Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gay marriage, the Supreme Court, and progressive Christianity: One minister's viewpoint

Sorting Out the Gay Marriage Controversy
by Rev. Paul J. Bern

This past week's Supreme Court decision in favor of legalizing gay marriage has by no means settled this controversy. Growing up in the Catholic church and recalling my years in Catholic school, I learned the Bible’s stance on homosexuality is clear-cut. God condemns it, I was taught, and those who disagree will wind up in hell for eternity. You might say that my childhood church community’s approach to the taboo topic of homosexuality was riddled with self-serving double standards and condemnation. Although I offer no argument that the sins of the city-state of Sodom and Gomorrah cried to heaven for justice, I do question whether the sin that cried to heaven was simply homosexuality. A reading of the biblical text shows the sin of Sodom was not its permission of homosexuality but its inhospitality to Lot’s visitors, who in reality were Angels of the Lord. Genesis states that the crowd wished to have its way with Lot’s visitors. One does not demand the “right” to rape God's servants and expect to come away unscathed. Rape was the sin of Sodom, and I firmly agree that this does cry to heaven for justice.I don’t doubt that the one New Testament author who wrote on the subject of male-male relations thought it to be a sin. In Romans chapter 1 the apostle Paul called it “unnatural.” Problem is, Paul’s only other moral argument from nature is the following: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1st Corinthians 11:14-15). Few modern Christians would answer that question with a “yes.”

In short, Paul objects to two things as unnatural: one is same-sex marriage and the other is long hair on men and short hair on women. The community opposed to gay marriage takes one condemnation as timeless and universal and the other as culturally relative. I also don’t doubt that those who advocate gay marriage are advocating a revision of the Christian tradition. But the community opposed to gay marriage has itself revised the Christian tradition in many ways. For the first 1500 years of Christianity, for example, marriage was deemed morally inferior to celibacy. When a theologian named Jovinian challenged that hierarchy in 390 A.D. — merely by suggesting that marriage and celibacy might be equally worthwhile endeavors — he was deemed a heretic and excommunicated from the Roman church. How does that sit with so-called “family values” activism today?

Yale New Testament professor Dale B. Martin once noted that today’s "pro-family" activism, despite its pretense to be representing traditional Christian values, would have been considered heretical for most of the church’s history. The community opposed to gay marriage has also departed from the Christian tradition on another issue at the heart of its social agenda: abortion. Unbeknownst to most lay Christians, the vast majority of Christian theologians and saints throughout history have not believed life begins at conception. Although he admitted some uncertainty on the matter, the hugely influential 4th and 5th century Christian thinker Saint Augustine wrote, “it could not be said that there was a living soul in [a] body” if it is “not yet endowed with senses.” Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic saint and a giant of medieval theology, argued, “Before the body has organs in any way whatever, it cannot be receptive of the soul.”

American evangelicals, meanwhile, widely opposed the idea that life begins at conception until the 1970s, with some even advocating looser abortion laws based on their reading of the Bible before then. The point right here is that it won’t do to oppose gay marriage because it’s not traditional while advocating other positions that are not traditional. And then there’s the topic of divorce. Although there is only one uncontested reference to same-sex relations in the New Testament, divorce is condemned throughout, both by Jesus and Paul. To quote Jesus from the Gospel of Mark: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” A possible exception is made only for unfaithfulness. The right-wing conservative community most opposed to gay marriage usually reads these condemnations very leniently. A 2007 issue of Christianity Today, for example, featured a story on its cover about divorce that concluded that Christians should permit divorce for “adultery,” “emotional and physical neglect” and “abandonment and abuse.” The author emphasizes how impractical it would be to apply a strict interpretation of Jesus on this matter: “It is difficult to believe the Bible can be as impractical as this interpretation implies.” Actually, it sure is. Christianity Today really goofed on that point.

On the other hand, it’s not at all difficult for a community of Christian leaders, who are almost exclusively white, heterosexual men, to advocate interpretations that can be very impractical for a historically oppressed minority to which they do not belong – homosexuals. Whether the topic is hair length, celibacy, when life begins, or divorce, time and time again the leaders most opposed to gay marriage have demonstrated an incredible willingness to consider nuances and complicating considerations when their own interests are at stake.

I have been a born-again Christian since October of 1992, and I received my baptism of the Holy Spirit in 2008. And so I no longer identify with the Catholic church of my youth. The community gave me many fond memories and sound values but it also taught me to take the very human perspectives of its leaders and attribute them to God. So let’s stop the charade and be honest. Opponents of gay marriage aren’t defending the Bible’s values. They’re using the Bible to defend their own. They are also forgetting that the Bible repeatedly warns us about judging other people. Judgment isn't our job, it's God's job, and I will give you several examples. In the Old Testament it says, “I will deal with them according to their conduct, and by their own standards I will judge them. Then they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 7, verse 27, NIV). And in the New Testament Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7, verses 1-2, NIV). And the apostle James wrote, “Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the Law and judges it. When you judge the Law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4, verses 11-12, NIV)

The final objection is that many find homosexual sex personally disgusting. While this is an argument for not engaging in homosexual relations personally it is not strong enough to prohibit it to others who do not find it so. Sorry, all you Christian conservatives, but personal preferences and prejudices do not determine public policy choices. So, before we rush to judgment or jump to conclusions about homosexuality, gay marriage or abortion, we all need to back away from our judge's podiums and get down off our high horses and quit doing the very thing that could get someone sent to hell when they die. “Work out your own salvation”, Paul wrote, “with fear and trembling before the Lord”. And that right there, everybody, should be “job 1” for Christians everywhere. If it's not, or if we hold certain others in contempt, anyone doing so is missing the mark, falling short in their walk with the Lord, and inviting judgment upon themselves. Or, to explain it another way, I don't usually associate with gay people. I don't know any, and I personally don't approve of their so-called “lifestyle”. But at no time does that give me the right or the priviledge to hate or bully gay people. Christians who do such things are really not Christian at all because, instead of being motivated by the love of Christ, they are driven by hate, intolerance, bigotry and prejudice – the same bigotry and prejudice that the confederate battle flag represents. You know, the ones they are taking down all across the country?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

America, we have a race problem

America, We Have A Problem
by Rev. Paul J. Bern

People of good conscience everywhere are still processing what happened in Charleston, South Carolina this past Wednesday. Much has been said and written about this already, so I will be careful to not be too redundant. What is not being emphasized anywhere nearly enough is the gravity, the scope and the depth of the massacre of the Charleston Nine. To call this a 'hate crime' only scratches the surface of what actually transpired this past week. Many of my African-American friends on and off the Web are accurately calling the events in Charleston an act of domestic terrorism. Dylann Roof and others like him are an offense, an embarrassment and a humiliation to every white/Caucasian American citizen and/or legally residing foreign national. I saw President Obama on the Internet yesterday talking about America's “gun problem”, but I do not share this view. If Congress or the president outlaws guns, those with evil intent who manage to get their hands on a firearm will be more emboldened than ever before. Outlawing guns will make America less peaceful, not more so as has been suggested. Besides, being the Constitutionalist that I am, I'm a firm believer in the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms. The issue isn't guns, it's race.

America's race problem dates back 400 years to before there was a United States of America. Slavery in the 'land of the free' was and always will be what some historians call “America's peculiar institution”. The ugly truth of the matter is that today's African Americans are the descendants of slaves who arrived here by being forcibly removed from their homeland. To put it in modern terms, these African slaves were victims of human trafficking. They are the descendants of kidnapping victims who had no way to call home. They had no phones, no internet, nothing at all! One day they are at home, wherever that was, and the next they're in chains on a ship bound for North America. After that, they were enslaved for 300 years and endured another 100 years of Jim Crow. And we wonder why some black folks mistrust white people to this very day, or why they're seemingly so “uppity” towards us. If my ancestors were enslaved, humiliated, terrorized and murdered for 400 years, I'd be mad as hell too! It's ultimately white people's fault that the state of race relations has gone backward instead of forward so far in the 21st century. We brought the black folks over here to begin with. Even after slavery was abolished by Abraham Lincoln and the passage by Congress of the Thirteenth Amendment in December of 1865, former slaves lacked the skills and the resources to build ships to return to their homeland. So, even after the emancipation of former slaves, the brutal reality is that they were all stuck here, stranded, and they've been here ever since. This, I am convinced, is the true source of white rage towards black folks – their rage exists to hide their inescapable guilt.

What did Jesus say about hatred between races? How many people know that the Bible has several things to say about racial hatred? The first example comes from Christ himself, who stated, “You have heard it said to the people of long ago, 'do not murder' and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew chapter 5, verses 21-22, NIV) “Raca” was an Aramaic word of contempt expressed towards those who were somehow deemed inferior, such as Samaritans. So Jesus was telling us that human equality is in fact ordained by God, and that there is no such thing as an inferior or defective human being. But then Jesus took it a step further when He said, “...anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Simply put, any human being who considers another to be worthless, unredeemable, inferior, useless, or who considers others as enemies based on pure bigotry, hatred, contemptuousness and condescension because of race, creed, nationality, heritage, or just plain conceit and maliciousness, could very well wind up in hell in the very place of those he or she condemns as being allegedly of lesser worth than themselves. Anyone who holds in contempt that which God has created holds their Creator in contempt as well. This is the exact reason that racial bigotry is so evil! Who do we think we are questioning God's motives or rationale, as if rationalization were even possible for the Lord to begin with!

The apostle John, the younger half brother of Jesus, summed hate up in one little sentence in 1st John chapter three, verse 15 and I quote, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” Jesus once said, “It is written, 'You shall not commit adultery'. But I tell you that if you even so much as look at a married woman with lustful eyes, you have already committed adultery with her in your heart”. (Matthew 5, verse 27) As it is with adultery, so it is with hate in the eyes of the Lord your God. If anyone hates another without just cause, or hates because he/she holds a grudge or refuses to forgive someone, they have already committed murder in their heart. Morally, in God's sight, such a person is no better than an unrepentant death row inmate in a maximum security prison. The apostle John resounded this theme again later in chapter four when he wrote in verses 20 and 21, “If anyone says, 'I love God', and yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And He has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” My dear readers, it doesn't get any clearer than this, and as for me John's point here is well taken. You either love the One who made you or you don't. If you don't, then you despise God, meaning you ultimately despise yourself. If anyone reading this is wearing those kind of shoes, it's high time for a new pair of shoes.

Here in the early 21st century there is simply no excuse for racial hatred towards any person by any other individual. Those who continue to harbor hatred, intolerance, bigotry and prejudice towards others who are allegedly inferior to themselves cause themselves to devolve into a lesser form of human being, one who has not yet developed an open mind, or who refuse to repent from being closed-minded, hateful individuals. Under no circumstances are these things any just cause to murder another human being, let alone nine of them. This kid Dylan Roof has put the spotlight on America's ongoing race problem. He has exposed racism for what it truly is – one group of people wanting to commit genocide against another based on skin color. I want all my black brothers and sisters to know that Dylan Roof, and all the others like him, are an offense, an embarrassment, and a humiliation to white people everywhere. Racism is deeply ingrained into American culture, but it has its roots in slavery. Although this has been going on for several hundred years, America could do away with its race problem in a single generation. How can we accomplish this noble task? There are two ways to approach this problem long term. The first is what every American needs – free higher education at the public college or university of their choice. Education is not a privilege, it's a basic human right. Knowledge is power, and no one has the right or the authority to deny that power to anyone no matter what the reason.

The other way to level the playing field for all people of color is already underway. To sum it up, it's computer and information technology. Even poor black kids have smart phones. Within 10-15 years we will see all minorities catching up to their white counterparts because of access to technology and the Internet. This in turn will be the trigger for an entirely new industry of space exploration, colonization and commerce, and that's just for starters. Of course, this is all well and good for the future, but what can we do right now? What's the least common denominator that all races, creeds and nationalities have in common? Remember what the apostle John said? “Any man who says, 'I love God', and yet hates his brother is a liar.” God is our least common denominator. We all bleed the same shade of red, and we all have five quarts of that same blood pumping through our veins and arteries 24/7, that is also true. But Almighty God made all of it, just as King David wrote in his psalms, “The earth is the Lord's and everything in it”. So, in solving America's race problem, what's the first step? Here is what I insist needs to be done. Next Sunday morning, I'd love to see an army of white people attend all-black churches somewhere – anywhere! A dozen here, ten more somewhere else, or just take your family down into the inner city, find a church and find a parking place. After all, the healing process must begin within ourselves, and the process of being able to forgive also must begin within ourselves. If they ask you what made you pick that particular church simply tell them, “I want to help heal the wounds of slavery we have inflicted on your people, and I'm/we're here to ask your forgiveness, and if you would mind if we came and worshiped with you this morning”. I'd actually be surprised if anyone turns you away, all you Caucasians. So go ahead – I challenge you to worship in a black church if you're white, or vice versa if you're black. Go ahead, what are you afraid of, all you well-to-do white folks? I think I know – it's acknowledging the sins of our ancestors. But it's got to be done. It's long past time for America to begin to heal from slavery, and the best place to start the healing process is at church on Sunday morning.