My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus and his righteousness.
This really is a truly frightening political season here in the United States. Let’s just get that out of the way. With the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, none of the candidates display any real Presidential qualities. The Republican field, in particular, is horrendous. While a whole lot of attention has focused on Donald Trump, the truth is none of the four remaining contenders for the Republican nomination for President are Presidential material. From Marco Rubio, who’s accomplished little beyond being elected Senator from Florida (and it shows) to John Kasich trying to pretend Thursday night he didn’t spend nearly 20 years as a member of Congress, the whole Republican race sinks lower and lower each day.
That Hillary Clinton will in all likelihood be the Democratic nominee doesn’t really bode well, either. Carrying way too much baggage, we really don’t need another four or eight years of a Clinton Administration. Despite his age, Bernie Sanders represents the future direction of the Democratic Party. That’s why the Party old-guard are terrified of him. It’s really quite disheartening.
Now, I could tremble in fear for what all this means for us as a people. There is much to fear, particularly if the Presidential contest comes down to a race between Clinton and Trump. I could lament the ugliness of the Republican nomination race. I could resent the underhandedness of the Democratic nomination race. I could wonder what’s happened to us as a people. I could decry everything from the lack of seriousness to the rising tide of violence at Trump rallies.
Except, I’m not going to. I mean, obviously I find the violence appalling. I am disgusted at the tone of the Republican nomination process. I’m unnerved at the thought of another Clinton Administration. All that being said, I’m not despairing for my country. Not at all.
Politics is about power, who has it, who uses it, and how they use it. The fact is Presidential politics, for all the drama it presents us, isn’t what it was 30 years ago. The reassertion of Congress as primer inter pares in our divided system renders any Presidential agenda questionable, no matter who sits in the White House. While both Trump and Sanders attract excited crowds (in Trumps case, one might call them over-zealous), in a country of over 300 million people, the actual numbers of those who truly support these candidates whole-heartedly are really quite small. Time and again over the last eight years, we’ve seen examples of how the changing age and ethnic and population demographics have changed America from what it was even thirty years ago.
Because politics is about power; because of the changing dynamics of power in the United States federal government; because our country no longer has a voting let along governing majority; these aren’t the reasons I’m not truly fearful of the result of this year’s Presidential race. The truth is, politics isn’t a hopeful process. While it’s important to speak out, to vote, to work for your candidate of choice, there is no real hope in any of it. Never has been.
Real hope, the only hope that matters, the only hope that matters, is the hope that comes from the promise we’re offered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is certainly possible that Donald Trump could be elected President this November; that’s no reason to lose hope. It isn’t even outside the realm of possibility that a Trump Presidency could result in the unthinkable occurring; that’s no reason to lose hope. Not because these aren’t horrible things; the reason to continue to be hopeful is that, for all our world is a mess from Syria through global warming to the continual rise of racist violence here in the United States, our world is not yet complete. These things aren’t signs to despair. They are opportunities for us to work even harder, as Christians, to bring Good News in word and deed to a hurting world. In the face of hatred and violence, we need to bring love. In the face of arrogance and recklessness we need to bring humility and thoughtfulness.
In the midst of fear, we must bring the fearlessness that comes from knowing that nothing, not death, not life, not angels, not rules, not things present, not things to come, not powers, not height, not depth, nothing in creation can separate us from the love that comes from God in the name of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Ours is to be a life lived faithfully and lovingly, to be sure. It is also, as St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, to be lived hopefully because the promise we have is one of never-ending faithfulness and care. Martin Luther King said it best: “I’m not fearing anybody, for mine eyes have seen the glory of the Lord.”
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Romans 12:2
It was the winter of 1989, I think. I was in the midst of considering the question, “What is a call from God? What is my call from God?” I was having a conversation with an old friend who was going through the same process. For some reason lost to middle-aged forgetfulness, the talk turned to the question of gay folk in ministry. As I said, I have forgotten what I said before and after, I remember all to vividly something I said, something that has stayed with me, shaped me, and pushed my thoughts on this question in the quarter-century since. “Since I have no idea what this whole call-to-ministry thing is, beyond believing that God is calling me to do something, who am I or anyone to question someone’s call to ministry just because they’re gay?” That simple, logical formula has been the plumb line for my reflections on these questions ever since.
The funny thing, of course, was that at this time the number of folks I knew who self-identified as a sexual minority was precisely zero. The whole issue was abstract for me. Within a year all that would change and the challenge I would face was my own inner thoughts and prejudices that suddenly came to the surface when I met actual flesh-and-blood folks who were happy to be known as gay or lesbian. Getting to know them as people for whom this modifier was only one among many that shaped their identity certainly helped. Realizing that I had now to live out what I had previously said I believed, viz., that these folks call to ministry was as legitimate as any other, I was humbled by own earlier forthrightness precisely because I had not reckoned my own feelings. In retrospect, this process was actually quite quick, although at the time it was largely silent, unknown to anyone else. I just wasn’t sure that being in Seminary was a place I could be honest about this struggle; I had to come to terms with my feelings on my own.
Fast forward to now. Our denominational battles over sexuality, our theology of sex, our policies and practice of ministry toward and with sexual minorities is, yet again, reaching a fever pitch as we come ever closer to yet another General Conference at which these matters will be front and center. Until just the past few days, I was quite sure what side was “right” and what side was “wrong”. Convinced of my own theological and moral purity on this matter, I was as disdainful and destructive of others as they have been of me. Anger, bitterness, charges and counter-charges of bad exegesis, faulty theology, even apostasy seemed so easy to make, especially since I was so sure I was right.
Then I realized who I had become.
So now, rather than man the ramparts, I want to know the answer to one, simple, question: What have been my motives not only to support full inclusion, but to act with such anger and – let’s be honest – hate toward those with whom I disagree? Rather than rely upon my confidence in my own righteousness, I really honestly want to know if, no matter how honest and well-intentioned, there might well be conformation at work, rather than transformation. Which is not to say that, suddenly, I’m going to become an opposite partisan in our on-going self-flagellation. No, I’m just asking a question I hope and pray we all do as we move forward. Are we really, truly so sure of ourselves that we believe we speak for God? How far, really, have we opened ourselves to the transformation of our minds so that we can discern the will of God? How far have we been motivated by a deep well of fellow-feeling for our fellow human beings? Are we so eager to be “prophetic”, to be heard as some forward-thinker, to gather around us those who believe and act like us that we are not humbling ourselves before God in prayer and one another, seeking discernment.
This isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be. It is necessary, however, if our discussion and dialogue is to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:9-21
Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. – Mark 10:18
In the knowledge of good and evil [humanity] does not understand [itself] in the reality of the destiny appointed in [its] origin, but rather in [its] own possibilities, [its] possibility of being good or evil. [Human beings know themselves] now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that [we] now know only [ourselves] and no longer know God at all; for [human beings] can know God only if [we] know only God. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can [ a person] know good and evil. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp. 17-18
I sometimes think we are so wedded to certain words and concepts and images because they make it easy to understand the world. In and of itself, such a tendency isn’t bad. We are living in an age when we are bombarded with so much information it has become nearly impossible to filter out the important from the trivial, the relevant from the nonsensical. We need these filters in order to keep our brains from overloading. It becomes more than just habit to apply them. soon, it becomes such a part of who we are that we do it when, perhaps, it might be better to stop filtering and think about what we are reading, or hearing, or seeing, and give it the privilege of actual thought.
I know I’ve written about what I call “the kitten-burning trap” before: A story spreads on the internet of someone burning a kitten or kittens. Everyone bewails the horror of kitten-burning. For some reason, the discussion switches from the horrors of kitten-burning to who and who does not denounce kitten-burning. Not long after this, people who do not denounce kitten-burning are targeted with demands to denounce it; failure to do so is seen as the absence of a moral compass; perhaps the person in question is a closet kitten-burner?
Substitute any alleged moral failing for kitten-burning, and I think the “trap” element becomes clear enough. It should go without saying that kitten-burning is horrible. Indeed, that there are many who do NOT denounce kitten burning testifies not so much to a secret society of kitten burners as it does to those with enough moral sense to understand that even a child would understand how heinous such an act would be. Why waste time and energy denouncing what most folks already understand to be a morally vicious act? Yet, silence is too often understood as consent, whether it’s kitten-burning, the Hindu practice of Sati, or chattel slavery. We descend down spirals of lunacy as some demand a moral stand on something that is obviously horrific, and those with a willingness to allow horrors to speak for themselves become accused of silent, perhaps even active but secret, practicioners of said despicable crime.
In St. Paul’s benedictory comments in his letter to the church in Rome, there is an absolutely beautiful call to live as those saved by Christ. At the very beginning, he writes, “Hate evil; hold fast to what is good”. That, it would seem, trumps any theologians attempt to set to one side the discernment of good and evil as a Christian imperative. After all, how can we hate evil and hold fast to the good if we set to one side the discernment Paul seems to be calling for?
Yet, Jesus makes it clear enough in the Synoptics – the word “good” can only be applied to “God”; he denies it even to himself. What, then, should we do? After all, how often are we told it is precisely the ignorance of good and evil that is that root of so much of our social dysfunction. A staple line in many contemporary horror films, particularly those that feature some kind of demonic entity or character, is a character’s confession that he or she didn’t really know what evil was until the event or person at the center of the film’s plot made itself known to them. The extension, then, sounds clearly enough with ears to hear: We just don’t understand good and evil. Pres. Bush told us that, and the echo chamber sounded it far and near. Liberals were those who failed to call evil by its name, either out of ignorance or complicity, therefore they were either morally deficient or, the usual supposition, morally vicious enough to sympathize with “evil doers”.
To all those who insist “true” or “real” evil is only the presence of something described as demonic, I wonder how they would describe the kidnapping, rape, and brain-washing of nearly a 1,000 women by Nigeria’s Boko-Haram terrorist organization? What about mass graves that dot so much of the world’s landscape, from the site of the World Trade Center through Bosnia-Herzogovina to Cambodia? Are these not mute testimony to evil in the world? What about efforts by elected officials to deny the needy the resources they need to survive? These are just a few of the things I would call “evil”, if I thought the word useful. It doesn’t take coming face-to-face with some poor person possessed by the Devil for me to know “evil”.
Back to Romans. I think it is important to note that St. Paul spends absolutely zero time describing what he means by “evil”. On the contrary, his effort is to exhort and encourage the fledgling Roman Christian congregation to live out of love toward all, even those who persecute them. The problem, it seems, wasn’t an abundance of evil. It was, rather, a lack of good that was part of the problem in the Roman Church. The call to good works demonstrates a need that was not being addressed.
So what about today? Why am I so annoyed by the whole “good versus evil” thing? It isn’t because I secretly wish to encourage antimonianism. That’s just kind of stupid, really. It is, rather, to note that – like the word “community” – the words are so overused they have become meaningless, empty except perhaps by the pet peeves of whoever is using them at any particular time. Part of Bonhoeffer’s description of “good and evil” as “falling away from God” lies in the Biblical story of the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. This event is often referred to as “the Fall”, the moment humanity broke the most basic covenant God made with Creation – simple obedience. From this flows history in its long, bloody footprints across the globe. Another reason Bonhoeffer insists we set to one side an emphasis on “good” versus “evil” is that, for the Christian, the question is not the simplistic moral choice. Nor is it creating ethical formulas for acting “good”. Rather, the primary ethical duty of the Christian is each day, perhaps more often, to seek the will of God then live it. For some, actions followed under this call might look like evil. Like, say, helping people plot to assassinate their national leader . . .
Whether or not Bonhoeffer was setting up some kind of theological justification for his participation in the Abwehr’s plot against Hitler’s life, his theological position has, from the moment I read it, sounded far more in line with Christian teaching than our too-often abused search for good and evil, for good guys and bad guys, as if being a Christian was like a child’s game of cops and robbers. For example, those women kidnapped by Boko Haram? They were recently rescued by the Nigerian military and are in refugee camps, being tended by therapists and counselors as well as medical professionals. Yet, all insist that, for all it was a good thing the women were rescued from what would have been a life of little more than sexual slavery, they will face all sorts of challenges when they return to the towns, villages, and cities from which they were taken. Women are too often viewed as willing and complicit in their violations in such acts. They could face everything from expulsion from their homes and separation from their families to death by those who see honor killing as the only recourse. So, the kidnapping was evil, sure. Has the rescue been a good thing? What are we, far away and ignorant of so much of the life and mores of Nigerians, to do? Denounce them as evil as well? Is it really that simple?
And the shooting in Texas. . . When a group led by a well-documented anti-Muslim bigot gathers a bunch of people together to draw cartoons that insult the Prophet of Islam, is that good or evil? When Muslims, morally and emotionally exhausted by the constant insults they see and hear and read day in and day out, resort to violence, is that good or evil?
How many more mass graves do we have to uncover before someone demands “Enough?” What if some of those mass graves are in the United States, evidence of our history of warfare and violence against the native peoples? Are we really prepared to admit that we Americans are no better than the Serbs, the Soviets, the Germans of World War II, the Chinese under Mao Te-tsung, or the Khmer Rouge?
What if we spent a moment or two thinking about what is going on in the world, and realized the world is a strange, complicated, contrary place and even the most horrific event might well be far more nuanced than our simple “good and evil” filter tells us?
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ – Luke 11:1
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. – Romans 8:26
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name for ever.
For great is your steadfast love towards me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. – Psalm 86:12-13
Cure for loneliness
Life is much too short to be whiled away with tears
Cure for loneliness
I erase you now
I don’t need you now
I erase you now with all of my past – Partial lyrics, “Second Life Syndrome”, lyrics by Mariusz Duda
This is not a blog about me or my life. At the same time, occasions might call for some reflection. I have tried in the past to set that in a theological context, if for no other reason than to maintain some kind of integrity with this blog’s purpose. Also, these personal reflections more likely than not come through reflection, prayer, worship, and are rooted in theological categories. Today’s reflection is actually rooted in the Sermon preached at the 11:00 service at Christ UMC in Rockford, IL. It was an extended meditation on Psalm 86, and how it can be a model for prayers of petition. Perhaps it can be a model of prayer, full stop.
In any event, after the sermon and after taking communion, as is my wont, I went to the kneeler around the altar to pray. I’m never quite sure what I’m going to pray, 0r how I’ll feel. This is just my time to do that. There was this flash in my head, and I think I learned something, or perhaps relearned it in a new way. Why I feel a need to share it, I’m not quite sure. Only that I was stupid enough to share my thoughts and plans on how I was going to kill myself, it might be nice to share with you where I am now, and how that all might have changed today.
There is no question I face every single day, whether from myself or someone else, that is more annoying or more unanswerable than, “When are you going to get better?” Some time back, it occurred to me that this was not some incident triggered by a combination of a series of particular events in my life; rather, I’ve come to see that I have lived most of my life with depression, sometimes less so, sometimes more. I am in the middle of re-evaluating the talk-therapy part of treatment, as I come to grips with all this. Still, the psychopharmacology of mental illness is such that it renders it difficult, to say the least, to work. I know some people who do. I’m currently on maximum doses of two anti-depressants and the maximum dose of an anti-anxiety medication, so I spend most of my waking hours in a bit of a sleepy fog. As much as I’d love to give this up, these medications keep me from sinking back to where I was; they help me focus and concentrate even while they usually push me to sleep, or at least want to, throughout most of the day. I want to work. I also want to live. It’s a trade-off with which our family is still trying to come to terms.
Yet that question arises. When will I get better. Early on, I was more honest than I realized when I said that I had no idea what “better” might look like, only that I’d know it when I started to experience it. All along, however, my secret wish – and I think my wife’s as well, for no one has been impacted more by all this than she, and she’s endured it like a real trooper, let me tell you – has been that I could or would just go back to the way I used to be. Certainly not outgoing and the social butterfly but at least comfortable in social situations, rather than awkward and wary; no longer living with a constant undercurrent of nearly-paralyzing anxiety that is more set at bay by medication rather than eliminated; most of all, I just wanted to be the person I used to be. Is that asking too much?
Listening to today’s sermon on prayers of petition, and thinking about St. Paul’s declaration that we do not know how to pray as we ought, and reflecting both on the plea of Jesus’s disciples to teach them to pray, and the Psalmist declaration of fealty because of the deliverance the LORD has given from the place of death, I was at the kneeler and I realized that I had, in all probability, been praying for and expecting exactly the wrong thing. Whatever “better” might mean, it certainly would not be the status quo ante. How would that even be possible? Not knowing how to pray, wanting to learn to pray, and remembering my deliverance from the place of the dead, it occurred to me that, on a spiritual level, I had been yearning for something that I could not have: myself prior to the events of last winter.
To do so would be to ignore the reality of all I’ve been through. To be who I was not only wouldn’t be growing; it would be regressing. Asking through prayer for some kind of return to the past missed the point that I was in the midst of a process that might well create a far better person, a far more self-aware person, a far less self-centered person than I was before. To arrest that, to reverse it, in some desire to be over it rather than through it, in the name of “better” would be not to recognize not only the reality through which I had lived, but the reality in which I was living.
So, that “you” Riverside sings about, that “you” with whom I do not need anything anymore – that is not only the extremely ill me from last winter. It is the me who was there prior to that. Things that do not grow die. So, here I am – growing, even if that isn’t necessarily “better” (it certainly isn’t worse!). I still don’t have a clue what “better” would be. I do, however, understand my current experience in a far different way, spiritually, than I did before. Perhaps even that is a sign of “better”.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.* Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. – Romans 12:9-12
Like the word “suicide,” “suffering” is another word that is used — and valued — very differently. By dying at age 29, Maynard signaled that carrying on while she no longer knew herself was pointless and would only prolong the agony of those who loved her.
She saw no value in suffering.
That may be one reason the right-to-die movement, led by advocacy groups such as Compassion & Choices and others, is so worrisome to many of its opponents. If suffering is optional, then it might also be spiritually meaningless.
That’s a very different perspective than what is taught by many of the world’s religions and philosophies. – Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Brittany Maynard’s Death: Does Suffering Have Spiritual Meaning?”, United Methodist Reporter, Nov. 4, 2014
That the Christian discourse on suffering is both long and detailed; that from Biblical texts through political and liberation theologies of the late 20th century “suffering” was a category that took on a new urgency and focus; that believers have been urged to endure pain and suffering in the name of the faith for nearly two millennia; none of this is beyond dispute. What is now disputable is whether or not “suffering” is a univocal category at all. Is asking the question about the “spiritual meaning” of suffering in a case such as Ms. Maynard’s even appropriate, perhaps offensive?
Particularly in the Gospel texts, where Jesus meets people suffering pain and illness and debility, he has compassion upon them and heals them. In the context of the times, such healing offered these people the opportunity to return to live in community with others. Sickness was primarily a spiritual condition for Galilean and Judean Jews of the first century. Those who were ill were not whole, therefore not holy, therefore it was impossible for them to be ritually clean. Shunned, forced away from any human contact, there was no sense of social compassion whatsoever, until Jesus entered and, as in all things, changed everything.
On the other hand, the suffering to which St. Paul and the Epistle writers, including St. John of Patmos, refer is social rejection, religious persecution, legal incarceration which often included torture. This was not the pain of a physical ailment that forced one outside the communion of saints. It was, rather, very real social, cultural, and religious disapprobation for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord. When St. Paul asks the Roman Christians to “be patient in suffering”, he is both encouraging them in the faith and reminding them what he said in what we call chapter 8 of the same epistle: that the “suffering” we endure in this life is more than worth the reward to come with the immanent return of Jesus Christ and the final establishment of the Divine Kingdom on earth.
To write an entire column about whether or not Ms. Maynard’s decision to end her life rather than suffer, and put her family through the pain of watching her suffer, confuses the meaning of suffering, places demands upon others that is offensive to say the least, and robs Ms. Maynard (as well as others who have made similar decisions) of the dignity she took with her as she died. Few things are more offensive to me than people insisting that other people endure pain, put their families through pain, and all for the sake of some religious ideal they have misconstrued. Human suffering is not something to celebrate; it is something to alleviate, in faith and using the best tools at our disposal to do so.
Ms. Maynard did not die in the face of threats to her faith. She was not being tortured because she refused to recant her confession of faith in the risen Jesus. She was not attacked and beaten to death because she was a Christian. She was a young woman whose life would be shortened painfully, including the loss of her sense of her own identity, while her family and loved ones looked on helplessly, enduring their own pain for no purpose and to no end but the end Ms. Maynard chose for herself in a way that brought far less pain, and certainly far less suffering, than months or even years of agony for so many.
Just because religions around the world insist people have to endure pain doesn’t mean it’s right. Certainly, in this case, Ms. Maynard’s decision was not one rooted in any Christian ideal. She did not avoid the suffering that comes from living the faith; she avoided the suffering that comes from an illness for which there was no treatment, no cure, no hope of anything. In many ways, her choice of death, going out before her tumor began to rob her of her ability to enjoy life, was a kind of healing act. She remains within the community of those who live life, rather than slowly, agonizingly shunned, shunted first to a hospital, then perhaps a nursing home, then finally to hospice care as her body and mind withered away. While sad, and I’m quite sure her family and friends mourn her death, there is also something of the healing hand of Jesus in the midst of this death. Neither Ms. Maynard nor her family are socially ostracized because of her illness. No one loses the most vital connection – human contact and community – because Ms. Maynard has chosen to die rather than live in pain.
To claim that Ms. Maynard’s decision to take her own life ahead of the illness that would be a bit more slow and far less merciful about it in some way robs spiritual meaning from suffering is not only offensive. It betrays a willingness to sacrifice the good lives of others so that one’s own sense of the meaning of suffering can continue. It also betrays a refusal to consider changing circumstances, changing understandings and definitions, and distinctions and equivocations in the word “suffering”. Finally, it takes no thought to assemble quotes from different religions; it takes real faith, real risk, and real thought to move through the event in question and consider the possibility of arriving at a wholly different conclusion, one that does not insult Ms. Maynard, belittle her decision, or insist that others live with pain and die alone so that traditions that have endured for so long continue to be observed.
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ – Job 2:7-9
NB: This song contains the following lyrics:
Impending death for partaking in blasphemy,
The end to all for he ones who will not believe,
Evading time and discard to entitlement,
A wailing wall of destruction of innocence…
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39
This topic has arisen in a couple recent conversations I’ve had, and as it is at least tangential to the larger project of which I wrote yesterday, I thought it best to set out my views. I will admit up front that mine is most definitely a minority view, even among what many consider “liberal” Christianity. That’s OK. And that view can be summed up simply: I do not believe there is such a thing as “blasphemy”.
Right away I can hear the objections, most of which are valid. The Commandment not to take the name of the LORD in vain. “Blasphemers” as those listed by St. Paul who are to be shunned. The long history, across human societies, cultures, and religions, of the taboo against any negative statement against the deity. All of which is correct. All of which I would submit is irrelevant to the question that my statement raises: What is blasphemy?
If one understands the matter as simply a taboo against any degrading word or image of the deity or related religious symbols, simply invoking history isn’t enough to prove that, in fact, blasphemy is a “thing” about which we human beings should be mindful. Consider there are many nation-states, particularly Muslim, that have anti-blasphemy laws for which the punishment is death. Many of these laws are so broad that converting from Islam to another religion; stating publicly one’s atheism; proselytizing another faith; all these are enough to get one convicted of blasphemy and receive judicially sanctioned murder as punishment. Isn’t it possible that criminalizing speech so far is a bit much, regardless of context?
None of this is to deny that words have power. In fact, one of the amazing things about the Internet is we see just how powerful words are. Just the other day, in a discussion of another topic, someone insisted that other persons be willing to risk their lives, and their family’s lives, in order that that person would be satisfied that the language in the United Methodist Discipline is changed. I responded with sarcasm, for which another person chastised me. The person insisting that Bishops living in countries where homosexuality is criminalized risk their lives – an insistence made from a distance without any threat to the person making the demand – was somehow less offensive than a sarcastic response from me is typical of much internet discourse. We’re all familiar, after all, what happens when a young black man is killed by a white person. Immediately, the discussion becomes about the volatile nature of racial discourse rather than the history of racial violence in our country. To deny that words have power is to deny a reality we all experience.
At the same time, as Christians who proclaim the grace of the Father, through the crucified and risen Son, offered to Creation in the Spirit of Life and New Life, how is it – how can it be – possible that many of us continue to hold to the idea that words and images might well not only offend God, but be actions that separate us, permanently, from God? Language, after all, is a contingent, historical thing. Words have layers of meaning, rarely clear. Furthermore, words are mediate rather than immediate, conveying imperfectly meaning among those who share the same language. Considering the act of immersing a crucifix in a glass of human urine to be blasphemous confuses the sign – “Piss Christ” – with the thing signified – anger, rage, and/or rejection of the tenets of the Christian faith.
None of which means that I, personally, am completely comfortable around words and deeds others consider blasphemous. On the contrary, I am very uneasy. That unease, however, has to do with years of unthought acceptance of an all too human teaching that does not touch upon the reality of God’s grace. Too often, the very power of certain words and images arrest thought, and we forget that it is how we live our lives, i.e., in love toward others, rather than whether or not any particular word or image is “correct”.
Thus it is that I do not believe there is a Christian sin called “blasphemy” which we Christians should fear. On the contrary, some of that which we call blasphemous – the expression of anger at God over injustice or personal pain; the announced rejection of belief in God; the celebration of the destruction of the Church in the name of Satan – is the expression of a faith so deep the pain wrenches our soul out of shape. We give ourselves over to voicing our rage and pain, or listening in as others do it for us, in order, like Job, to demand a hearing, to demand an answer to our questions.
There is nothing wrong, unChristian, and certainly not “blasphemous” about such actions. It is in church, indeed, that the depths of human pain and suffering – including voicing our rage and confusion – should be allowed to reach their peak. There is no place safer for us to express what some would call blasphemy than in a community of believers. How else can we expect people to move through their anger if we do not keep space open for such expressions?
This includes in our liturgy. Too often, particularly in what is called “contemporary-style worship”, the emphasis is upon praise, at the expense of lament. Yet the Bible is filled with human cries to God, cries that receive no answer, cries from pain and suffering, from injustice and destruction and death. How is it possible to praise God when there are those in the congregation who wish to weep, to demand answers, to cry out like the Psalmist: “Oh God, why have you forsaken me?” Without that space within our liturgy, our praise is too often empty, or at the very least incomplete. We should become more comfortable with what many would call blasphemy if we are going to open our churches to a world that is hurting, that has questions rooted in pain, and that sees far too little to praise. Unless we give up the idea of Christian blasphemy, we cannot minister fully and completely to a world that no longer believes God is alive and active in our world. We will be far busier shushing such complaints than we are hearing them, and considering not only their legitimacy, but that perhaps we do not have a ready response to them; that only time, prayer, and being in a community that uplifts those in such pain offers any hope for an answer. Or perhaps not. We must, however, make that offer, knowing full well it may fail.
That is why I do not “believe” in “blasphemy”. Not that such things don’t happen. Rather, I do not believe that any human action, including things we say, can separate us from God. I also believe much of what we call blasphemy is rooted in deep faith demanding answers to questions for which ready answers just don’t exist. I believe that we must overcome our discomfort and reach out, even to those who express themselves in ways we find distasteful, listen, and offer the possibility of forgiveness and love in the blessed community. Sometimes, there is no way to blessing except through the angry rejection of God.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how topray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. – Romans 8:26
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. – Romans 12:12
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters,* to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you;esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved,* to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets,* but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.- 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church. We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people. We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another. – Statement from The United Methodist Council of Bishops
One would think the Bishops had asked us to poke one another in the eyes with sharp sticks, if one only considered the comments both on the linked piece as well as the comments on the same linked piece at the Facebook Group “Progressive United Methodists”. Acknowledging our division; speaking the name of that which divides us; calling upon all of us to pray for the Bishops, for one another, and for the whole United Methodist Church: These are not just important steps in a far longer process. The Bishops follow in the tradition of St. Paul, part of whose legacy is not only prayer for others, but admonitions to pray in all circumstances, indeed to pray without ceasing. To live one’s life as prayer.
In the midst of our disagreements, nothing is more necessary than prayer. Prayer for our leaders, from our local pastors up to and including our Bishops. We need to be in prayer for our local congregations, for our districts and District Superintendents, for our Conferences and the member churches, the Administrative and Episcopal and Ecclessiological leaders and servants. Most of all, we need to be in prayer for those with whom we know we disagree, even if we may not know their names, because there is little doubt there are those with whom we disagree strongly. It was Jesus Christ who called us to bless those who curse us, to love our enemies, to always live in love toward others, even if it meant our death. Nothing that drastic is involved here; the Bishops are doing nothing more than calling upon the whole Church to be in prayer for the whole Church. This is not just proper Episcopal advice; it is proper Biblical advice.
All one need do, however, is scroll down the linked article at the United Methodist News Service, and it becomes quite clear that a call to prayer sounds . . . weak to many in our midst. For example, revlar wrote in part: “With all due respect; this is a weak and disappointing statement. We have been called to be in prayer regarding human sexuality but that is not prophetic or ground-breaking or Pastoral.” Conqui wrote:
Asking people to pray, talking about loving each other, encouraging us to make disciples of Christ are nice platitudes but does nothing to have specific conversations about the specifics of disagreement. What in God’s name has the so-called task force accomplished towards the specific goals it was given a year ago? The ways the Cou[n]cil of Bishops is avoiding dealing with actual things that will result in true and specific conversations are more than shameful, they are destructive.
Finally, someone posting only as “You’re not welcome anymore” was the most harsh:
“guard the faith”…. Translation: protect the book of discipline and keep Gays and SSM couples out of the church at any cost. Worthless fools guarding the gates reassuring some of us there is no “open door, nor an open heart” to be found in the old mainline UMC.
It’s almost like some folks resent being reminded that we are to live in prayer. It’s almost as if some folks do not believe in the power of prayer to change lives.
The title of this post comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. He reminds his readers that even our most earnest, fervent prayers are little more than jumbled nonsense, groanings that the Spirit translates and hears as the deepest needs of our hearts. Rejecting a call to prayer . . . it goes against Scripture. It goes against tradition. It violates the most basic canon of reason. It makes a lie of our experience of prayer. It is, in other words, as unWesleyan as you can get.
Not only should we heed this call to prayer; we should advocate it in our local churches, making it a request during congregational prayers – asking for prayers to heal the divisions within and among the people called Methodist; for our leaders who are no less divided than we are; for a passionate but ultimately fruitful conversation and process in which we hear the answer of the Spirit in our collective life.
I’m disappointed by so much vitriol directed at a call to prayer. It hurts even more than the divisions and acrimony at the heart of our disagreements, and is all the evidence we need that ours is a hurting people, in need not only of prayer but the Holy Spirit to come and be with us, among us, in us, and for us. We are in this together, so praying for all of us is as necessary as breathing. What else can we do, if we are to be the people of God gathered as United Methodist Christians?