Thursday, December 31, 2009


I've been thinking for some time about commenting on the Manhattan Declaration, the religious right's latest political manifesto masquerading as the Infallible Writ of God Almighty. Six years ago I would have had few if any issues with such a document; when one lives inside the echo chamber of the evangelical subculture, there are a great many things one is conditioned to take for granted. Today I see so many problems with it that it's hard to know where to even begin.

Numerous others have already responded to the declaration, so there's little need for me to go into detail about many of the document's more glaring absurdities: the persecution complex that causes conservative evangelicals to view every disagreement as a sign that concentration camps lurk just around the next bend; the narcissistic self-comparisons to great historical leaders who really did face persecution; the assumption that no good Christian could possibly disagree with any of their dogmatic claims; the conspiracy theories that thinly mask their animosity toward any gay person audacious enough to demand to be treated as an equal; the thoroughly unbiblical notion that the church's role in society is to rule over nonbelievers for their own good.

Theologically the declaration is a highly questionable work. Readers who haven't studied the Bible for themselves would be forgiven for coming away with the impression that "traditional" marriage and the nuclear family are the Bible's (and, by extension, God's) single most important emphasis, trumping all other concerns. Indeed, the brief lip service that the declaration pays to the existence of other Christian concerns has the effect of trivializing them as matters of minimal importance.

Yet the notion that marriage and family represent the centerpiece of biblical Christianity requires a highly selective reading of the Bible, one that regards Genesis 1-2 as its most important passage and a lens through which all others (including the Gospels) must be interpreted. And even then, it requires picking out scattered verses (disregarding their contexts when necessary) and cobbling them together in piecemeal fashion.

Such an emphasis also places the church at odds with Jesus, who called on his followers to leave family and familial obligations behind to follow him, and who warned that families would divide over him. And it does little better by the Apostle Paul, an unmarried man who described marriage as a concession to those too weak to handle celibacy, and who declared that there was no male or female in the Kingdom of God.

It is true that the Bible contains commands related to how spouses, parents and children treat each other; indeed, it would be odd for any religion to overlook matters so elementary to the human experience. Those commands, however, constitute a smaller percentage of the biblical text than most people have been led to believe.

Likewise, the biblical authors demonstrate a concern for sexual ethics: adultery, promiscuity and pagan fertility rites are all strongly condemned, and divorce is discouraged. It's more debatable how the passages that refer to specific types of homosexual activity should be applied to modern contexts, but either way it's clear that our sexual relationships matter to God (as do all our relationships). Even so, sexuality is not the number one concern of the biblical authors (however much the church may make it seem like it is), and arguably doesn't even qualify as a top tier issue.

I am leery of declaring that I have God pinned down so well that I can speak on his behalf. But it would be logical to assume that, if the Bible is a reliable source of information on God, that one could get a sense of his priorities based on the amount of space that the biblical authors devote to different topics. Based on that assumption, the following priorities would seem to be at or close to the top of the list.

(I am omitting the concept of holiness from this list, since that term has become conflated with sexual purity and heterosexuality, even though holiness, at its root, is simply about being "set apart" - a concept that goes far beyond the sin avoidance that consumes the attention of most evangelicals. I would also argue that holiness cannot be properly understood without taking into account all of the biblical priorities I list below.)

Justice. Justice is a broad concept that can be applied both to legal matters and personal situations, but at its most basic one can understand what is just through application of the Golden Rule (a concept most commonly attributed to the teachings of Christ, though many of its truest adherents follow other belief systems). If you would not want to be treated the way you are treating another person, then you are acting unjustly.

Unfortunately fundamentalistic thought has twisted application of the Golden Rule, since individuals driven by a fear of being cast into hell by an easily offended god logically consider any action taken (no matter how abusive) to save another person from eternal damnation to be loving and just. And indeed, the authors of the Manhattan Declaration no doubt consider themselves striving to save souls when they lobby to politically and socially oppress gays and other sexual minorities. In reality, though, if some future majority were to persecute them in similar ways "for their own good," not one of the declaration's signers would consider it just.

Humility. This is another concept that must be rescued from fundamentalistic thinking. To the fundamentalist, being humble is all about obedience, as understood by their own interpretation of the Bible. Since, by this definition, anyone who disagrees with their interpretation is not humble, it becomes entirely appropriate for them to look down on (and even persecute) such dissenters. That the resulting superiority complex is the very antithesis of humility never even occurs to them.

Likewise, the authors of the Manhattan Declaration are quite proud of their own self-proclaimed humility. From the opening of the document they waste no time establishing themselves as the sole brave defenders of Western Civilization and every single thing that is good in the world, and pile on the self-comparisons to leaders representing nearly every great social movement in history. Again, the irony is completely lost on them.

Compassion/Charity/Hospitality. Numerous actions fall under this category, including helping the poor, providing for widows and orphans, welcoming strangers, tending to the sick, showing mercy, etc. One would have to discard most of the Gospels - and much of the Prophets and Epistles - to avoid the commands related to this concept. Throughout church history, countless Christian endeavors have been launched toward these ends over the centuries, and such selfless charity was one of the qualities that drew early converts to the faith.

Such concerns seem to be secondary to the authors of the Manhattan Declaration, however. Throughout their manifesto, charity gets attention only through the lens of the nuclear family, and even then seems more to be a byproduct of marital procreation than a mandate that captured more of Jesus' attention than any other subject. Certainly no compassion can be spared for those the declaration views as enemies of God and destroyers of civilization, except within the same hell-centric paradigm through which its authors redefine justice.

Idolatry. If I were to single out one theme as the most important of all, it would be idolatry. No other subject receives as much attention in the Bible, and many other concerns intertwine with it. Anything that a person gives priority over God constitutes an idol. Even an otherwise good thing can become an idol when too much value is placed upon it. The doctrine of inerrancy is a perfect example of this, as it elevates the Bible to the status of a comprehensive rulebook free of even the slightest error (a claim never found in the Bible itself - God alone merits being described as perfect), and the only source through which God can reliably communicate with his people. With an inerrant Bible in hand, a believer need never wrestle with the doubts that drive us to press further into relationship with God.

The pedestal on which many evangelicals have placed marriage and family is another example. By elevating an institution that validates their feelings and brings them personal happiness above priorities that receive far more attention in the Bible (and this from inerrantists, no less), the authors and signers of the Manhattan Declaration conflate their own will with God's, thereby completing the very usurpation of divine authority that they accuse their "liberal" brothers and sisters of.

It would be easy to give into the notion that one could do some good by pointing these things out to the declaration's supporters, but few of them are ever likely to see the false god they have created for what it is, steeped as they are in the all-too-human notion that the infinite Creator of the universe and the Author of unfathomable wonders is small enough to be contained in a book and petty enough to share all of their likes and dislikes. Such is the tragedy of the fundamentalist mindset. And such is the legacy that created the Manhattan Declaration.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Life Soundtrack 19

Because of You, by Kelly Clarkson

Much of what Kelly Clarkson expresses about growing up in a broken home also resonates with the experience of growing up in a heavily legalistic church. The net result of a childhood steeped in fear of hell, obsession over sin and a need to always paste on a happy face is a considerable amount of emotional and relational dysfunction, which is frequently passed down to the next generation as well...

Monday, December 21, 2009

It's About Time

Highlands Church, an evangelical congregation in Denver, is getting some major attention in the media for taking a gay-affirming stance. While Highlands isn't the first evangelical church to follow that path, it is one of a very few (if not the first) founded by a heterosexual pastor to do so.

Last month the church hosted a symposium on the issue of homosexuality that featured Justin Lee from GCN, among other speakers. No doubt the pastor, Mark Tidd, is weathering a firestorm of criticism (much of it "loving" and "concerned") from fellow evangelicals right now, so I'll just add this:

Thank you for creating a safe place for GLBT people of faith who want to worship God in an evangelical context without having to lie about who they are or pretend that they can turn themselves into something they're not.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Merry Christmas

Per my annual tradition, a Christmas light display, this time featuring Christmas Eve in Sarajevo by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. May your holiday be warm and your electric bill considerably smaller than theirs...

Friday, December 11, 2009

War Without End

Our battle is not against flesh and blood, the Bible tells us. Unfortunately too many Christians have reduced that to a meaningless catchphrase that gives them license to say and do any number of hurtful things since, after all, they're simply challenging the evil forces at work behind the scenes and not the people their venomous attacks actually wound. But in the end they fool only themselves, as victims and bystanders alike turn away from the church by the thousands.

That mentality is certainly in evidence in the war over Christmas. Even when I was a loyal rank-and-file evangelical I wasn't completely sold on the need to force non-Christians to observe our holidays, though that's the kind of doubt one is careful to admit only behind closed doors, and only to certain people.

James Hanley has masterfully pulled apart an email that continues to make the rounds in evangelical circles (and that I've received at least once from a no doubt sincere friend). The alarmism and fear-mongering contained in the original message is pure propaganda of the sort far too seldom questioned by the choir it preaches to.

On a slightly different note, Brady from Some Guys are Normal has written a rebuttal to Maggie Gallagher's recent piece on why gay marriage isn't inevitable. I hesitate to call anything inevitable, given the twists and turns that human history has taken over the millennia, but Gallagher's reasoning is so flimsy it causes me to wonder (not for the first time) how she ever rose to a position of prominence in the "traditional marriage" movement to begin with. But that, I suppose, is just one more example of the sort of thing that comes from the church abandoning its real mission to declare war on the culture it finds itself in and the people it's supposed to be showing God's love.

On an even more tangential note, these guys make an interesting point. It's not one I'd base any arguments on, but it's good for a smile or two...

Friday, December 04, 2009

Bits of Interest

1. Here's one creative way of dealing with anti-gay demonstrators. At the very least, it's better than matching venom with venom...

2. One conservative shares why he's parting ways with what currently passes for a right wing in the United States. My own libertarian leanings caused me to begin distancing myself from the Republican party after the 2000 election, so I can relate.

3. Along the lines of questioning dogma, James Hanley shares how he came to the conclusion that there are no good arguments (outside of religious dogma) to be made against same-sex marriage. I remember how surprised I was when I came to the realization that the only reasonably coherent arguments that opponents of gay marriage ever made were based on appeals to the Bible (almost always one or more of the major "clobber passages," when a particular passage was even referenced).

4. Continuing on with that thought, Senator Diane Savino made a strong case for same-sex marriage (and exposed the blatant hypocrisy of opponents) during the New York State Senate's deliberations on marriage equality:

Monday, November 30, 2009


Recently I attended a social gathering at a local coffeehouse. It was a simple, low-key event with about two dozen people and a musician in the background, but it reminded me once again why I normally don't go to parties like that. I understand why extroverts thrive in those environments, surrounded by people and activity and free to move from conversation to conversation, but for an introvert (even one who can function better than me in a crowd) it can be very draining. It isn't long before the noise, the constant distractions and the frequent interruptions wear me down to the point that I can barely grunt at people as they flit by me.

Even in a medium-sized group I can find it hard to break into the discussion if one or more people are dominating it; the rhythms of conversation that others take for granted completely escape me. That's not to say that I don't try, but most of the time my efforts go largely unnoticed, and it isn't long before an extrovert is complaining (to me or to somebody else) about the fact that I don't talk enough. What's wrong with that guy, that he doesn't do what the rest of us take for granted? He must be deliberately holding back, since it's so simple and obvious how these things are supposed to be done. The problem is that I'm not, and it's not, and the ones doing the complaining are rarely interested in understanding my perspective; they think I should be more like them, and nothing else is acceptable.

As much as I hate being judged and written off like that, I have to take care that I don't do it myself. In my mind, there are few things better than a good board game. Who wouldn't enjoy the challenge of a little strategic competition? Even if gaming isn't a person's forte, there are plenty of good yet relatively simple games like Settlers of Catan that can be enjoyed by a wide range of people.

Yet even Settlers of Catan is overwhelmingly complex for some people. No matter how carefully you explain the rules and the strategies, they just can't wrap their minds around what they're supposed to do with the cards with the funny pictures and the dice rolling that somehow ends up with people getting more cards, or why a wood and a brick can be used to make a road. As far as they're concerned, everyone might as well be speaking in ancient Swahili; even after playing an entire game, they have no idea what just happened.

It's very frustrating ending up at a gaming table with an individual like that. How can they not at least begin to grasp what's just been clearly (and repeatedly) explained to them? Are they even paying attention? Yet it's just as wrong of me to judge them for not being better at what comes naturally to me as it is for the aforementioned extroverts to judge me for not being more adept at group conversations. Some people simply aren't wired to think strategically, and it doesn't mean that they're dumb or lazy or anything of that sort; their talents simply lie elsewhere.

We all have things that come so naturally to us that it's hard to imagine anyone not finding them equally obvious and simple. And that bias often gets reinforced as we gravitate toward those who are like us. Thus reinforced, it becomes easy to dismiss those who see the world differently and to assume that deep down they really know the same things we do. In reality, we have just reduced those people to two-dimensional caricatures. We no longer care about who they really are; we just want to transform them into variations of ourselves so that we can pay lip service to "diversity" without having to wrap our minds around what that really means.

The same problem exists when it comes to the prejudice that sexual minorities face on a daily basis. For all their talk about "biblical sexuality," very few evangelicals have actually taken the time to study the complexities of human sexuality for themselves, much less made any effort to understand the lives and perspectives of gay or lesbian (or, God forbid, transgendered) individuals.

And why should they, when society and even nature itself reinforces their feelings on a daily basis? It's all so obvious (or "self-evident," as one prominent theologian likes to say) that surely anyone who sees things differently must be suppressing their "natural" feelings in an ongoing act of willful defiance. If those rebellious gays would just surrender to God and stop acting out on their sin, they would surely find the same happiness and fulfillment in a "real" marriage that everyone else does.

Over the course of centuries, bias that goes largely unchallenged solidifies into dogma, and its adherents can claim the mantle of tradition to further squelch any potential opposition. Add in a few verses from the Bible that appear to validate the instincts of the majority, and the result is a monolith that violently rejects even the slightest possibility that any of its edicts might be anything less than infallible.

The result is an endless series of efforts by members of the majority (many of them well-intentioned) to end the "wrong" behaviors of the minority by whatever means necessary - therapy, coercion, emotional blackmail and even the force of law. Unfortunately, even if some members of the minority manage to adopt the outward behaviors of the majority, they do so at the cost of suppressing their true selves without truly becoming like the majority.

History has seen many similar drives, where members of a "wrong" group were dehumanized through efforts to make them "right," whether it be extroverts demanding more sociability from introverts, reparative therapists attempting to reprogram gays, right-handed individuals forcing lefties to use the "correct" hand, Christian missionaries commanding their indigenous converts to adopt Western cultural norms, or schools punishing students whose learning styles aren't suited to the traditional classroom setting.

Regardless of the situation, our insatiable urge to make others into carbon copies of us says more about our idolatrous fixation on ourselves than our judgments do about those we see as "wrong." And we seldom pause long enough in our crusade to consider who we are really attacking when we demand such change from a human being made in the image of God.

Our inability to see very far beyond ourselves is simple human nature and not a fault in and of itself. How we respond to those who challenge our definition of normal, and whether we trust God enough to let him take care of anything that really does need changing, is entirely up to us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Okay, the video doesn't actually have anything to do with Thanksgiving, but who doesn't like the Muppets? Have a restful and happy holiday.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Deeply Rooted

The vast majority of Christians never have to think deeply about their faith or what it is based on. They are immediately accepted in any church they choose to wander into on any given Sunday. If they are heterosexual or from a respectable family or social class, our society ordinarily assumes them to be "good Christians." They easily accept the tenets of the faith, teach them to their Sunday school classes, listen to the preacher repeat them, and go about their lives believing them without question. They don't have to question any of these beliefs because nothing in their experience challenges those beliefs and everything outside of them affirms those beliefs.

The faith of GLBT people, by contrast, is constantly under assault. We are always questioning our beliefs and wondering whether we're being true to our experience of God or deluding ourselves. Our more conservative friends come down firmly on the side of delusion, but often their opinion is colored by their own unexamined faith - a faith that isn't used to being challenged. Instead of questioning their own faith, they question ours. They insist that their faith must be right and ours must be wrong - but this isn't necessarily true. An unexamined faith is not a bulletproof faith. A faith based on a "this is what we've always believed" mentality is not a faith that can withstand doubt. Instead, that kind of faith must insist on its own way - by discounting or demeaning any faith that disagrees.

Remember, if our faith is doubted or questioned by others, it has nothing to do with us or our faith. That's "their stuff." Our faith has challenged them in a way that is unfamiliar to them. They've never had to question their faith. They've never had to examine what they believe and why. The preacher said it's in the Bible, and they believe it. That settles it for them. The appearance of a GLBT person of faith presents a danger to their own faith, so they lash out at us, calling us names or condemning us to hell. Don't take it personally. It has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with their faith and the shock of having their faith challenged.

The difference between a bulletproof faith and one that cannot handle a challenge is that a bulletproof faith embraces the doubt. It welcomes it, makes it at home, and begins to explore what this fresh doubt means and how it may change, improve, enhance, or have no effect whatsoever on faith. When we embrace doubt as an opportunity for growth and not as an enemy to our faith, we have the ability - and the humility - to say, "If new evidence ariese, my faith can adapt without being destroyed."

-Candace Chellew-Hodge, Bulletproof Faith (pgs. 137-138)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

It is an unfortunate reality that positive progress rarely occurs in a straight line; there are always setbacks along the way, as the vote yesterday in Maine demonstrated. At the same time, it's worth keeping sight of the fact that, on the whole, the cause of GLBT rights is gaining more ground than it's losing, as other votes taken yesterday demonstrated:

-In Washington State, the people appear to have voted to retain domestic partnerships. While the absence of the word "marriage" probably made the difference between victory and defeat, the fact that gay couples can win even that much recognition in a statewide referendum is proof of how far we've come in a short time.

-In Kalamazoo, MI, voters overwhelmingly approved a non-discrimination ordinance. This one wasn't even close.

-Openly gay candidates in Chapel Hill and Detroit won election to city office, and another in Houston moved forward to a December runoff election.

And meanwhile, the Matthew Shepard act is law and the District of Columbia appears poised to legalize same-sex marriage.

A sampling of reactions from around the blogosphere:

Kate Kendell (via Pam's House Blend):

It is a travesty of every principle that made this nation great that the rights of a minority group can be put up to a popular vote. There are many ignominious moments in the history of this country, moments of shame that were corrected by Courts or by legislative action. If those great strides, in Women's rights, in the rights of religious minorities or of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans or American Indians had been put up to popular vote we all know how those votes would have turned out. The shame would have endured. And the taint on our Democracy would have continued.

Joe.My.God (stated a bit pointedly, but no less true for it):

They [Yes on 1 supporters] should also thank NOM for its illegal refusal to comply with Maine's financial disclosure laws. And they should thank Stand For Marriage for consistently lying about "teaching gay marriage." And they should thank the Archbishop of Maine for passing the collection plate during Ma$$.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Conservatives pride themselves on their skepticism, and generally dismiss liberals as soft-headed Utopians. But in so many ways, political conservatism is Utopianism for the powerful. It isn't broadly skeptical of human nature, so much as it's broadly skeptical of people its agents don't particularly like. Hence the sense that Americans are intrinsically "good people," that this country "is the best nation that ever existed in history," that the South is home to "the greatest people that have ever trod the earth," and that the murder of four little girls in Birmingham was the work of a "Communist" or "crazed Negro," which had "set back the cause of white people."

Hence the notion that those voting against gay marriage, are not actually, in the main, motivated by bigotry, but a belief in tradition and family. But very few people would actually ever describe themselves as bigots. We think we know so much about ourselves. This is a country--like many countries--which is deeply riven by ethnic bias, gender discrimination. And yet we don't seem to know any of the agents of that discrimination.

Alvin McEwen:

But the landscape is changing. The more America sees lgbt couples, the more America sees lgbt families, and the more open and out we are, the more opportunistic charlatans like Maggie Gallagher, Brian Brown, and the rest of the "we need to protect marriage" crowd will be seen for what they are - silly clowns repeating silly catchphrases rooted in scare tactics and phony victimology of being called a "bigot."

Justin Lee (via Box Turtle Bulletin):

To be sure, legislation is an important part of changing the future for the better. But no bill or ballot initiative can eliminate homophobia, hate, or prejudice. Increasing the penalties for hate crimes won’t stop them if churches are preaching hate. And federal marriage rights won’t stop a gay kid from being pressured into a loveless straight marriage by his parents or church.

If we want to make the world a safe place for the next generation, we must do more than change the laws. We must change the culture. So instead of thinking of people of faith as just another voting pool, we need to think about all the ways that faith impacts culture, and how supportive people of faith can help make those changes. Because even if your goals are exclusively political, it’s worth noting that culture shapes the political landscape in big ways.

Andrew Sullivan:

But I do want to point out that, from the perspective of just a decade ago, to have an even split on this question in a voter referendum is a huge shift in the culture. In Maine, where the Catholic church did all it could to prevent gays from having civil rights in a very Catholic and rural state, gays do have equality but may now merely be denied the name. The process itself has helped educate and enlighten and deepen the debate about gay people in ways that never happened before the marriage issue came up.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Life Soundtrack 18

Liquid, by Jars of Clay

Christianity at its core. What would the world look like if we could only let go of all of our buts and our oughts, our 'biblical' agendas and our efforts to control others, and truly focus our attention on Jesus' invitation to follow him...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Throughout the Gospel accounts, Jesus teaches through parables. While Jesus taught this way to obscure the meanings of his stories from those who weren't among his followers, they can be equally hard to decipher for those who strive to follow him today, as evidenced by the numerous debates one can find over the interpretation of nearly every one of his parables.

The Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) is no exception; many different ideas exist as to what Jesus' point really was. And it is a curious tale; a master entrusts a portion of his wealth to three servants (five talents to one, two to another and one to a third - a "talent" being a measure of weight that would have represented a significant amount of money no matter what the actual commodity was) and then leaves on a long trip. The first two servants put his assets to work and double what was given to them, while the third buries it in the ground and is harshly punished for not investing it.

In many churches, the "talents" are seen as an allegory for a believer's spiritual gifts, which are to be used for the advancement of the church. Too often, however, what constitutes an acceptable use of one's gifts ends up reflecting the agenda of whoever happens to be doing the teaching, and the Parable of the Talents becomes a guilt trip to club over the heads of members who fail to properly conform. Even when personal agendas are not present, insufficiently active churchgoers may be threatened with the fires of hell if they don't do enough to exercise their gifts in certain preapproved ways.

But is that necessarily what this parable was meant to convey? Jesus wasn't in the habit of motivating his disciples through threats and guilt trips. Indeed, he always saved his harshest words for those religious leaders who burdened their followers with legalistic regulations and who valued outward conformity more than mercy and compassion.

And a closer look at the parable reveals that the third servant was driven by a specific emotion: fear. He was afraid of his master, whom he described as "harsh" and implied was somewhat unscrupulous as well. He buried the talent entrusted to him because he was afraid of what the master would do to him if he lost it. And investment entails risk; the third servant's reaction confirms that the other two servants could have ended up losing their master's money had their business ventures not gone well.

The third servant's fearful attitude is reminiscent of the legalist who lives in constant fear of eternal damnation. God has given each of us the gift of life and the opportunity to make an impact in the world, but in legalistic theology the cost of failure (or of being wrong) outweighs any possibility of success; it's far better to live life as restrictively as possible, for the sake of sin avoidance. Bury that gift of life in the ground, where it can be safely preserved and returned unused when the Master comes back for it.

While no devout Christian would ever describe God as unscrupulous, the fear that dominates the lives of legalistic believers belies the fact that they see God as a harsh and easily offended taskmaster who must be properly revered OR ELSE. Like the third servant, they understand that God will have his way anyway, so they conclude that it's better to lay low and stay far away from anything that might potentially get them into trouble.

Yet it's the first two servants who took risks who are rewarded by their master. What would have happened if they had lost their talents? It seems noteworthy that Jesus never addresses the possibility. Perhaps, in God's accounting, the greatest failure lies in doing nothing at all. That doesn't mean that all risks are equally worthwhile or that we can validate anything we do by attaching God's name to it, but it does suggest that this lifetime wasn't meant to be spent avoiding as many things as possible while we count the days until we can escape to the next life.

As for the punishment the third servant received, there's a tragic irony in an individual earning the very punishment he feared as a result of his efforts to avoid punishment. Whether or not the parable is meant to be taken literally, it's worth noting again that most of Jesus' pronunciations of judgment were aimed at those members of the religious establishment who valued the letter of the law above all else. And legalism becomes its own punishment as it slowly sucks the life out of its adherents, confining them to a fear-ridden prison of their own making.

One of the most frequent commands in the Bible is Do Not Fear. While the freedom of unconditional love is never a license to pursue one's own pleasure to the detriment of others, it is a liberation from the legalistic chains that would hold us to the ground that was meant to be our launching pad. It's an invitation to discover the wonders of God's creation and to play an active role in shaping what happens next.

So dare to live. Explore. Innovate. Befriend a Samaritan woman. Reach out to a leper. Heal the sick on the Sabbath. Color outside the lines if it improves the picture. Make the world a better place even if the religious right condemns you for it.

I don't presume to present this as the interpretation of Jesus' parable (if finding a single definitive interpretation is in fact possible or even desirable). Rather, I would hope to demonstrate how the Bible can speak to us and breathe its life into us when we stop treating it like an encyclopedia and give up our demands for a life that can be spelled out in simple black-and-white terms. Such an approach requires more from us than a life of fear and hiding, but the rewards are far greater as well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

From the Onion

If God Had Wanted Me To Be Accepting of Gays...

Like anything from the Onion it's over the top, but at the same time I've encountered people who are very much like the woman in this 'editorial.'

For those who might take offense at satire like this, take a moment to consider one point: this is how the rest of the world perceives conservative Christians. If you're still offended, ask yourself this question: would non-Christians (gay or otherwise) describe you as a kind and compassionate person, or do you have to explain to them why you really are compassionate even though they think the opposite is true? If the latter is the case, maybe they're not the ones with a perception problem...

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


1. Donald Miller offers up some interesting thoughts on morality and how we formulate it. Quote to ponder:

Many people are moral for religious reasons, stating their morality comes from the Bible or a sacred text (which, while these books can influence morality, are not written with the intention of defining a moral code. If they are, they are terribly written and the authors couldn’t land their point.)

While I would word that slightly differently, the point to take away is that when treated as a code of laws the Bible largely fails us; there are too many situations it doesn't adequately address, and too many of the situations it does cover don't directly apply to us today. As the story of God's past interactions with humanity, however, the Bible is a storehouse of wisdom that can shape our moral development as we get better acquainted with it.

2. Good interview with Justin Lee and Nate Krogh of the Gay Christian Network over at the Burnside Writers Collective.

3. Another anecdote illustrating the fact that Stage Three thinking is hardly limited to the religious right - or even to the religious realm.

4. Finally, in the "pot, meet kettle" category, Conservapedia sets out to rewrite the Bible in its own image.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Have We Become?

Sex offender laws were birthed out of a perfectly understandable concern; if I had children, I'd want to know if one of my neighbors was a convicted rapist or pedophile. Unfortunately, these laws that were designed to protect us have morphed far beyond their original intent.

My first encounter with how the law has been abused came when I met a man in Utah who had been on the wrong end of another person's prejudice. "Matthew's" first mistake was that he happened to be gay in an extremely conservative state. His second was falling in love with a boy two years younger than him. His third mistake was getting caught in an intimate moment by his boyfriend's homophobic father when he (Matthew) was 18. The father had Matthew arrested, and a hostile judge threw the book at him for statutory rape.

"Matthew" spent the next twelve years in prison - years he might have spent graduating from college and becoming a productive citizen. Since then he's repeatedly tried to get on his feet and rebuild his life, only to be slapped back down every time. Whenever he finds a job or a new place to live, it's only a matter of time before somebody discovers that he's listed on the sex offender registry and raises hell until he's fired and/or evicted. Who wants a sex offender in the neighborhood, after all? And what difference could it make why he's on the registry?

Last time I talked to Matthew he was living in a homeless shelter and trying to save up money from the latest menial job he'd managed to find. Through it all he's never resorted to crime, despite the state of Utah's efforts to turn him into the hardened criminal it deems him.

It would be easy to chalk stories like this up to the famously repressive atmosphere of a state like Utah, and in fact I didn't realize just what a huge problem these abuses of our sex offender laws had become until I read this essay (and its follow up with corroborating links). No doubt some states are worse than others, but the list of activities that can get a person branded as a sex offender continues to grow - even streaking is now treated as a dangerous and predatory crime in the eyes of the law.

Read the stories in the linked articles. Does anyone seriously think that branding these kids as sex offenders for life will in any way improve anybody's safety? How many of them will ever be able to hold onto a good job or live in a decent neighborhood, thanks to their "criminal" record? Is there anyone this side of Sally Kern who can look at this long trail of ruined lives without being outraged?

This is what happens when people begin to view government as the solution to every problem and the provider of every need. Soon everyday life is so regimented by well-intended efforts to mitigate every risk and eliminate every ill that the law becomes a club that can be wielded by anyone with a grievance against anyone else whose behavior they happen to disapprove of. This is how free nations cease to be free, when safety becomes such an overriding priority that no sacrifice is too great to achieve it. In the end the world is just as perilous as it ever was, but the things that once made it a better place to live are gone.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I've got a couple posts in the works that don't seem to be moving beyond the "in progress" stage, so in the meantime, here's a reply I gave recently to somebody who asked me what I would say to a young gay man or woman who's still in the closet. I suppose I'm really addressing this to a younger version of myself, but I know I'm not the only person who's ever been in that dark place...

God loves you more than you can imagine. You've no doubt heard that in church many times, but deep down you don't really believe it. You've bought into the lie that there's a catch, that you have to become someone else before God will really accept you.

But that's not God speaking - that comes from the voices of people who confuse their personal feelings for God's will and then pick out a few verses that seem to back them up. God was not surprised when you turned out gay; He knew long before you did, and He wouldn't have it any other way. When you cry yourself to sleep at night, God is crying with you - not because you're gay or because he's disappointed in you, but because somebody he loves very much is in pain.

*You* are more valuable than any *thing* could ever be. You are infinitely more important to God than any doctrine or "design" or abstract ideal, and anyone who tells you otherwise has their own agenda. Jesus did not die for a doctrinal statement, or for an institution, or for "traditional marriage" - he died for you.

Don't ever listen to the voices that tell you you're less valuable than other people, or somehow more "broken." You have something unique and important to contribute to the world, a gift you might not have had if you had turned out more "normal" (a human concept, not a divine one). And the world needs what you have to offer, whether the people around you realize it or not.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

More Links

1. Classically Liberal eloquently articulates the problem with partisan politics (and all other forms of "us vs. them" thinking).

2. As a fan of both Gregory Boyd and Jacques Ellul, I was happy to discover that Boyd also cites Ellul as an influence.

3. Gabriel Arana shares some reflections on marriage in the wake of his recent engagement.

4. Finally, if you need a laugh this week, check out the ultimate board game...

Monday, August 31, 2009

Life Soundtrack 17

Baby I Can't Please You, by Sam Phillips

As much as I prefer to find embeddable videos for the songs in this series, sometimes there just isn't one on YouTube. The video is worth linking to anyway; it even suggests that I wasn't far off in using this song as my Ode to Fundamentalism...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Items of Note

In no particular order, a few posts of interest from around the blogosphere...

1. Greg Boyd offers a thoroughly biblical refutation to the fundamentalistic notion that God uses natural disasters to punish "immorality." Not that the fundamentalists who make such claims would ever allow a well-reasoned argument, no matter how biblically supported, to get in the way of their latest crusade, but we can at least try to limit the amount of damage that such people routinely do to the church's reputation.

2. Doorman-Priest weighs in on the ELCA's recent decision to allow member churches to fully include GLBT individuals in the life of the congregation, and the ways that conservatives use the Bible to argue against inclusion. Key quote:
The situation we face is one where people believe they know their Bibles: after all they can quote verses at the drop of a hat as if that were somehow evidence. That is not the same as understanding their Bibles and without understanding there is not knowledge. Without understanding and knowledge there can not be evaluation.

3. Groups like Exodus and Focus on the Family would flatly deny that they in any way support miscarriages of justice like this one. And I believe that, from their perspective, they sincerely believe in the goodness of their own cause. Yet it's precisely because of their tireless efforts to pathologize and stigmatize homosexuality in the public arena (couched in plenty of talk about "compassion," but still geared toward equating "gay" with mental illness and sin of the worst sort) that an innocent man could be presumed guilty simply because he was gay.

Granted, much has changed since the late '80s when Bernard Baran was imprisoned on false charges, but the attitude of the court that convicted him was fully in line with what one still hears from the religious right during public policy debates.

4. Peterson offers some more thoughts on mixed-orientation marriages. While such unions can occasionally work, I'm very thankful that I never entered into one myself - as much for the sake of the woman I might have loved but would have never truly desired as for myself.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thank You

I've added the Followers widget to the list of items displayed on the right, in appreciation of those who believe that what I have to say is worth reading. I'm not the best at responding to or reciprocating comments on posts, but I do appreciate the feedback. And one of these days I'll get around to signing myself up as a follower on some of your blogs...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Human Nature

Worth repeating:

Often I read arguments made by Atheists, Marxists, or Agnostics that primarily focus on organized religion as a source of most of the world’s problems. They correctly point out that a majority of wars are started upon religious unrest, or major humanitarian atrocities were performed under the guise of religious obedience. If religion was to be eradicated from the earth, they believe that mankind would live a much more peaceful existence. I have no problem acknowledging the problems religion has caused the world, but I think it’s foolish to assume that religion is what brings the worst out of mankind. I think it’s exactly the opposite; mankind has used the power of faith to execute its existing desires. Religion is merely a platform from which to operate, and if it wasn’t religion, it would be something else. You’re welcome to make a straw-man out of religion, but it is mankind itself who is responsible for its own misdeeds.

I've written more than once about the disrespect (sometimes blatant, sometimes thinly veiled) that evangelicals have traditionally expressed toward the rest of the world. While that seems to be slowly changing, the church still has a long way to go toward treating its neighbors as though they were anything more than conversion targets.

On the flip side of that, of course, is the fact that respect must ultimately flow in more than one direction. There are certainly many atheists who respect those who believe differently than they do, but there are many more who don't. "Fundamentalist" may have strong religious connotations, but when two or more groups are similarly militant, dogmatic and intolerant, it's not unreasonable to use the same label to describe those traits wherever they appear.

And any atheist who argues that eliminating religion would make the world a better place is overlooking the fact that two of history's biggest mass murderers (Stalin and Mao) were atheists. (Hitler may or may not have been a strict atheist, but in practice he demonstrated little regard toward organized religion except as a temporary means to an end.) As fallacious as it may be to claim that atheism must lead to the kinds of atrocities that have been perpetrated by Communist regimes over the last 90 years, it's just as wrong to insist that religion automatically leads down a similar path.

In the end, human nature is human nature regardless of the circumstances people find themselves in. Most people seem to have an inborn need to align themselves with something larger and more important than themselves. If not religion, such individuals will rally around patriotism, communism, environmentalism or some other -ism. Within James Fowler's system, these individuals are at Stage Three in their faith development, and most people are content to stop growing once they reach that point. Most are capable of growing further, but such growth cannot be forced and life certainly is far more comfortable when one can leave all the difficult choices to an external authority that claims to have all of life's answers.

Thus history continually repeats itself as majorities follow after demagogues, who wield the power granted by their followers to crush nonconformists and wage crusades against those outside the group. Take away any given religion or -ism and another will take its place.

Even from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, then, there is value in any religion that teaches its followers to tend to their own affairs and live in peace with nonbelievers. Such faiths have their limits, since many Stage Three individuals crave conformity to such a degree that they will only be satisfied by a group that zealously condemns and works to stamp out the sins of others. Nonetheless, no secular ideology has yet been devised that handles such individuals any better. And those of us who believe that our respective faiths are more than superstition are not going to abandon our beliefs simply because they can be exploited by the unscrupulous to manipulate those who are content to remain children.

Perhaps someday a society will arise that is capable of ushering the majority of its citizens into the moral and spiritual adulthood of Stage Five. In the meantime, the best place we can start if we want to see positive change lies not in eradicating our ideological rivals but in being agents for peace and compassion in our own lives.

Friday, July 31, 2009


We usually think of people with great authority as higher up, far away, hard to reach. But spiritual authority comes from compassion and emerges from deep inner solidarity with those who are "subject" to authority. The one who is fully like us, who deeply understands our joys and pains or hopes and desires, and who is willing and able to walk with us, that is the one to whom we gladly give authority and whose "subjects" we are willing to be.

It is compassionate authority that empowers, encourages, calls forth hidden gifts, and enables great things to happen. True spiritual authority is located in the point of an upside-down triangle, supporting and holding into the light everyone they offer their leadership to.

-Henri Nouwen, Bread For the Journey

Monday, July 20, 2009


Rather than leave my blog completely neglected while I'm away on a much-needed break from the daily grind, here's one of the best parodies to come along in recent years - Alanis Morissette's rendition of that immortal classic of Top 40 inanity, My Humps...

Monday, July 13, 2009


First, an entry from the recent Synchroblog project. One of the breakthroughs that propelled me onto the journey I started several years ago was the growing suspicion that we've been asking the wrong question when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. As such, I'm always happy to discover others who have come to the same conclusion.

2. Here's a story from Real Live Preacher that would have been a good fit for the Synchroblog.

3. I don't listen to much Christian music anymore, but I may have to make an exception for Derek Webb.

4. I've spent a good amount of bandwidth addressing the religious right and its highly selective definition of "freedom." Its opponents on the left aren't much better, though; they simply have different ideas about which aspects of everyone's lives should be under government control. As one example of that, American businesses now have to spend over $1.1 trillion per year to comply with nearly 80,000 pages of federal regulations. That's in addition to taxes.

That's not to say that government doesn't have a role to play in protecting its citizens from predators masquerading as legitimate businesses. But if we seriously believe that the business community is so hopelessly corrupt that even half of the micromanagement contained in those 80,000 pages of legalese is truly necessary to protect the American consumer, then perhaps it's time to abandon the pretense that it's a good idea to let human beings have any freedoms at all.

5. Finally, on a lighter note, it's always nice to have one more justification for that morning cup of coffee (and the one after that)...

Monday, July 06, 2009

Life Soundtrack 16

What About the Love, by Amy Grant

Another song that I listened to without really hearing in my evangelical days. It was easy enough to nod and generally agree with the statement being made without really seeing how much a part of the problem I was; there's always someone else who's more legalistic and more judgmental, and that's who the song is really directed at.

And then came the revelation that one of the song's cowriters (Janis Ian) is a lesbian and, well, certainly we didn't need to concern ourselves with the opinions of somebody like that...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thoughts For the Week

From the wisdom of Mark Twain, some quotes to ponder:

•Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.

•Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.

•Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of.

•In religion and politics, people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination.

•When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.

•The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.

•Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do then by the ones you did. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bridging the Gap

This post is my contribution to the Synchroblog project.

Wendy Gritter has undertaken the unenviable task of seeking out ways to bridge the gap between the opposing sides in the debate over homosexuality. I admit I sometimes wonder if such a reconciliation is possible short of one side capitulating to the other, but then I remember that with God all things are possible. Still unlikely, perhaps, but greater miracles have happened.

Ideally I would envision a church where both sides coexisted, humbly acknowledging that what we don't know vastly outweighs what we do know, and that God reveals to each of us exactly as much as we need to know right now for our own lives. Both (all?) viewpoints would be given space, with each believer allowed to prayerfully determine what God's will is for him or her. But since I have to come down from my ivory tower eventually, I'll settle for laying out some ideas for correcting several underlying problems I have observed that undermine efforts by Side B Christians to reach out to the gay community.

That's not to suggest that Side A doesn't have work to do as well; if we cannot respect Side B's right to exist, then we commit ourselves to perpetuating the cycle of violence by inflicting the very wounds that were inflicted on us. Nonetheless, it is Side B Christians who most often claim exclusive ownership of "orthodox" Christianity, so by extension the greatest burden to behave in a Christlike manner lies on them. I hope this post's focus on the Side B church does not come across as a diatribe; these are all problems that I became aware of while I was still committed to the ex-gay movement, and issues that would eventually need to be addressed even if Side A didn't exist.

(For those not familiar with the Side A/B terminology I use here, an explanation can be found by following this link.)

Hence the following suggestions:

1. Rediscover compassion.

Fundamentalists have for years reduced "compassion" to little more than issuing denunciations and haranguing others into turning from their "sinful ways" so that they won't go to hell - and many evangelicals have bought into that mindset. While shouting "turn or burn" may seem compassionate to those steeped in fear-based religion, it's time to reconsider how loving one is actually being when the recipients of one's "compassion" (and those observing from the sidelines) unanimously see it as something considerably less benign.

Compassion requires far more from the giver than the "courage" to be a belligerent nag. It first demands an investment of time so that the giver can get to know the recipients well enough to understand them and their needs. It then calls for further sacrifices of time, talent and resources as the giver gives whatever is required of himself to meet at least some of those needs. How much are the members of your church willing to sacrifice to show love (genuine love that will be recognizable as such) to their LGBT neighbors?

2. Dethrone the idol.

In theory, most churches recognize that lifelong celibacy is an honorable, biblical calling. In practice, all but a very few heterosexual Christians treat it as an inferior state that is fine for gays but that they would never in a million years consider for themselves. Spend time in just about any church and it will quickly become clear that getting married and having children is unanimously viewed as the be-all and end-all of human existence. Unmarried adults are looked on with pity, and church singles groups are seldom much more than "meat markets."

Meanwhile, any gay person who can't work up enough attraction to fall in love with a member of the opposite sex is flatly told they have no alternative to celibacy and no hope of anything better in this lifetime. It's a godly calling and it's all for their own good, after all, even though the heterosexuals preaching to them would view being relegated to the same situation with sheer horror.

Until such time as the average Christian can honestly say that they view celibacy as a calling fully equal to marriage, and that they would accept it joyfully should God require it of them, and until celibate Christians are consistently treated in everyday practice as fully equal to their married counterparts, the church cannot expect its gay members to view celibacy as anything less than a prison sentence.

3. End the word games.

To the rest of the Western world, "gay" simply means same-sex attracted (at least when it's not being used as a pejorative). It can carry additional implications about how one lives one's life, but for the most part it merely indicates which gender an individual is physically and emotionally drawn toward.

Tell people in an evangelical church that you're gay, however - even if you're committed to celibacy - and you're immediately tainted forever. Exodus International has gone so far as to assert in an official publication that merely calling oneself gay is as bad as being sexually promiscuous, based on the theological notion that to identify with anything "contrary to Christ" is sin (even though they have no problem with identifying as patriotic Americans, despite the teachings of Jesus and Paul that such allegiances should be of secondary importance at best).

If it were indeed possible for more than a tiny handful of homosexuals to develop heterosexual attractions, the notion that we're just "heterosexuals with a homosexual problem" might hold some water. As it is, it just muddles the issue and encourages dishonesty while fueling the illusion that the rest of the church can shunt us into an ex-gay program and forget about us.

If some people find the word "gay" to be a convenient shorthand for describing a part of themselves that is very real and in most cases permanent, it should be accepted for what it is: an effort to be honest and transparent, and not necessarily anything more. By the same token, if some of those individuals do not want to use the word "gay" to describe themselves, Side A Christians need to be willing to accept them where they're at without jeering and telling them they're in denial.

Along the same lines, it's time to retire catchphrases like "change is possible" and "freedom from homosexuality" that strongly imply a promise of orientation change. The semantic hoops that ex-gay spokespersons have to jump through to explain why these terms don't mean what they appear to mean make those same spokespersons appear as disingenuous as the oiliest politician. They contribute nothing that helps same-sex-attracted Christians and they hopelessly confuse the issue for everyone else. The only possible use they have is as propaganda in the advancement of a political agenda, which brings me to my next point.

4. Call off the Crusades.

The religious right's attempt to impose moral purity on the United States through political action has severely tarnished the entire church's reputation, as even some within the movement have begun to recognize. Today the average American views evangelicals as intolerant and hypocritical, labels that are far more deserved than we care to admit.

It does not have to be this way. Historically, some of the church's greatest moments have come when Christians have rallied together to advocate for the oppressed and extend the blessings of liberty to previously disfavored classes of people. Conversely, the church's darkest moments have seen followers of Christ wielding earthly power as a club to beat down those who would dare dissent against church dogma.

Which category does the religious right's crusade against gay rights fall into? Ask any gay person who's not in an ex-gay program (and even some who are), and the answer quickly becomes obvious. Again, it does not have to be this way. It is possible for politically and theologically conservative Christians to support state recognition of gay marriages without compromising church doctrine.

By working with gay people in support of their right to be treated as full citizens, the church can help nourish our culture of freedom and thereby safeguard its own right to only recognize certain marriages within its own spiritual domain. By affirming that we respect the dignity and humanity of our neighbors and that we will fight to defend their right to live freely, we make them our allies instead of our enemies.

It is not the church's job to be the world's policeman. A city on a hill draws travelers to it because of what it has to offer, not by sending out soldiers to drag them in at sword point.

I suspect by this point I've already lost a portion of my Side B audience, so I will close with one last thought before this post begins to appear like a laundry list of grievances. And I hope my suggestions will be taken in the spirit they are meant - as sincere feedback on how the evangelical church can better position itself for bridging that gap. My theology and my view of the Bible may have shifted over time, but I still love the church despite the poor behavior of so many of its members (on both sides of the divide). The civil war currently raging throughout the church does neither side any good, and "victory" by either faction could only come at such tremendous loss that we would be better off just closing our doors and going home.

But I digress. Here are my closing questions:

The religious right's fight against gay rights assumes that we can treat adults like rebellious children in need of a spanking and still expect to win them over once we explain how right we were to beat them down. What would it look like if the evangelical church treated LGBT individuals as the intelligent, responsible adults they are instead of as bratty little kids?

And for the sake of balance, here is a closing thought for Side A Christians. Why do we so often think that we're entitled to treat those who oppose us with the same hostility that we have suffered under? If we do indeed have the moral high ground we claim to hold, how can be better demonstrate that in a way that emulates the example of Christ?

I hope these thoughts don't deviate too far from Wendy Gritter's intent for the synchroblog. Sometimes an existing structure has to be retrofitted before it can grow to accommodate current needs, and the church is no exception.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Sin is one of those concepts that is universally understood, but when pressed for specifics, everyone's list is a little bit different. There are certain big sins that nearly everybody would agree on (murder, robbery, lying, etc.), but even those sins aren't always clear cut. Is it a sin to kill an attacker in self-defense, or an enemy soldier in time of war? Should a starving man who stole a loaf of bread be treated as a criminal? Is lying immoral even when telling the truth would cause greater harm? The world is a complex place, and gray areas abound.

To the fundamentalist, of course, there can be no gray areas. Either something is sinful, or it is not, and the Bible is believed to contain comprehensive instructions for telling the difference. With very rare exceptions, however, even fundamentalists don't follow every command found in the Bible; some amount of picking and choosing is conceded to be necessary to determine which sins are universal in nature and which were particular to ancient Israel and/or the first-century church.

The fact that no broad consensus exists on exactly which commands are still relevant today (aside from a few of the big ones) nonetheless fails to deter even some moderate evangelicals from making sweeping proclamations about "biblical morality." Likewise, the fact that the Bible fails to address many of today's pressing issues does little to deter those same believers from viewing it as a divine encyclopedia.

But as appealing as it may be to try to sweep away all of life's complexities by adhering to what is little more than a "soundbite morality" that can respond to every situation with a simple do or don't, such an approach is woefully inadequate to the realities of everyday life. What may be the best course of action in one situation may have disastrous consequences in another. What may help some people may be harmful to others.

Even medical science recognizes that no two people are exactly alike, as doctors and researchers increasingly move away from talking about "the" cure for a disease in favor of addressing the cure for Joe's disease, which may differ in important ways from the cure for Sally's disease, even if Joe and Sally were both given the same basic diagnosis. Similarly, our legal system has historically understood that breaking the letter of the law does not necessarily mean an individual is deserving of punishment; each case is unique, hence the presence of a jury composed of ordinary citizens who have the power to acquit a defendant even if the facts of the case clearly point toward guilt.

How, then, can we ever determine what is morally right if we have to take into account the uniqueness and complexity of each individual? The short answer is that we can't, at least not as absolutely as the fundamentalists in every belief system insist that we must be able to. And fortunately, the Bible doesn't require us to. By boiling everything down to two essential commands (love God and love others), we are free to pursue that which is good without having to forcibly twist every situation to fit a rigid, one-size-fits-all mold.

In addition, we have the Holy Spirit as a guide to help us determine what is right in any given circumstance. Fundamentalists don't care much for the individualized nature of the Holy Spirit's guidance; within their legalistic mindset, only an iron-fisted authority that treats everyone exactly the same can possibly be just, and so the Spirit is relegated to Divine law enforcement duty or pushed into the background entirely.

Back to the issue at hand, based on our two essential commands we can place all sins into two basic categories: sins against others and sins against God. Both categories are broad enough to be ambiguous, but the former is the more tangible of the two. When we cause harm to another person, whether through action or inaction, malice or neglect, we sin against them.

Even then, it's not always clear-cut; when the needs of multiple people conflict, it's not always possible to prevent harm to everybody involved. Sometimes a lesser harm is necessary to prevent a greater harm. And even acts of genuine compassion can go awry. The assistance that helps one person get back on his feet may hinder the recovery of another by creating dependency. The confrontation that corrects one person's course may emotionally destroy another. The advice that mends one relationship may permanently ruin another.

I'm convinced that much of the success the early church lay in the fact that it was composed of small, close-knit communities. The only way we can truly love people - to make the world a better place for them and minimize our sins against them - is to get to know them intimately. Likewise, even when we know a person very well we don't always know what's best for them, no matter what the Bible appears to say on the subject. The less time we have invested in getting to know someone, the less valuable our advice to them can be.

Even under ideal circumstances we can't always know in advance what the outcome of our actions will be. Part of adulthood is learning how to make reasonably educated choices, and learning how to accept responsibility for the consequences of those choices.

It is, in fact, responsibility that fundamentalists fear most. For them, the consequence of being wrong is eternal punishment, so they necessarily formulate a theology that enables them to divest themselves of all responsibility. If one's actions are done out of obedience to what "the Bible says," then any negative consequences cannot truly be bad since God is responsible for them. The detachment from reality that this mindset creates becomes validation that one is becoming more "heavenly minded," and thus it feeds upon itself.

But if the sins we commit against others cannot be measured in terms of real-world consequences, then the command "love your neighbor as yourself" is useless at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. If the spiritual effects of our actions are so detached from their physical and emotional effects that the latter must sometimes be disregarded as Satanic deception, then there is no limit to the abuses that we can commit in God's name once we've invented a "biblical" support for them.

Similarly, we must be careful about what we proclaim to be a sin against God. We can certainly learn from the Bible some of the things that distress God, but if human beings are too complex for us to neatly compartmentalize, how much more beyond our grasp is an infinite being? And God, who understands us better than we understand ourselves, is going to be less caught up in the superficiality of outward appearances than we mortals are. One person's action that appears flippant from our vantage point may in fact be an act of sincere devotion. Only God Himself is wise enough to discern the difference, and we run the risk of sinning against both him and our brother or sister when we are too quick to condemn that which we don't fully understand.

Some might argue for a third category of sin: sins against oneself, or any action that might be considered a "victimless crime." Sometimes self-harm is arguably a sin against those around us, given how interconnected all but the most isolated individuals are, and there's a case to be made for considering it a sin against God in any case, since we are harming somebody that He loves.

Even here, however, life is too complex to divide into neat categories. Just because somebody is overweight, for example, it doesn't automatically follow that they are a glutton. As in all other things, at the end of the day the best we can do is to humbly acknowledge how little we actually know as we actively seek to learn God's direction for our own lives - a daunting enough task without throwing in the burden of trying to determine God's will for anyone else.

Setting aside our need to be in control of everything can be extremely difficult to do - fundamentalists, for all their talk about submitting to God's authority, merely seek to hold onto that control by reducing God's will to a cudgel that can be wielded against others (violently if necessary) in the name of love. Real love for others, however, respects the uniqueness and autonomy of others by relinquishing our desire to reshape them in our own image. And real love for God includes giving up every effort to usurp the authority that can only rightfully belong to him.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Life Soundtrack 15

Blind, by Lifehouse

The chorus of this song evokes memories from the time I fell in love with a close friend (not consciously, but no less deeply for it) and then had to let him go when he met the woman who is now his wife and moved away to be with her.

After all this time, I never thought we'd be here
Never thought we'd be here when my love for you was blind
But I couldn't make you see it, couldn't make you see it
That I loved you more than you'll ever know
And part of me died when I let you go

It wasn't until years later that I was able to piece it all together and figure out why saying goodbye to him hurt so much more than any of the other goodbyes I've said over the course of my life. Not that there ever could have been anything more than friendship between us - and not that I would have ever tried to hold him back even if I'd thought I could have - but at the time the pain was very real.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In the Wake of Prop 8

1. Quote of the day:
"If you're a woman, I can legally marry you in the US for any of the following reasons: money, social status, pity, pride, drunken stupor, green card, practical joke, to win a bet, to save you, to abuse you, to force your father to give me a job, I ordered you online, I won a reality tv show, marriage is on my "to do" list, you're my only hope, or just for fun. If you're a man, not even love is reason enough."
-Phil Putnam (the link is to his Facebook profile; I don't know if non-friends can view it)

Seriously, if the religious right were truly concerned about the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, they'd be doing a lot of housecleaning beyond merely trying to stomp on the gays.

2. A heartfelt plea for equal treatment from a survivor of extreme anti-gay prejudice. Stories like this one remind me how blessed I am to have several supportive family members, including a mother who has always placed a higher value on people than on dogma.

3. Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty speaks out in support of gay marriage. He mistakenly states that many of the Founding Fathers were atheists (it's true that many of them weren't orthodox Christians, but they still believed in God), but aside from that he makes some good points.

4. Regarding the ruling itself, Andrew Sullivan believes the California Supreme Court made the right call. Classically Liberal disagrees.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Random Addenda

1. It's a pretty huge irony, when you stop to think about it, that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy does not originate in the Bible. While inerrantists have a handful of verses that they trot out when defending their position, the doctrine is ultimately based on the assumption that if the Bible is God-inspired and authoritative, then it must be as perfect as its Creator; the verses used to defend that assertion were conscripted afterward.

For fundamentalists, who view all human reasoning as suspect and believe that nothing about God or his creation can be properly understood without first turning to the Bible, this is extremely problematic. For any belief to be true, it must be derived from the Bible. The Bible is a reliable source of truth because, as God's Word, it is perfect. The Bible itself, however, never claims to be perfect - therefore, according to fundamentalism's own rules, inerrancy is a questionable doctrine at best and a heresy at worst. And without an inerrant Bible, their own either/or thinking leaves them with nothing.

2. Speaking of fundamentalism, Jim Babka of Positive Liberty offers a thoughtful analysis of why some people gravitate toward such belief systems. Babka's ideas correlate with Fowler's Stages of Faith, specifically Stage Three, which is where many people stop growing. Life is much easier to cope with when one can rely on an external authority to spell everything out in black and white terms. It's an escape from responsibility, really, for all that fundamentalists talk about accountability; one never need apologize for anything done in the name of obedience to God, no matter how destructive.

3. On the subject of showing respect for those whose beliefs differ from ours (and I mean genuine respect, not lip service accompanied by passive proselytizing), Doorman-Priest has written about his friendship with a Muslim colleague - an individual who does not at all conform to the stereotypes that most of us in the US have about followers of Islam. In short, there's no reason that reasonable people cannot be neighbors, friends and sometimes even allies regardless of their differences in belief.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Life Soundtrack 14

It's a Sin, by The Pet Shop Boys

When this song first came out, I viewed it through the same lens that most conservative evangelicals most likely did (and do) - as a somewhat whiny diatribe by someone too worldly and rebellious to put God ahead of their own wants. Listening to it now, I'm reminded of all the problems inherent in holding to a sin-centric theology, as so many churches do, and I understand why such a legalistic mindset drives so many people away from the church.

The more we obsess over sin avoidance, the less energy we have left to do anything positive and the less we have to offer to a world that we claim needs what we've supposedly got.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Respect, Continued

I recently saw "Atheist vs. Christian," the episode of 30 Days where an atheist spent a month living with an evangelical family. No doubt there were critics who objected that the atheist was a little too perfect - a middle-class mother of three with strong morals who could very articulately explain and defend her beliefs - but contrary to popular belief in evangelical circles, such people really do exist.

The couple she stayed with did exemplify the ignorance that most evangelicals have about how the rest of the world really lives, but the show wasn't weighted against them; they were also very normal, successful middle-class parents who could articulate their own beliefs without being overtly disrespectful.

Even so, it was very telling that the atheist knew more about Christianity than the Christians knew about atheism, especially given the commitment that evangelicals have to "winning the lost." This woman hadn't run to atheism out of a negative reaction to the church, or because she wanted to do things "her way" in defiance of God's commands. She came to her beliefs through an intellectually and personally rigorous process that puts most Christians to shame, and it doesn't bother her in the least that other people continue to believe in God (or gods) despite her disagreement with their conclusions.

Yes, there are atheists like Richard Dawkins who are virulently anti-religion and who actively seek to stamp out religious belief. That their outreach efforts are reminiscent in many ways of Christian evangelism is a telling point that goes over the heads of zealots on both sides, but I digress. The simple fact that most evangelicals seem oblivious to is that there are many more atheists who are happy to live and let live, and who can even appreciate the positive contributions that religions have made to the world.

Such an accepting attitude is, in fact, a sign of maturity and an outgrowth of being secure in one's belief. It speaks volumes that so many evangelicals complain about how much the rest of the world hates them, all the while refusing to show any genuine respect to those who disagree with them. Is it any wonder when such self-serving displays of insecurity earn us the very disrespect that we rail against?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Downfall, Part 4

When I first started the Downfall series, I had in mind writing a segment on the religious right's endorsement of the Bush Administration's use of torture on those it identified as enemy combatants. At the time, though, I mostly had anecdotal evidence to work with; I wasn't certain how many evangelicals really thought torture was a legitimate use of government power.

Now, however, we do know. Via Joe.My.God and others, a new Pew Research Center survey found that 54% of regular churchgoers - and more than 60% of white evangelicals - believe that the use of torture against suspected terrorists is often or sometimes justified. It's worth noting that the survey's sample size was relatively small, but it's nonetheless unlikely that Pew would have found so many pro-torture evangelicals if their numbers weren't considerable.

Only a decade ago, the idea that the President of the United States would authorize interrogation methods that the entire civilized world denounced when they were used against American POW's in past wars was all but unthinkable. Had the Clinton administration been the first to employ waterboarding, there is little question that conservative evangelicals would have been up in arms and shouting for Clinton's impeachment. But since it was initiated by their man in the White House, in the wake of an attack on American civilians by Muslim extremists, it suddenly became acceptable based on the hypothetical possibility that it might eventually save American lives.

And so the church, having abandoned its spiritual mandate in pursuit of a political agenda, has become further tainted by the very power system it thought it could wield in God's name. The same believers who would most adamantly insist that God's high standards preclude a gay person from ever being a genuine Christian no longer see anything wrong with treating suspected enemies with ruthless brutality.

I make an effort to avoid speaking on God's behalf on my blog (or anywhere else), but "Jesus wept" (which CNN tagged onto the end of the url for its article) seems pretty likely to have been his response to this survey.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Nonjudgmental Presence

To the degree that we accept that through Christ we ourselves have been reconciled with God we can be messengers of reconciliation for others. Essential to the work of reconciliation is a nonjudgmental presence. We are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label. When we walk around as if we have to make up our minds about people and tell them what is wrong with them and how they should change, we only create more division. Jesus says it clearly, "Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge; ... do not condemn; ... forgive" (Luke 6:36-37).

In a world that constantly asks us to make up our minds about other people, a nonjudgmental presence seems nearly impossible. But it is one of the most beautiful fruits of a deep spiritual life and will be easily recognized by those who long for reconciliation.

-Henri Nouwen, Bread For the Journey

Friday, April 17, 2009


There's always interesting stuff out there in (and beyond) the blogosphere...

-This essay nicely articulates why I view 'liberal' and 'conservative' as opposite faces of the same authoritarian coin.

-Over the past couple of years I've come to see the doctrine of inerrancy as not only unbiblical, but ultimately detrimental to the Christian faith. And now there's a book out that helps to document the latter point.

-Via my friend Eric, this story illustrates how it is possible for us to come together even if we disagree on significant issues.

-Mike and Mel White were my favorite team on this season of the Amazing Race. Here's an interview with Mel that will be of interest to anyone who watches the show.

-I love Stephen Colbert. Not that I always agree with him on everything, but this is an awesome parody.

-Finally, who doesn't love it when the 'ugly duckling' turns out to be a beautiful swan?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Life Soundtrack 13

Fade to Grey, by Jars of Clay

A poetic illustration of the relationship between faith and doubt, and our yearning to have everything spelled out for us in black and white. The phrase "fade to grey" also aptly captures how it feels to transition from Stage Three to Stage Four in one's faith.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Defending 'Truth' By Telling Lies, Part 5

Sadly, I could make this a daily series if I had the time and the energy to devote to it, but fortunately there are other bloggers who are willing to undertake the massive task of keeping up with all of the religious right's disingenuous claims.

Maggie Gallagher is certainly no stranger to making bizarre arguments, but while incoherence isn't a sin, it shouldn't be unreasonable to hope that someone claiming to speak on God's behalf would still consider honesty a virtue. Granted, her new television ad is savvy enough to stay out of the realm of legally prosecutable lies, but it is blatantly dishonest all the same, as Jim Burroway has documented.

It's not unreasonable to express concern that growing acceptance of gay marriage could someday lead to government encroachment on religious freedom where the two issues intersect; our government's track record is far from perfect when it comes to respecting the constitutional rights of its citizens. But blowing existing cases out of proportion (and out of context) is ultimately a counterproductive exercise, especially when accompanied by an attitude that shouts "We must oppress you so that you can't oppress us."

There are good reasons that so many gay individuals (and more than a few straight people) have left the evangelical church, none of which you're likely to ever hear in an evangelical setting. The title of this post holds a clue to one of those reasons...

Update: Not related to Gallagher's commercial, but Jason Kuznicki's post about Rick Warren's recent lie (and Gallagher's response) is relevant to the broader subject and worth reading...