Friday, September 28, 2012

Brian McLaren and his Son’s Same-Sex Wedding

The story of Brian McLaren officiating at a “Commitment Ceremony” appeared recently on a Christianity Today blog.

Comments on some other blogs I’ve read expressed, predictably, some varied responses to this story. I’ve seen Brian called both a heretic and an infidel for doing this, and I’ve also read of people sympathizing with his actions.

Without addressing whether or not I agree with Brian’s decision to officiate at this ceremony, I do want to say this: There is something important about standing up with the people you love, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

When Rev. Jeremiah Wright caused a stir awhile back because of his public remarks about America, Barack Obama was not quick to denounce his former pastor. He was disapproving of the statements made by Wright, but also said he refused to turn his back on the pastor in whose church Obama came to faith in Christ (you can read about this experience in Obama’s autobiography).

Many people were angry at Obama’s words, and felt he should cut Wright out of his life. But Obama kept love in tact while denouncing Wright’s comments. I saw integrity in that position. Political expediency did not win out this time.

I’ve spent some time with Brian McLaren over the last few years, and I like him very much. His writings have helped me in my own journey, and I’m grateful for his thoughtful responses to challenging issues. I view him as a brother in Christ. That doesn’t mean that he and I would agree on all things, but universal agreement is not necessarily a prerequisite for love (my Mom and I disagree on a number of things, but we still love each other).

I wonder what I would have done if one of my children had come to me and revealed their attraction to members of the same sex. And what would I have done if one of them announced a plan to wed a same sex partner? If I stood up and walked them through a ceremony of commitment (perhaps one that called them to faithfulness, challenging them to embrace the full ramifications of what it means to be married), would that be tantamount to an endorsement? Or would I be doing what a father who loves his children does, even if such an act ran cross-grain to my own convictions?

I do not find easy answers in these kinds of situations. But I do believe that love requires responses that violate the sensibilities of many people (the Gospels reveal many stories about Jesus that support this). The world in which we Christians minister is more complex than many people imagine.

And love often gets us in trouble.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What is "Conservative"?

Now, to be fair, what do we mean when we use the term “conservative”?

In current US culture, the term has fallen on hard times, too often equating it with some form of radical fundamentalism or hard line obstructionism. Whether referring to religion or politics, it seems to be a term, like “progressive,” that has lost its way.

At its heart, conservatism seeks to maintain things of value, whether those things are traditions, practices, institutions, or beliefs. Even the most liberal of people are conservative somewhere in their lives (go into a liberal church and change the paint color or the seating, and watch the fur fly; or alter the way a liberal family celebrates certain holiday traditions and watch the children and grandchildren howl in protest).

People who seek to protect the environment are usually referred to as liberals, and yet their official label is “conservationalists.” Pretty crazy.

Right now, in the US, what is it that we are attempting to conserve?

In the political arena, it seems to be something that is grounded in economics. I do find myself a bit stunned by the increased revelation that many of our conservative politicians over the last few decades have claimed an allegiance to Ayn Rand’s so-called objectivism, illustrated in her novel Atlas Shrugged. Yet, even that staunch, conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., felt that Rand’s dismissal of all things charitable was unacceptable. Recently Paul Ryan (who has been characterized as a Rand devotee) was chastised by the Roman Catholic Church for embracing a Randian social and economic policy that turned its back on the poor.

The problem for people of faith (like Paul Ryan) is that while Ayn Rand left her oppressive communism behind, she brought her atheism with her. So is that progressive or conservative?

I find too many of my Christian brothers and sisters morphing religious conservatism with American conservatism, and seeing it as one thing. That is, in my view, a very dangerous and possibly poisonous cocktail.

Are there things to conserve? Probably so. Do we dare seek to conserve those things we have come to value without some form of theological reflection? Can we read the “conservative” works of people like Ayn Rand (and her contemporary followers like Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, and others) and then turn and read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and draw the conclusion that they are compatible?

In my book, it’s unthinkable.

What is "Progressive"?

When we speak of being (or others being) progressive, what do we mean?

Historically, at least in the US, progressivism was associated with social reform that addressed working conditions, child labor, fair housing, and so on. Presently, however, the terms “progressive” and “liberal” appear to have become conflated.

Progressivism today seems to have more to do with the demand for individual rights than it does with social reform (although some might point out that the various legislations that emerge from those demands create reform). As new interest groups rise up to demand rights, their causes are typically championed by those who identify themselves as progressive.

There are also followers of Jesus who consider themselves to be progressive. From my experience, they seem to line up with those who live in the progressive political world.

As I consider this, I have to ask a question: What is the force that causes the progression in the first place? In other words, from what, to what, and by what do we progress? Is it some sort of evolutionary power that pushes us along? Is it popular consensus? Is it the mounting demands of various interest groups? What is it that moves us along?

There’s a great story in the New Testament (Acts 10-11) about something progressive taking place. The emerging followers of Jesus were seeing their experience as a uniquely Jewish story (can’t blame them, really). When Peter ended up meeting with a group on non-Jewish, God-fearing gentiles, the Spirit of God fell upon them. Peter realized that something he never anticipated was happening, and he reported it to his co-leaders in the Jerusalem church. They agreed (at least initially) that the Jesus experience was a much bigger story than they had ever imagined.

I think those folks would have claimed a progressivism that was caused by the movement of the Holy Spirit. But it wasn’t simply grounded in cultural or social preference. They (Paul, actually) would go back to their own Scriptures and discover that the grand preferences of God for the world were there all the time, but they had missed them. In that sense, they were actually becoming conservative, as they sought to conserve what they now believed was God’s true desires for all people.

We need to think about this whole idea of being progressive. I think we ought to pause for moment and think about the power that pushes us to progress through history.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

More on Marriage and Rights

Attentive reader and friend Brian (see his comment on my post of September 8) rightly points out that the Supreme Court of the US has indeed declared marriage to be a basic civil right. That is true, and probably will provide the basis for the eventual approval of same-sex marriage throughout the United States.

But my question is this: For we people of faith—Christian faith in particular—does the Supreme Court (or any judicial or legislative body of the state) have the ability to declare how we view reality within the contrast society we call the church? In other words, if the Supreme Court says that marriage is a civil right, does that provide us the only basis for talking about marriage?

I found the following at a University of Missouri website:

“Delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 hotly debated the issue of slavery. George Mason of Virginia argued eloquently against slavery, warning his fellow delegates:

‘Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, providence punishes national sins by national calamities.’

Southern delegates, on the other hand, argued strenuously that the new government should not be allowed to interfere with the institution of slavery. Delegate John Rutledge of South Carolina, for example, told delegates that ‘religion and humanity have nothing to do with the questions’ of whether the Constitution should protect slavery—it was simply a question of property rights.

“The Supreme Court, in its infamous decision in Dred Scott v Sandford (1857), ruled that Congress lacked the power to prohibit slavery in its territories. In so doing, Scott v Sandford invited slave owners to pour into the territories and pass pro-slavery constitutions.”

At one time in US history, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of slavery, making the forced labor of human beings an act that was considered legal and the right of slaveholders. Others declared that what the Court had ruled, while a social and economic reality, was a fundamental violation of human dignity.

Just because the Court says its so doesn’t make it so. It might be the law of the land, but it doesn’t necessarily create the only boundaries within which followers of Jesus form their thinking and practice.

I’m not advocating lawlessness, nor am I, in this posting, advocating one way or the other regarding same-sex marriage. What I am saying is that we people of faith have to process these kinds of issues from a standpoint that assumes something bigger than the Court can rule upon.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Disagreeing with Rachel Held Evans, but loving her anyway

One of the blogs I enjoy reading belongs to Rachel Held Evans. She’s a terrific writer and I like her take on things in the world of faith in general and Christianity in particular.

She made a brief remark recently, however, about which I disagree. She said, “I believe that marriage is a civil right in this country.” I am not, in this limited space, attempting to address the larger issue of same-sex marriage, except to the extent that I think its proponents base their arguments on a faulty assumption.

Marriage is not a civil right.

Let me explain: When I got married a zillion years ago, there were certain requirements I had to meet in order to marry my fiancé. First, we had to affirm that we were not already married to someone else. Even back in 19blah blah blah, polygamy was frowned upon in US society. Second, we had to get blood tests to prove that we didn’t carry communicable diseases and end up spawning mutants and then infecting all our neighbors. Third—and this is the one that still outrages me—I had to get written permission from my parents in order to get married. Back in the olden days, you see, a woman could get married without parental consent at age 18. Men had to be 21. My fiancé was 19 and I was 20, so I had to get a note from Mom and Dad. Nevermind that I was in the US Navy at the time and could, theoretically, defend the nation for the sake of democracy; I still had to get a note. If my folks said no, then I’d have to wait a year.

Once we satisfied those requirements, we could get married. But it was not because it was a civil right; it was the recognition by the state of California (and also our church) that something existed between my fiancé and me that could be recognized and declared as a union called “marriage.”

We didn’t have a right to get married. We did, however, have a right to request that our life together be affirmed as such. And we could, potentially, be refused.

Two ten-year-olds can walk into the County Recorder’s office, pick up the form that requests a marriage license, fill it out, and submit it. It will, of course, be turned down. In our society, even children can ask to get married, but we won’t let them do it. It’s their right to ask, but not their right to actually tie the knot.

While the requirements are not quite as rigid today, the point, I believe, still stands. I’m wondering what would happen if the debate about marriage moved away from the assumption of a “right” to the exploration of marriage that is recognized and declared by the communities in which we live. This is not just an issued related to same-sex couples; it has to do with the whole idea of marriage in a culture that can deconstruct and reconstruct lives via medical technology in ways that were unthinkable a hundred years ago. Marriage and sex assumed, at one time, procreation. No longer is that assumed, even with heterosexuals (read this interesting blog on the topic). On top of that, we heterosexuals have pretty much redefined marriage as something that only works half the time anyway, so maybe some fresh and new reflection is in order.