Thursday, August 31, 2006


Jim Johnson recently posted about a dialogue he has been having with an individual who disagrees with him on the issue of homosexuality, a connection that's all too rarely made in today's world.

It seems that in recent decades we've lost the ability to truly coexist with those who don't hold our viewpoints. The rise of the web has only accelerated that trend as anyone with an internet connection can find people who share their interests and viewpoints while shutting out those that they don't see eye to eye with. Compounding the problem is the relative anonymity of the internet, which emboldens some individuals to treat others in ways that they'd never dream of treating another human being in real life, and soon the world begins to look very one-sided. Those who validate my interests and beliefs are my friends, and those who disagree with me are idiots, enemies or both.

For those who think that Christians are any better, just try going to an evangelical message board and posting something (no matter how politely written and well reasoned) that challenges any one of conservative Christianity's many sacred cows (especially, but in no way limited to, the issue of homosexuality). Even many of those who are civil enough to refrain from flaming you and consigning you and your entire family out to the fourth generation to the pits of hell will respond in a condescending manner that reinforces my primary point: We as a society have forgotten how to live with those who don't agree with us.

Not that there's ever been a time when everyone was civil to everyone else (outside of particular groups like the Quakers, perhaps), but in less prosperous times people had little choice but to learn how to coexist with their neighbors, on whose generosity they might someday have to rely. We still pay lip service to the idea of "live and let live," and pride ourselves on the progress we've made in breaking down racial and economic barriers, but in their place we've segregated ourselves based on our opinions.

Not that I have a perfect track record in that regard, either. I've never been one to engage in flame wars, but I do sometimes feel threatened by those who don't share my opinions, especially on issues that directly affect me. I'd much rather spend my time with people I can agree with (and who wouldn't?). But is that really God's plan for the church, to be a club for the pastor's or bishop's yes-men (and yes-women)? American tradition has long been to separate ourselves along denominational lines. Those lines have begun to blur in recent years, but we still tend to steer clear of anyone whose doctrine isn't pure in our eyes. Even when it comes to politics Democrats and Republicans tend, more often than not, to attend separate churches.

The problem with those dividing lines is that God created each of us to be unique. If conformity had been his goal, he would have made us to all look and think and talk alike. By hiding among those who most closely conform to our own visions of perfection, we miss out on the many things that we can learn from the different experiences and perspectives of those who dare to disagree from us. We don't have to surrender our own belief systems in order to do this; we simply have to acknowledge that, as finite beings, we don't know it all.

Many conservative Christians would consider a homosexual-free world to be a significant step in the direction of utopia, but in reality they are stunting their own growth (and that of the church) by taking their convictions to such an extreme. Even if the conservative Christian belief that homosexuality is nothing more than a consequence of the Fall and contrary to God's plan were to prove to be correct, the fact remains that we are here for a reason, and as human beings created in the image of God we have something positive to contribute to the world whether or not we conform to the demands of the conservative church.

The converse of that is equally true, of course. I sympathize with those gay individuals who have been severely wounded by Christians, but trying to cut them out of our lives completely isn't the answer. Even the Fred Phelpses and Osama Bin Ladens of the world have lessons to teach us, not that they're likely to give us the chance (dialogue requires cooperation from both parties). In such extreme cases separation is, unfortunately, necessary, but I can still hope for the day when both sides are equally willing to view their opponents as human beings of equal value in God's eyes, and as individuals who just might hold an important piece to the puzzle we're trying to put together.

Until that day, I suppose I need to do my part to make it possible. Not that I particularly want to engage with those who view me as the story's villain, but it's got to start somewhere. Maybe tomorrow...

Friday, August 25, 2006

To Rule Them All

"You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?" [Frodo asked.]

"No!" cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. "With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly." His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. "Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me."

-The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2

With apologies to anyone who thinks I should move on already, I'm going to revisit The Myth of a Christian Nation one more time. At the root of Gregory Boyd's argument for keeping the church out of politics is the concept of "power over" versus "power under." "Power over," of which political power is one type, is how the world attempts to solve its problems. "Power over" brings about a desired outcome by force, whether the coercion be physical, economic or psychological. The compliance of the other parties is all that matters, no matter how they actually feel about being forced to cooperate or what other consequences may result.

In stark contrast to that methodology, "power under" seeks to influence others in an entirely different way. Instead of lording over those who disagree with them, individuals following Christ's example humbly set aside their "rights" and their "moral authority" in order to serve others without expecting anything in return. Through acts of self-sacrificial love, practitioners of "power under" seek to slowly transform others from the inside out, even surrendering their own lives if necessary to bring about genuine change. It's a counterintuitive and seemingly illogical notion, but it's the example that Jesus set during his time on earth, and the method that enabled the early church to spread across the known world in the face of open hostility and persecution.

So what does that have to do with Gandalf? JRR Tolkien's conception of the One Ring fits very well as an analogy for the Church's perennial dilemma of whether to succumb to the temptation to use worldly power ("power over") to usher in the Kingdom of God. Tolkien, of course, made it clear that The Lord of the Rings wasn't meant to be taken as an allegory - not that that's stopped fans throughout the years from using it as one for everything from World War II to various presidencies to the Christian's spiritual life.

Nonetheless, Tolkien was writing mythology (in the best sense of the term), and as such various elements of the story can be seen as archetypes. Each generation faces its own epic challenges, and myths help us to view our own struggles from a different vantage point.

The best description of the One Ring that I've come across (and I wish I could remember where, so I could give credit where it's due) is that the Ring represents, not merely power, but coercive power - the power to dominate others and to force them to bend to your will.

Power in and of itself is not evil, it's simply an element of the world we live in. Many of the 'good' characters in The Lord of the Rings - Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, Tom Bombadil, etc. - were beings of considerable power, and at different times they used their power in opposition to the forces of evil. The difference between them and those on the side of evil is that they never used their power to override the free will of those around them.

Sauron's purpose in forging the One Ring was not merely power (which he already possessed), but the power to dominate. With it he transformed the nine human kings who wore the rings he had given them into the Nazgul, dark minions who existed only to serve him. And with it he sought to bend all of Middle Earth to his will.

With the power of the One Ring, Gandalf knew that he could overthrow Sauron himself, but in the process the Ring would have corrupted him and he would have become the very tyrant he sought to destroy. Each of the characters who came into contact with the Ring faced the temptation to take it for themselves, and in the end even Frodo found that he didn't have the willpower to relinquish the Ring.

Ultimately the Fellowship's quest succeeded only because Frodo chose to spare the life of Gollum, even though doing so imperiled his mission as much as it aided it, and even though he would have been fully justified in exercising what power he wielded to end Gollum's seemingly evil and miserable existence.

Had Frodo (or Gandalf, or Aragorn, or Galadriel, or Faramir, or even Elrond) succumbed to the temptation to exercise "power over" as a means to overcome evil, all would have ultimately been lost. Although the concept of "power under" only indirectly plays into the story, that is effectively what each of them chose when they rejected the easy solution of taking the Ring for themselves, even though it increased the risk to their own lives.

In the real world we already see the cascading effects of the American church's decision to take hold of and wield its own Ring by organizing as a political force, rather than choosing the more difficult path of unmaking the Ring by following the example of Christ. Even if the religious right ultimately succeeds in its quest to remake the United States into a 'Christian' nation, it will have done so at the cost of its own soul.

Government is a necessary institution in an imperfect world; without that impartial force to mediate disputes and protect individual citizens from predators (human or otherwise), civilization could not exist for very long. But as soon as the power of government is coopted to override free will by forcing others to conform to one group's definition of "goodness" - whether that coercion is used to punish "sexual sin," to impose "democracy" on unwilling nations or to confiscate the wealth of the rich in a quest to eradicate poverty - it becomes the very evil it set out to conquer.

By overriding the freedom of others in pursuit of some abstract ideal, we cast moral judgment on them, a job that only God Himself is qualified to undertake. By placing ourselves in God's role, we recommit the first sin from which all other sins flow: the sin of pride. If those we seek to judge are deserving of God's punishment, how much more do we make ourselves worthy of his wrath by usurping his authority?

When we take the power of the Ring for ourselves, Sauron wins even if he loses.

Monday, August 21, 2006


I know this has been making the rounds on the internet for a while now, and I know there's undoubtedly a perfectly good explanation for how they do this, but it's still pretty darn impressive...

Quick Change Artists

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Back when I first started questioning the ex-gay party line - and even, for the most part, when I started this blog last fall - I was looking for definitive answers to the issue of homosexuality (which I had come to realize the ex-gay movement didn't have). What I found instead was even more questions. Why was God actively at work on both sides of the fence? Why does he give different people seemingly contradictory answers? Why are the conservatives who claim to have all the answers so readily willing to propagate outright falsehoods in defense of the "truth"? Are we all just deceived (I'll let readers define "we" for themselves), or is there more to the issue than meets the eye?

The answer I've found, as much as it can be called an answer, is that the questions are ultimately more rewarding than the answers. We race through life so focused on "arriving" that we fail to realize that the journey is our purpose in this life. The day we cease to have questions is the day we leave this life (and the very need for questions) behind. There is so much that our finite minds are incapable of fully comprehending, and yet we arrogantly settle time after time for incomplete answers that we can wrap our minds around, even though the process of labeling those pieces of the truth that we possess as the Whole Truth necessarily renders them untrue. We spend our lives futilely constructing boxes that we label with a stamp marked "God," only to be surprised when God inevitably violates the boundaries we've set for him.

And no, I don't believe that God is unknowable, though we are strictly limited in our ability to know (and define) him. The Bible gives us a solid starting point for getting to know him, but to call any finite work, no matter how divinely inspired, the final word on everything that there is to know about God is to pridefully place him back into a box of human construction.

Faith, then, involves placing our trust in a God we don't always understand, who doesn't play by our rules and whose actions we can't necessarily predict. We trust that he will keep the promises attributed to him in the Bible, but that still leaves far more that's undefined (and therefore beyond our control) than that which is defined.

Given that, why would we ever place our trust in any mortal who claims to have it all figured out? Anyone who thinks they have 'arrived' in this lifetime has settled for a destination inferior to the one that we Christians supposedly strive toward. And yet people fall every day for flashy demagogues who claim to know what God's will is for everybody's lives and how they can achieve it. Life is so much easier when we abdicate responsibility for our own lives to those who claim to know better than us, but how much do we lose when we refuse to grow beyond infancy?

Not that any of us can undertake the journey of life alone, of course. But as valuable as it is to listen to the perspectives and experiences of others as we seek the best possible course for our own lives, no other human being can ever possess the knowledge necessary to chart more than the smallest portion of that course for us.

But I digress. In short, life is a journey; the destination is reached only after we exhale our final breath. When we do discover truth we should treasure it while humbly acknowledging that what we know is only a thread of a much larger tapestry. Why does God give seemingly contradictory answers to different people? Perhaps what appears to us to be the same issue shared by each of those people is merely a superficial resemblance. Perhaps "homosexuality" is not one issue with a single answer but millions of individual issues with less in common than we assume from our limited vantage point.

We may never know for certain in this lifetime. Our role is to engage in relationship with the One who created us, seeking that knowledge that we need for our own journey and trusting him to know better than we ever could what is best for the persons walking beside us.

Or at least that's how it looks from where I type. The journey is far from over. Enjoy it while you can.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Romantic love is big business. Even within the church, one can't help but be deluged by all of the books, sermons, audio and video series, seminars, retreats and Bible studies on the topic of romance and marriage. An outside observer could easily come to the conclusion that marriage was the most important tenet of the Christian faith, ahead of all other theological considerations. And keeping romance alive within marriage is, apparently, of vital importance.

Of course, for the homosexual the rules are different. Heterosexual marriage is still generally seen as the ideal state, even for those who have never experienced so much as a glimmer of an opposite-sex attraction. But, of course, since we're all naturally heterosexual according to conventional Christian wisdom, getting married should lead to the development of those attractions, even if reparative therapy has failed up until that point.

Never mind that groups like Focus on the Family simultaneously counsel women to steer clear of men who have ever experienced same-sex attractions, thus leaving those men in a Catch-22 in which they ought to get married even though they are seen as bad husband material.

(Granted, these men also have the option of celibacy, though in practice evangelicals tend to view celibacy as an inferior state to marriage if not something to be looked upon with pity.)

And it's true that such marriages have a very high rate of divorce. Some mixed-orientation couples do manage to make their marriages work, but the majority don't. Even when the husband cares about his wife enough to set aside his deep longings for another man, the wife still has to live with the fact that he will probably never desire her in the way she wants to be desired. On a romantic level, the connection between them rarely develops into a fully two-way bond.

The question, then, becomes whether that should make a difference within the Christian definition of marriage. What if the church's idealization of romantic love, and not the lack of it in mixed-orientation marriages, is the real problem? It does, after all, arguably lie at the root of the mindset that makes pro-gay theology possible. And what has it really produced other than a fixation on personal fulfillment and the warm, gooey feelings that accompany being in love? Would we have a 50%+ divorce rate if people entered marriage with an attitude of duty and self-sacrifice instead of expectations of being swept off of one's feet?

Perhaps a return to arranged marriages and the church's traditional stance on sex would be for the best. Love could once again be purely an action instead of an emotion. Couples would come together for the primary purpose of producing and raising as many children as God sees fit to give them, and would stay together for life whether it felt good to do so or not. Widows under 60 would be allowed to remarry, but if divorce did occur for whatever reason there would be no second chance. Sex would once again be a purely procreative act - no birth control, no 'just for fun' sex, no weddings performed for sterile couples.

Some of those ideas sound laughable to us, of course, but philosophically they're far more consistent with the demands made of homosexuals than the modern church's indulgent (and sometimes idolatrous) attitude toward heterosexual marriage. Of course, the heterosexual majority would never stand for such restrictions no matter how many centuries of church tradition and theology supported them, and the pastor who advocated them would quickly find himself without a flock.

Instead, heterosexuals who didn't want to submit to church authority would simply organize their own "romance affirming" churches and come up with an interpretation of scripture that supported their lifestyle - the difference being that they would quickly acquire a majority of practicing Christians, with the traditionalists shunted into the fringes almost overnight.

Most conservatives will laugh my hypothetical scenario off, of course. The concept of romantic love between a man and a woman can be fit into the imagery of Christ and the church as a married couple in a way that a same sex couple's love cannot (though how a man is supposed to feel about being Christ's wife on the other side of that analogy is seldom addressed). It also, very conveniently, happens to fit reasonably well with the 'natural' feelings of every heterosexual Christian, and as such has become a no-brainer in most Christian circles. But the symbol of Christ and the church works just as well in a world of arranged marriages, and removing romantic love from the equation makes it easier to reconcile our concept of marriage with other scriptural passages.

Nonetheless, the ability of people in our modern world to vote with their feet (and their dollars) virtually guarantees that calls for righteous living will continue to emphasize those sins that the majority can feel good about opposing with the least amount of personal inconvenience. Holding gay believers to the highest conceivable standards of 'holy living' and self-sacrifice costs the vast majority nothing, and simultaneously shifts that pesky spotlight away from the possibility that a God who demands so much from a few might have similarly high standards for the rest of his followers.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


One of the greatest (and saddest) ironies in the world is how those who shout the loudest about upholding "God's standards" while working to force others to adhere to them almost inevitably come to view their cause as one that's so overridingly imperative that it justifies the use of any and all means to achieve it.

Such individuals rarely pause to consider whether the use of such worldly tactics as deception, slanderous and hateful rhetoric and even physical violence could ever be pleasing to a God who calls his followers to a life of honesty, love and peace, no matter how "good" or "just" the projected outcome will supposedly be. And yet "Christian" political groups engage in such tactics on an almost daily basis, all the while proclaiming themselves to be on God's side.

As Gregory Boyd reflects in The Myth of a Christian Nation, this is, unfortunately, nothing new:

It [church history] has been a profoundly sad and ironic history. In the interest of effectively accomplishing what it thought was an immediate and discernible good thing, the church often forsook its kingdom-of-God call. As a result, it frequently justified doing tremendously evil things. The moment worldly effectiveness replaces faithfulness as the motive for an individual's or institution's behavior, they are no longer acting on behalf of the kingdom of God but are participating in the kingdom of the world. The so-called good end will always be used to justify the evil means for those thinking with a kingdom-of-the-world mindset, and in doing this, the church succumbed to the very temptation Jesus resisted. It wanted to fix the world with its superior wisdom and run the world with the sword because it naively believed it could do so better than secular authorities. So, submitting itself to the cosmic "power over" god, it established itself as the ruling Caesar of the West. Far from improving on the old version of the kingdom of the world, however, it brought about a regime that was often worse than the version it replaced.

In fact, a kingdom-of-God citizen could (and should) argue that the Christian version of the kingdom of the world was actually the worst version the world has ever seen. For this was the version of the kingdom of the world that did the most harm to the kingdom of God. Not only did it torture and kill, as versions of the kingdom of the world frequently do - it did this under the banner of Christ. If violence and oppression are demonic, violence and oppression "in the name of Jesus" is far more so. The church of Christendom thereby brought disrepute to the name of Christ, associating his kingdom with the atrocities it carried out for centuries. The resistance most Islamic countries have to Christianity today, in fact, is partly to be explained by the vicious behavior of Christians toward Muslims throughout history.

This tragic history has to be considered one of Satan's greatest victories, and the demonic ironies abound. In the name of the one who taught us not to lord over others but rather to serve them (Matt. 20:25-28), the church often lorded over others with a vengeance as ruthless as any version of the kingdom of the world ever has. In the name of the one who taught us to turn the other cheek, the church often cut off people's heads. In the name of the one who taught us to love our enemies, the church often burned its enemies alive. In the name of the one who taught us to bless those who persecute us, the church often became a ruthless persecutor. In the name of the one who taught us to take up the cross, the church often took up the sword and nailed others to the cross. Hence, in the name of winning the world for Jesus Christ, the church often became the main obstacle to believing in Jesus Christ.
(pgs. 80-81)

Those who advocate that Christians should fight to "take America back for God" might argue that the church no longer uses violence to impose "Christian values" on others, but one need look no further than the religious right's wholehearted support for invading other countries that don't share our values, or their unabashed use of hyperbole and outright falsehoods in the fight against the "gay agenda," to realize what a fine hair they're splitting.

The verbal abuse that Christianists are so quick to dish out to 'sinners' these days may seem less abusive than physical violence, but in the end such emotional violence is no less damaging to the Kingdom of God that they claim to be defending. God has promised that his kingdom will ultimately prevail, but it will be in spite of his followers' political crusades, if in fact those crusaders don't end up on the wrong side of that spiritual battle entirely.

Friday, August 04, 2006


I recently came across a statement by a pastor who, although he decries the abominable way that the religious right treats gay people ("abominable" is my paraphrase, but not out of line with his sentiments), nonetheless believes that homosexuality doesn't represent "God's best." I have no problem with his holding to that conviction, given his seemingly authentic regard for us as human beings of equal value in God's eyes (a sentiment that most evangelicals would vocalize agreement with, but that far too few seem to genuinely believe when it comes time to put their faith into action).

But I do have to question the use of the phrase "God's best." I'm a bit reluctant to do so, since many of those who use it are doing so in an effort to steer away from the "us vs. them" mentality that has tainted so much of the church's interactions with the gay community, but it is nonetheless a questionable assertion. This isn't the first time I've challenged the use of this phrase, but I think it's worth revisiting.

The first question we have to ask is whether any of us truly experience God's best in this imperfect world. We can certainly strive for such an ideal, but is it really supposed to be an "all or nothing" proposition, as conservatives strongly imply (consciously or otherwise) when they inject those words into this debate? Why, then, do we not hold people to the standard of "God's best" in other ways?

Can divorce ever be said to represent God's best for anyone's life? Yet the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) allows for divorce in certain situations, most notably infidelity. But if anything less than God's best is sin, then why would God suddenly condone one person's sin as a response to another person's sin? Isn't the lesser of two evils still evil?

Even if one dodges the question by stating that anything the Bible explicitly condones cannot be sin, that doesn't resolve the dilemma. Few rational people would tell a woman whose husband is physically abusive that she should stay with him, yet the Bible doesn't explicitly condone divorce in that situation. That divorce may not represent God's best for either the woman or her husband, but is she truly sinning by separating herself from such an unhealthy situation?

And then there's the issue of slavery. Extremely few Christians alive today or within the last century would have anything positive to say about that institution, yet for many generations Christian slaveholders used the Bible to justify their ownership of other human beings. Modern scholars would argue that Paul and the other biblical authors were meeting people where they were at while pointing toward something better, and that their toleration of a deeply ingrained institution did not represent an endorsement of it.

(They'd also argue that the institution of slavery present in ancient Rome differed greatly from the form it took in the American South, but even though some slaves in Paul's time were only temporarily so, others were born to that station or sold into it at an early age and consigned to live their lives as the property of others.)

So can involuntary slavery ever be argued to represent God's best for any individual? If anything less than God's best is sin, why would Paul have shown any leniency toward slaveholders, however culturally acceptable their practices may have been? When else are the New Testament authors soft on the topic of sin?

For that matter, why wasn't the New Testament more forceful in its declarations that men and women are equal in ability and worth? Sure, Jesus and his apostles were light years ahead of their contemporaries in their treatment of women, but surely a society that treats women as little better than property is far enough removed from "God's best" to warrant a more direct attempt at correction.

Or maybe our error lies in our theology, whether it's in our use of the phrase "God's best" or in our understanding of sin, or both. I don't know. I wish I knew, but I'm far from convinced that those who claim to know actually do.

Maybe the perfection that we demand from others isn't in line with what God requires from them. Perhaps, if we were to focus more of our energy on fulfilling our mandate to self-sacrificially serve others without reservation or condition, a lot of the 'sin' issues that preoccupy so much of our time and energy would resolve themselves in ways we never would have imagined.

Of course, now I'm the one speaking in idealistic terms.