser window and offered him something else. But, we rejoiced that he expressed his opinion, he tried to assert his autonomy. We did not view this as rebellion. It was healthy resistance. It was another aspect of being human, saying no. How important that is.

I am not unrealistic. We deal with the kicking and biting, the toileting problems, the non-compliance. But we celebrate the humanity of the child. And that is dignity, autonomy, agency, inclusion and choice. . .
Why do some Christians say that women do not have the right to those things that I work every day to provide to the child who doesn’t even have language? Why are women told that their role is to submit and respond, to be lower than the so called trainable mentally handicapped? To live without what are considered basic human rights, initiating, choosing and deciding. But no, it is only for men to initiate, choose and decide, not women. I lived that pain. I live now to prevent others from living that pain. The relationship of authority and submission, the trainer and the trainee, that is a model that once was. Man and woman, human and animal, the intellectual and the handicapped, the trainers and the trainees.

If anyone ever says that being the submissive in an authority and submission relationship is of equal human dignity, tell them to flush that thought down the toilet where it belongs. I don’t treat even the ones who can’t talk as the submissives in an authority and submission relationship. We take that child, and we teach him or her, to initiate, to resist, to choose, to raise bloody hell, but please live your life as a human being with equal human dignity.

I think this is possibly the most important thing I have read in the blogosphere this year.  To elevate a supposedly "biblical" principle of hierarchy and rule, over the real needs of the humans for whom God's revelation was intended, is to turn the gospel-- the "good news" -- into bad news for human beings.  And that means all human beings, ruler and ruled alike; male and female, adult and child.  Inasmuch as we demean any human being in the name of Christ, we demean all human beings, including ourselves.  And because Christ participates in humanity, we demean Christ too.

I Was Wrong About Being Right

Perfectnumber's blog "Tell Me Why the World is Weird" talks about how she used to understand Christianity when she was in high school:

I thought becoming a Christian was about arguing. People would debate, and then if one of them ever didn't have an answer, they'd have to change religions. And the "answers" weren't things I'd decided after thinking through everything on my own- they were from books of apologetics, written by experts who were totally infallible.

It was a very "us vs them" mentality, about arguing and needing to always be right. Actually, I guess I subconsciously thought being right was more important than being honest.

She compares this with the way she thinks about her faith now:

I don't believe that any more. I believe in actually wrestling with those questions. If God is good, why do bad things happen? Perfectnumber, take a minute to actually consider it, and understand why it's such a tough issue with so much emotion behind it. And maybe people don't need a bunch of words in the form of an argument- maybe they need my understanding and whatever compassion I can give.

And maybe it's okay for me to say I don't have an answer. Or, I have a couple thoughts but I understand if that doesn't answer it for you.

. . . I conclude that no question threatens God. Now I believe everyone has something to say, and everyone is worth listening to. And I realize more and more that I was wrong about a lot of things- and that's okay, everyone is wrong about a lot of things- but I try not to be.

And "trying not to be" means actually thinking about these questions, not being afraid of doubt. It means listening to people. It means that compassion is more important than informing others about what "the right answer" is.

I really liked this.  It reminded me of the kinds of things I was thinking about as I came out of Maranatha Campus Ministries.  It occurred to me that it was really important to me to be taken seriously, listened to and heard, and to have my point of view seriously considered and not summarily dismissed. And also that Jesus said, "whatever you want others to do for you, you do for them."  So if I wanted to be truly listened to, how could I do anything other than start to truly listen?

Why the Church Failed Me Yesterday

Chandra at the blog "Dispelled" articulates beautifully a heart-cry that encompasses the feelings of many different kinds of people who show up in churches today.  This is something I think every Christian in every church (including me!) should listen to:

Yesterday, I went to church. Yesterday, you didn’t see the tears that had caused my mascara to run. Yesterday, I needed understanding, a soft place to land my hurting heart. Yesterday, you told me that I wasn’t strong enough, that I hadn’t forgiven enough. Yesterday, I went home feeling defeated.

Yesterday, I was proud of myself for taking my girls and myself to church. It was something I wanted for all of us. Yesterday, I walked in with my hands full of two rambunctious girls who were missing the daddy they barely knew. Yesterday, I was met with cold judgment. Yesterday, I felt unwelcome. Yesterday, I heard, “Where is your husband?”

Yesterday, I went to church for the first time in years. Yesterday, no one said a word to me.
Yesterday, I went to church and pulled out a cigarette. I felt the scorn of the holy ones. They don’t understand how hard it is to break the cycle of addiction.

Yesterday, I went to church.

Tomorrow I won’t be back.

This is only a selection from what she had to say.  All of it is well worth reading.

The Modesty Rules: Is a Woman Responsible for a Man's Lust?

Emily Maynard at the "Church Leaders" blog makes this common-sense distinction between lust and sexual attraction:

I propose we’ve lost sight of what lust actually is.

In fact, we have confused biological sexual attraction with lust and called it sin. This is one reason why shame is so rampant in Christian circles, why we hide rather than confess our reality, why we try to control rather than offer each other the open love and freedom of Christ: We have made into sin something that is not sin.

God created you to desire another person for affection, intimacy and relationship!

Being physically attracted to someone is not lust.

Wanting to kiss someone is not lust.

Enjoying kissing someone is not lust.

Those desires can be a catalyst for lust, but in themselves, they are morally neutral, God-created, biological and chemical reactions. Your body recognizing sexual compatibility with another person is not inherently evil.

And she counters the whole "you're causing me to stumble" dialogue with this freeing advice:

In fact, nothing you do or do not do can influence lust in someone else.

Only Jesus can lovingly confront and heal a lustful heart through the working of the Holy Spirit. You can’t change anyone, control anyone, make someone sin or not sin, and you’re only responsible for taking your own heart to Jesus.

I’m asking you to pause and think about this issue differently than you may have encountered it before, especially if you grew up with the Modesty Rules on your side.

If anyone tells you that you are responsible for the hearts or minds or actions of any men or women, particularly with your clothing choices, don’t accept it!

Jesus Himself taught that it is not just looking, but looking "in order to lust," according to the actual Greek text of Matthew 5:28.  The Greek words there indicate choice and decision, not simple attraction.  And Jesus placed the responsibility squarely on the one doing the lusting, not on the one being lusted after. Ms. Maynard is quite right that we should do the same.

Modesty, Body Policing and Rape Culture: Connecting the Dots

Along the same lines, Sierra, who is one of the regular contributors at "No Longer Quivering" (a collaborative blog written in resistance to the patriarchy/Quiverfull movement), writes as follows:

Definition: The “modesty doctrine” is the belief that women need to cover their bodies to prevent men from being attracted to them, because sexual attraction is lust that leads to sin and death for both. The modesty doctrine is not the same as wearing conservative clothing. You can do the latter without believing the former. The modesty doctrine is found in fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism and Islam, with milder echoes in mainstream Western culture. . .

The hyper-vigilance of fundamentalist men and women to root out “immodesty” conceals a hatred of female sexuality: secondary sex characteristics should not be visible except in approved circumstances. The system is designed to ensure that the only time a man is “turned on” by a woman is when he is allowed to act on his urges: in the marital bed. In other words, if a woman’s body is visible, it ought to be available for sex. Although I don’t think many men think this consciously, the idea crops up in misogynist rhetoric all the time. “Immodest” women are “asking for it,” or it’s “false advertising” if a woman in a short skirt won’t go home with you, or (in the terms of the Christian patriarchy movement) a woman “defrauds” a man (literally, deprives him of a right or property) by allowing herself to be attractive in a situation wherein sex with her is illicit or unwanted.

The modesty doctrine frames this idea in terms of clothing to preserve the veneer that women are somehow to blame for this, and that there’s something they can do about it. There isn’t. . . 

The woman does not have any agency in this model of male sexuality. What she wants or doesn’t want is either erased or subordinated to what he wants or can’t have. The relationship is between the man, her body, and the law (monogamy). Similarly, entire facets of male sexuality are written out. Men are not allowed to see themselves as objects of desire, to consider themselves attractive or to enjoy the idea of sex with an initiating woman.
Emphases and links in original.

I believe that this blog post, though confrontational, is something that very much needs to be said.  By putting the responsibility for men's lust on women, Christians are, whether they want to or not, perpetuating a thing called "rape culture"-- defined as  "'a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women … a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent' ( Buchwald et al. 1993 : v). An earlier definition was offered by Herman (1984) , who characterized the US as a rape culture because the image of heterosexual sex is based on a model of aggressive male and passive female."   

And this mentality hurts both women and men.

Why Does God Allow It? (Also see Theodicy: The Problem of Pain and Short Lives by the same author)

The Newtown shooting caused a lot of Christians to ask "why?" and I found most of the responses to be fairly self-righteous and unhelpful.  However, Metacrock over at the "Doxa" blog said some things that I thought were wise, helpful, and compassionate:

[T]he best time to think about such things and to ask "why does God allow this" is not right after the tragedy strikes but when one is safe and happy and there's no tragedy on the horizon. That way we can think in a rational and detached manner about it.

During the tragedy when we are grieving and outraged, this school shooting was a total outrage, is not the time to ask the question and expect an intellectual answer. During such a time we have to blame God because we have to blame reality. Reality is what it is and we can't change it. When those things strike that we can't stand all we can do is blame the basis of reality for ordering things in such a manner.

But the question of evil in the light of belief in God does have to be asked, and even though there are no fully satisfying answers, Metacrock comes closer to anyone else in his theory, which he calls "the Soteriological Drama." As defined in his foundational post "Theodicy: The Problem of Pain and Short Lives":

Soteriology means the study of salvation. I am saying there's a drama, not entertainment but the kind of real drama one finds in life, concerning the pursuit of salvation. God has designed a search into the process because it is only by searching that we learn to internalize the values of the good. . . God wants a heart felt response which is internationalized value system that comes through the search for existential answers; that search is phenomenological; introspective, internal, not amenable to ordinary demonstrative evidence.

And in "Why Does God Allow It?" he elaborates:

God wants us to have free will so we will have a moral universe. Moral universe doesn't necessarily mean one in which nothing immoral ever happens, but one in which free moral agents willing choose the good. . . The reason it's important to allow moral decision making is because it's part of growth. God could make a world of robots who never disobey but that would not be a moral universe, because they would not be free moral agents, there would be no moral decision making. Through moral decisions we internalize the values of the good. To make moral decisions we must seek truth and answers to major questions all of which requires more internalizing of values. So the real bottom line of what God seems to want in creation is a universe in which free moral agents grow in their heart's choices of good over evil and in which they come to be wise, progressive, adult, mature citizens of the kingdom. The price God pays for that is the world has to be screwed up.

When my speechless pain over the Newtown shootings began to abate, I again found the idea of a God who wants us to grow in moral maturity, even if it means allowing bad things to happen, very comforting, and I think it makes a lot of sense. 

The Inconvenient Truth About Mental Health and Gun Control

The Newtown school shooting also raised issues of gun control in the United States, and the problem of access to guns by the mentally ill.  Along those lines, Kristen at the "Rage Against the Minivan" blog suggests:

We can change our gun laws to make sure that only mentally competent people can own a gun.

Would this be challenging? Yes. Would it require people to pay more out of pocket to obtain a gun? It would. Might I have to pay some more taxes for this? Yep, but I’m willing. If I have to take a test to prove my ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, it only makes sense that we would apply the same criteria to gun possession in our country. It’s the best way to rule out people with mental health issues that are highly correlated with antisocial and violent behavior.

Here are some ways that we could do that, while maintaining 2nd amendment rights for a majority of the population.

She goes on to list some common-sense measures, like requiring references as part of gun-ownership applications, and selling guns with lockboxes as a required part of the sale.  I found this to be a balanced, common-sense approach that refrains from falling into the false dichotomy that the U.S.'s only two choices are to either allow all guns, or forbid all guns. 

Wade Burleson at "Istoria Ministries Blog points out:

I sometimes hear evangelicals condemn churches and pastors for being accommodating to culture in their ministries. . . I propose in this post that the adoption of cultural mores and norms to communicate the message of Jesus Christ is precisely what the inspired Scriptures mandate we Christians should be doing. . . 

It is what Paul did in Acts 17:19-30. He went where the people of his culture gathered. He learned what the people of his culture liked. He met people in their comfort zone, and then he delivered to the people of his culture the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.

The apostle wisely made the distinction between cultural traditions and gospel truth. . .

In love for the people of Athens, Paul stood on Mars Hill and quoted pagan poets (like Aratus). But before he could quote the pagans, he had to read them. Paul walked with comfort and ease among the philosophers of Athens. He conversed with them on their turf, in their language, and with a singular purpose. Paul met the pagans of Greece on their playing field in order to give them Christ. 

Christians throughout the ages have adopted cultural norms to communicate Christ.

Pastor Burleson goes on to explain that just because Christmas is set on the date of a pagan holiday is no reason for Christians to refuse to celebrate it:

Christians, don't be afraid to change. Don't be afraid to take cultural norms and adopt them as your own in order to share Christ. The celebration of Christmas ought to be an annual reminder to us that Christians throughout the ages have adopted pagan customs as their own to give the message of Jesus Christ to a people comfortable in their culture.

I couldn't agree more, and this applies in many other areas as well, such as Christian marriages.  Most things having to do with human-to-human relations are products of passing cultural norms.  It was not the intention of the Bible's authors to set their cultural practices in stone.  As long as we uphold love and righteousness, changing things like marital customs (from male authority to full equality) will help spread the gospel, whereas holding women to the customs of the first-century world manifestly hinders it.

So those are my favorite blog posts for the year.  I know not all my readers will agree with everything that was said-- and certainly many of these bloggers would not agree with one another about many things!  But these posts can make us all think, and that's always a good thing.