The Log in Our Eye (Divorce and Gay Marriage, Part 2)

Photo by Tangopaso and Musaromana, Creative Commons

Photo by Tangopaso and Musaromana, Creative Commons

Depending on which study you look at, divorce rates among Evangelicals or Born-Again Christians are either equal to the national average or well below it. But they’re never under 25%. So one marriage out of four, at least, ends in divorce.

Whether this is better than the national average or not, it’s still very high. Much higher than you’d think, given Jesus’s strong words against divorce.

Why is this so? I don’t know, but I have a few observations.  I’ll work through them in more detail in subsequent posts, but today I’ll simply give an overview.

Idolatry of Family – we Evangelicals see the family as paramount. We ignore the Apostle Paul’s words about celibacy (1 Cor 7:8-9), and we push everyone to get married early.

The pressure is so subtle, we don’t even realize it’s there, but we’re soaking in it every day of our lives. We get married before we’re ready, and it sets too many of us on the path to divorce.

Purity Culture – alongside the pressure to marry young is the overwhelming pressure (at least on girls) to stay “pure” for marriage.

The ugly flip side of this is that girls who have sex before they are married (and something like 80% do), are often shamed, treated like damaged goods. Elizabeth Smart’s story is a chilling example of this. The emotional scars this shaming leaves can affect marriage for years down the line.

Purity Culture’s Empty Promises – If the stick wasn’t enough, purity culture has an equally damaging carrot. It’s implied, and sometimes even stated outright, that if you wait until your wedding night, everything will be awesome.

The truth is, virginity is no magic key to a perfect marriage. This should be obvious, and it’s a sign of how messed up things are that it isn’t.

Having mystically high expectations set up that reality can’t realistically meet? Not a good foundation for a marriage.

Game Face Churchianity – you’d think that at church, among your fellow believers, would be the place to share your struggles, to show vulnerability, to be true and authentic, even when it isn’t pretty.

Well, you’d think that unless you’d ever actually been to church.

Pray Away the Gay – I went to a Baptist college as an undergraduate. Several men I knew there got married right out of college, just like they were supposed to (see #1, above). Some even had kids, just like they were supposed to.

Then, down the line, they realized they were gay. Or they admitted to themselves that they were gay. Or they just couldn’t repress the fact that they were gay anymore.

Reparative therapy doesn’t work. That’s been proven to the point that the APA and AMA are both resolutely against it. Marrying a woman and hoping it will all work out certainly doesn’t work.

Dragging a woman (and even children) through that unnecessary hell is just plain inexcusable, but the greater guilt is on those who pressured the gay man to do it.

So What’s Left?

Maybe the answer isn’t found in Jesus’ words about divorce, but in his words about self-examination and self-righteousness in Matthew 7:3-5.

3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?

5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

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Toxic Worship (The Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part 2)

Sculpture of a Family

Photo by J. Lord, Creative Commons

This is part three of my series on William Stringfellow’s The Imposters of God. You can read my first post on Chapter One and my introduction to the series.

As you recall, Stringfellow pointed out that an idol is anything we use to define ourselves, to give significance to our lives, other than God (of course). All such things – money, family, church, reputation, country – are doomed to fail us, of course.

But did you know that so long as we put them in the place of worship, that we are doomed to fail them?

As Stringfellow put it, “Where idolatrous patriotism is practiced, the vocation of the nation so idolized is destroyed.”

How far from the lofty ideals of civil rights and democracy have the super-patriots (with their super PATRIOT Acts) taken us?

I’m old enough to remember when torture and indefinite detention were things the bad guys did, not things two successive openly Christian Presidents would undertake, to the applause of their mostly openly Christian supporters.

“When the family is idolized, the members of the family are enslaved.” (Stringfellow). How many times have we seen parents living vicariously through their children? Whether Tiger Moms pushing their kids into depression  or washed-up high school quarterbacks and homecoming queens reliving their youth, it never ends well.

I’m reminded of the controlling mother from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who’d rather have her son with her in hell than leave him in heaven.

Even within our churches, the extreme focus on the family has left the unmarried feeling unwanted. It’s made us political animals, white-flighting our way into the “best” schools.

It’s led us to forget that the Apostles who spread the Gospel to the known world were themselves single, and that they focused not on their families, but on the Gospel.

“Every idol, therefore, represents a thing or being existing in a state of profound disorientation” (Stringfellow).

Idolatry ultimately brings death.

Sometimes literally, as in our persistent worship of war.

Sometimes figuratively, in the dehumanization of a culture that views everything and everyone as a commodity.

And sometimes both, as in the dysfunctional relationships and vicious social structures that drive the young to depression and sometimes suicide.

Perhaps Idolatry is at the heart of the decline of America’s churches. We’ve grown so entangled with the idols of respectability, growth, and politics that we find ourselves reduced to merely a social function. A social function that offers precious little to the constantly-connected Facebook generation.

What is the answer? I’m not certain. But I know this. We fail, again and again, to keep the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3).

And to even detect our idols means turning the rusty knife of self-examination on the things we hold dearest. The pain may be akin to amputating a gangrenous limb without anesthetic, but it must be done if we are serious about serving Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

American Gods (Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part One)

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

[This is my second post on William Stringfellow’s 1965 book, Imposters of God. For my first post, click here.]

When most people think of idolatry, they think of ancient Rome or today’s hunter-gatherers. But this is a mistake, according to William Stringfellow. “After all, is there any essential difference between middle-class people idolizing their children, as they do in America, an heathen venerating their ancestors?”

Today, as in 1965, idolatry is alive and well in America. We have made our new gods, but even the old gods find adherents. “Recalling Hiroshima, or beholding the war in Vietnam, can any of us really believe that Mars has abdicated his throne, or that the cult in which war is the deity, is any less militant here and now than in former times?”

In 48 years, what has changed? Recalling Baghdad  or beholding the war in Afghanistan and the constant drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, is Ares not still worshiped? Do we not pour out blood offerings to him every day?

America has always been polytheistic. We’ve always worshiped liberty, war, money, independence, family, rugged individualism, tradition, and religion.

In the Evangelical Churches especially, we’ve made an idol of marriage and family. What are singles Sunday School classes? Meat markets. What message do students get at Christian colleges? Get a ring by spring.

What do we teach about the call to celibacy, which the apostle Paul holds up as being more useful for the kingdom than marriage? Nothing, or perhaps, that it’s a Catholic thing that turns their priests into perverts.

What are the names of our great political organizations? American Family, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family … think about it, and think about what Jesus said about family (Luke 14:26).

Back to Stringfellow. What is an idol? It is anything, no matter how inherently noble, that a person uses to justify his or her own existence. An idol is “…that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile.”

The Christian is justified by God’s faithfulness, especially as show by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. If we lose sight of that and base our worth on anything else:

  • Family
  • Accomplishments
  • Children
  • Physical fitness
  • Political party
  • Reputation
  • Our own moral strength
  • Wealth
  • Patriotism,
  • Our Church and place in it

…. then we have fallen into idolatry.

When we use these idols to justify our existence, we become invested in them, even evangelize them. Stringfellow summed up the generational conflict of the 1960’s in one sentence:

“Americans who have devoutly served the idols of respectability and status all their lives feel threatened in their very being when their children refuse to offer these idols the same worship.”

Next time, I’ll talk about how letting something become an idol damages not only the inadvertent idolater, but also the idol.

But for now, let me offer up this prayer. Father in Heaven, give me eyes to see the idols that I have hidden in my life. Show me all those things I worship that are not you. Give me the wisdom to understand them. Give me the strength to cast them down, like Gideon.

Amen.

Not a Tame Lion (Idolatry of Conformity)

Lion

photo by Robek, Creative Commons

I have always believed in chaos

Jesus did not come to bring order out of chaos are wrong.

He did not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword

to set son against father and father against son,

mother against daughter and daughter against mother

Order can be just as much a tool of the Hell as chaos

Is Calvin’s Geneva holy? Ask Miguel Servetus.

Was the Puritan city on the hill more holy than the “savages’ wilderness” it replaced?

Is Stalin’s Russia holier than Somalia’s warlords?

Our idolatry of order builds walls around God,

We tie up heavy burdens for our neighbors

and lift not one finger to help bear them.

Our walls cannot contain God,

But they can keep his beloved children out.

They are different. They do not measure up.

They are poor. They dress funny.

They speak with bad grammar.

They have tattoos.

They are sinners.

They are not like us.

But Aslan is not a tame Lion, and Jesus is not a tame God.

Let his wildness in

Let it kick over the moneychanger’s tables

Let it tear the veil of our hearts

Let it shatter every wall.

Dear God, please, shatter every wall.

Amen.

Things I DON’T Repent Of

Communion Wine

I’ve been doing a lot of repenting lately, for my own past sins and the corporate sins I was a part of. And I make no apologies for giving those apologies. But I want to be clear on a few things I am not sorry for:

I don’t repent of believing in Jesus as the living, crucified, resurrected Word of God, begotten not made, who is with God and is God, through whom all things are made.

I don’t repent of believing that the Bible is the divinely inspired written word of God. Breathed by God, written by humans, profitable for study and meditation and growth.

I don’t repent of believing in prayer. I don’t know how or even if our prayers change God’s mind, but I know that praying changes me. That’s all I need to know.

I don’t repent in believing in the priesthood of the believer, believer’s baptism, sin, redemption, the Apostle’s Creed, and a God who is both just and merciful.

I don’t repent of my libertarian belief in civil rights and individual freedom. I didn’t leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me (right around the time when it embraced torture and indefinite detention without trial).

I don’t repent of my generally conservative/libertarian-ish political ideals. I’m no longer convinced of even the potential adequacy of private charity to replace governmental welfare programs, so I’m not really a true libertarian anymore. And I tend to think that our problem may be less the size of our government and more the corruption and cronyism within it. But I still generally believe that a lean, well-run government is better.

I don’t repent of criticizing President Obama for his indiscriminate use of drone strikes in nations we are not at war with. Predator drone strike he authorized have killed over 1,500 civilians, over 170 children.

And I don’t plan to stop challenging the narrative that he is some kind of compassionate, righteous leader who “cares” about children and strives for peace. He has as much or more blood on his hands than President Bush, and I do not intend to let that go unspoken.

I don’t repent of sharing community with people whose beliefs don’t line up perfectly with mine, either politically or spiritually. If I stopped, how would I ever learn?

I don’t repent of the churches I’ve been a part of, where I’ve had friendships (we call them “church family”) with both the very young and the very old, and everyone in between.

(One dear lady in our church remembers teaching elementary school in 1934. She told me a story from then: when Bonnie and Clyde were killed, the police brought the wreck of their car around so the children could see it. Something that seemed like ancient history to me was an adult memory to her. Where else would I find that?).

I don’t repent of criticizing evangelicalism from the inside. That’s where I am. I’m not an ex-evangelical, a former evangelical, or a recovering evangelical. I am an evangelical Christian with deep concerns that weigh heavily on my conscience and my heart. And I will speak them from within.

Four Types of Violence, Part Two: Revenge

Simeon and Levi Slay the Sichemites to avenge Dinah, painted by Gerard Hoet 1728 AD

Sons of Jacob slay the Shechemites to Avenge Dinah, by Gerard Hoet, 1728 AD

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, Jesus, and the strange fact that American Christians are among the most pro-war, pro-gun and pro-death-penalty of Americans (I even count myself in that second category, though not in the others).

In thinking about violence, I noticed four types of violence in the Bible, and I thought I’d talk briefly about each.

Retributive – violence committed in response to a wrong or perceived wrong.  In ancient days, an incident could start a war between tribes. Such vendettas could continue until one or both tribes were extinct.

The rule of proportional retribution (“an eye for an eye,”) did not promote revenge, but limited it. “An eye for an eye” ended these feuds and put the responsibility for retribution and punishment in the hands of the society’s legal system, whether that is an official court system or a council of elders.

The apostle Paul reaffirmed this in the Christian era in his letter to the church at Rome [Romans 12:17-21, Romans 13:1-7] Rome was no paragon of justice and righteousness, but even so, retributive violence was to be left to its courts.

Sometimes, God used nations to bring retribution on other nations, including using violent, polytheistic nations to deliver judgment to Israel when its people fell away from His ways, when they worshiped other gods and exploited the poor, rather than caring for the widowed, fatherless, and those stranded far from home.

If you read the major and minor prophets, this happens so much that there’s really no point in referencing specific verses.  The list would be too long.

However, the nations that were used to scourge Israel were often, themselves, broken in retribution for the harm they caused. Babylon was a prime example, especially King Nebuchadnezzar, who ended up eating grass and braying like a mule [Daniel 4].

Again, there is no reason to believe, short of an angelic visit, that any of us as individuals, or the nations of which we are a part, have been chosen as instruments of God’s judgment. 

Even those nations that were described as being such in the books of the prophets were generally not aware of their role. From their perspective, they were waging wars of conquest.

In theory, revenge should be a no-brainer. In Romans 12:19, God specifically forbids it. “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (NASB).

And most of us don’t actually ‘grab a gat or a baseball bat’ and go take revenge on our enemies.  But… we get social revenge, always seeking to bring someone else down for the ways they’ve offended us.

And we love revenge movies, from The Outlaw Josey Wales  to The Crow to I Spit on Your Grave to the aptly named TV series Revenge. We read and write and watch and hear revenge. It’s a huge part of our cultural narrative.

And it makes sense. A people who love revenge, even fictional revenge, will be far more willing to support a war that’s framed in those terms. Or an execution. Or the torture of suspected terrorists.

Rome has a big reason for us to love revenge. But I don’t think our hearts can love revenge and Jesus at the same time. I think every heartbeat we spend uncritically entertaining thoughts of revenge – even fictional revenge –  is a heartbeat we don’t spend on our creator, redeemer, and sustainer.

–A Note on Context–

I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.

Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.

The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.

Things I Don’t Understand: When America Was Righteous (Part 1 of 3)

Signers of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy

Signers of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940

I hear a lot of people talk about America’s moral decline.  There’s a real sense of lost innocence and yearning for a (morally) better time.  I even hear that America was once a Christian nation.  As a student of history, I’m wondering when? 

When Was America Righteous?

(Bear with me.  This next part may sound harsh, but I promise, I’m going to be kind again soon)

At its founding, when chattel slavery was written into the Constitution?

During its expansion, when American armies slaughtered thousands of indigenous people in the name of Manifest Destiny?

After the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan rode across the south, terrorizing and freed men who tried to vote or learn to read?  When the sharecropper system substituted economic slavery for legal?

During the Gilded Age, when monopolies like Carnegie Steel and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and massive political machines bought and sold laws?  When immigrants and workers in unsafe factories, when children worked twelve hour days in mines?  When the U.S. Navy was sent to Latin America to defend the interests of American corporations?

During World War I, when a generation of young men was sent to die for England in a war we had no share in?  When those who opposed the war openly were jailed?  When we let England and France force Germany into a peace treaty so odious it set the stage for Nazi rule and World War II?

During the “Roaring Twenties,” the time of the flappers and speakeasies, when organized crime rose to heights never seen before, setting the stage for fifty years of American mafia?

During the Depression, when national relief efforts openly discriminated against minorities, when the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced, when Jim Crow ruled the South?

During World War II, when Italian-, German-, and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned for the crime of their ethnicity?

During the fifties, the age of Ozzie and Harriett, Emmett Till, and the bombing of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home?  When Governor Orval Faubus uses the National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock High School?

Maybe the sixties, with the Viet Nam war, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy?

Or the seventies?  Watergate, Viet Nam, the drug war?  The days of disco and tearoom trades?

Was it the eighties?  “Greed is good?”  “Cocaine parties?” Iran-Contra?  “Just Say No” and the crack epidemic?  Well, we did have Republican Presidents, so maybe that was it?

The nineties?  Surely not.  Gangsta Rap.  Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski.  The birth of Internet pornography…

Well, that brings us to the 21st century.

The point here is not to be sarcastic, or to be unpatriotic.  I truly believe America is a great nation, even an exceptional nation.  But we have never been a righteous nation.  Nations run on power and money, and we all know that nobody can serve two masters [Matthew 6:24].  Maybe that’s why God was so reluctant to give Israel a king [1 Samuel ch. 8].

As Americans, we can be righteous and merciful.  We can steer our nation to be more godly, to sow peace and life, rather than greed and death.  But we should never forget that we are a nation of power and wealth, like all other nations (including Israel, ancient and modern).  We should never forget that America is not the hope of the world.  Jesus is.

 

 

(In part two, I’ll give my theories as to why the “America’s righteous past” meme is so persistent and powerful.)