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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Great Commission should not be used to make enemies

 by Steve Kindle

Most of the foreign missionaries I talk to hold in common a belief that God always precedes their arrival at the mission field, and prepares the way. This notion is fraught with theological insights. Not the least of these is that God is with people whom we may consider “lost,” yet, there God is. With charity, we can call this a relationship.

A human characteristic we all share is the tendency to regard our culture superior to all others. This would include our religions. In America, we regard democracy as the best form of government and actively seek to democratize the rest of the (backward) world. This is certainly true for most adherents of Christianity—we want the whole world to adopt our faith.

This is, of course, an extension into the modern world of ancient tribalism. Not only do we find the presupposition of “We are the best,” but also the accompanying fear of those who aren’t like us. Couple this with the capitalistic notion of “win or lose” and you have the recipe for constant and continuing strife among the religions and peoples of the world.

What’s to be done about this? If you are a hardcore tribalist, you will insist on winning over all. “We have the truth and you must come to us for salvation,” is the rallying cry. Nothing will change if this predisposition dominates, and it dominates throughout the world. I find it ironic, if not humorous, that those who most exemplify this attitude are the very ones most upset when they find it in others. “Radical fundamentalist Muslims” deplore evangelistic Christianity. Fundamentalist Christians deplore “radical Muslims.” They are two sides of the same coin.

It has been said often that the only hope for world peace is that people give up exclusive claims about their own religion and accept that they are not the only ones with the truth. This is surely at least partially true. Religious strife is as ancient as Cain and Abel (the proper way to sacrifice), and as recent as ISIL. Yet it is an impractical solution; it will never happen, at least for the foreseeable future. But this doesn’t mean that the adherents of these religions can’t take this step.

Gandhi is reputed to have said, “Be the change you want to see.” If you feel that the answer to world peace is acknowledging the value of other’s truths, at least for themselves if not for you, then by living this out, there is one less person in the world agitating for division. Who knows? It might catch on.

When I read in the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, “They alone see truly who see the Lord the same in every creature, who see the deathless in the hearts of all that die. Seeing the same Lord everywhere, they do not harm themselves or others. Thus they attain the supreme goal,” I marvel at the truth therein, and my soul is enlarged. I love meeting people of other Books, and often find my own self failing in comparison to their lives and loves.

Now I know the objections to this approach are many. “The Bible says…” and “We have been given the Great Commission,” just to name two. Fundamentalists will never abandon these “truths.” It’s true that the Great Faiths are not teaching the same thing, but I believe that they are capable of producing the same kind of person—loving, considerate of the earth, peaceful—and that is the point, after all, isn’t it? In fact, if Christianity produces hateful people, willing to kill others for its “truth”, who condemn all who disagree, and hold them in contempt, why bother with it?

If I must go into all the world and preach the gospel, I will affirm that God loves all people, that God wants all people to love each other, and that God supports all who obey the Great Commandments regardless of where it is found or who said it. And you know what? God will already be there ahead of me, teaching the world through its own culture the way to Truth.

I recently published a short book that looks at why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it. Order I'm Right and You're Wrong! here: It's only $4.99.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Striking Omission

by Steve Kindle

Today, representatives of the major world religions gathered at 9/11’s Ground Zero memorial to commemorate the lives lost and comfort the still-grieving families. The centerpiece, of course, was Pope Francis. However, the presence of Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, Baha’is, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Christian Protestant leaders was striking for its omission: Franklin Graham was not on the stage.

The opening visual was of the rabbi and the imam waking to the microphones, pausing to embrace one another. A Jew and a Muslim hugging. A more appropriate beginning to a prayer service on behalf of the whole world could not be imagined. No wonder Franklin Graham was nowhere to be seen. For he represents a different notion of Christianity, typified by blaming 9/11 on Islam, calling it a “very wicked and evil religion.”

It’s easy to blame the fundamentalists in Islam who wage jihad against all perceived enemies. But what about Christian fundamentalists whose only concern is the world domination of all people and religions under the guise of the Great Commission, typified by Graham? Conservative American Christians keep adding fuel to the fire of antagonism by insisting that only Christianity is valid, and all other religions are of the devil. When we get blowback, what did we expect? A warm welcome?

The idea that a pope could address a joint session of Congress was unthinkable until maybe the installation of Pope Francis. And the message he brought? Learn to live together in our diverse world. Perpetuating the animosities of the past only serves to prolong them. Finding ways to acknowledge the good in peoples other than one’s own serves to diminish age-old antagonisms.

The absence of Franklin Graham from the prayer service at Ground Zero speaks volumes. In another day, we would have expected his father, Billy Graham, to be on that stage. Apparently some apples do fall far from the tree.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

"Loss of religious freedom" is the New Party Line

By Steve Kindle, CEO Clergy United

Although the Christian Right continues to find objections to same-sex marriage, the public at large continues to see through them. With a nearly 60% approval across the polls, Americans are embracing the reality that gay love is no different in substance from straight love. Here's how Justice Kennedy put it in his majority opinion.
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. It is so ordered.
Now that their battle to stop marriage equality from becoming the law of the land (as it is in seventeen other nations) is concluded here in the USA, an old tactic is reemerging. The Christian Right is casting itself as an abused minority whose religious freedoms are being attacked and abridged. Here are some representative quotes from Republican presidential candidates.  
Mike Huckabee: "The Supreme Court can no more repeal the laws of nature and nature's God on marriage than it can the law of gravity. Under our Constitution, the court cannot write a law, even though some cowardly politicians will wave the white flag and accept it without realizing that they are failing their sworn duty to reject abuses from the court. If accepted by Congress and this President, this decision will be a serious blow to religious liberty, which is the heart of the First Amendment."
Rick Santorum: "It is an increasing view that if you are not with this new orthodoxy, the secularism that is now coming from the government, that these are the values that the government values. If you don't live up to those values, well then you can be persecuted and maybe even prosecuted for doing so."
Bobby Jindal: "This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision. This ruling must not be used as pretext by Washington to erode our right to religious liberty."
The essential argument is that one's religious beliefs should be protected by the government. That any infringement on my ability to act in a manner my beliefs demand is religious persecution. Therefore, my deeply held belief that gay marriage is against the will of God protects me from having anything to do with its practice.

Of course, this seems like a perfectly legitimate concern. People should be able to practice their religion as they see it. Yet, when specific situations are given, the flaws in this reasoning become apparent.

Whenever minorities are granted rights long withheld from them, the majority loses some of theirs.  Because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that serve the public are no longer able to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or religion, regardless of what the owners believe that "race mixing" is a sin.  Gone are the “Whites Only” counters, “restricted clubs” (no Jews allowed), and red-lined neighborhoods.  Most of us feel that whatever losses ensued are America's gain.

The Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage means life in America will go on pretty much as usual, with the exception that LGBTs will no longer be denied equal rights with the rest of us. So, yes, those wedding cake bakers who serve the public whose religious belief would keep them from marrying someone of the same sex, does not protect them from not serving a gay couple.

The blogs on the Religious Right are warning America that churches will lose their tax-exempt status if they refuse to marry LGBTs. This is preposterous. This is generally held by constitutional scholars to be a red herring. The First Amendment of the US Constitution secures this as Justice Kennedy observed in his Majority opinion.
Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons.
So, be prepared to counter these often hysterical reactions to the so-called loss of religious liberty. People of any faith or no faith will always be able to believe whatever they choose. They just won't be able to use their faith to limit the rights of any American because of them.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Some Americans Need a Civics Lesson

By Steve Kindle, CEO Clergy United

A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.                 ~ Justice Antonin Scalia
 Justice Scalia, in his overwrought dissent to the SCOTUS decision to legalize same-sex marriage, provided the opposition with an increasingly used talking point: "five unelected lawyers."

Contrary to the wishes of those who were disappointed with SOCTUS's decision to make same-sex marriage the law of the land, and feel abused, the people DO NOT get to decide what’s constitutional and what’s not. Fortunately, we live in a constitutional republic, not a pure democracy.  For in a pure democracy, if 51% of the people want to lop off the heads of the other 49%, for whatever reason, it would happen.  Our Constitution forbids majority coercion of the minority and in fact was created, in no small part, to protect the rights of the minority.

Ironically (for Scalia, et al), if we were to let the people decide, the tide has turned and the majority of  Americans are now in favor of same-sex marriage.  Most polls show about 60% approval. Given their favorable attitude toward LGBTs, when the Millennial generation assumes power, this will be a long forgotten era of American history.  Just as today when young people are told of Jim Crow and the struggle for Civil Rights, and they are mystified as how this could ever have been, so too will generations from now find it hard to believe that gay people couldn’t get married.

Today, Sen. Cruz showed his hand. As one of the most insistent that the Constitution should be the law of the land and interpreted according to literal and original meaning, he, nevertheless, said this:
"The only way I think to do so is to insist upon nominees who will follow the law, who don’t view being on the federal bench as an invitation to be a platonic philosopher-king, to have nine unelected lawyers decreeing what our answer should be, what our policy position should be on every hot button issue of the day. I think it is a much sounder approach to say let the people decide, let’s vote on it...."
He was one of the first to echo Scalia's "unelected lawyers" verbage, but he was followed by many others. What are we to make of this, except that opponents either don't understand our system, which I rather doubt, or that they are willing to jettison their own first principles when their backs are up against the wall. In this case, the wall being a SCOTUS decision that will be virtually impossible to overturn. So does our Constitutional system of Court oversight only have meaning when we agree with it? God help America if that is the case.

I will just say it as openly and unreservedly as I can.  Homophobia makes people crazy.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Work for Full LGBT Equality Is Far from Over

The history of the United States can be summarized quite accurately as the slow but sure realization of the vision of its founding document, the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal."  The history of the Christian Church in America can be summarized as the gradual and grudging accommodation of that realized vision.

The same Constitution that said “all men are created equal” also said, “Slaves shall represent 3/5 of a human being.”  It also denied women the right to vote, gave states the freedom to establish a religion, and upheld “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws, making interracial marriages illegal and restricting immigration to maintain white supremacy. 

The founders had something in mind when they wrote the Constitution, but it’s not the Republic in which we now live. In fact, their prejudices went so deep that they didn’t even feel the need to write “all white, landed, protestant, heterosexual, free men are created equal.” Forget about their slaves, forget about people with other creeds who would later emigrate, forget about women, forget about those without land, forget about gay people—the only ones who had the right to vote, and thus the right to participate in the building of this new republic, were people exactly like them.

In the intervening years, slavery has been abolished, women have been fully emancipated and nonwhites have been given the full dignity of the law.  With today's announcement from the Supreme Court of the United States that same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states, the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans is finally the realized dream of that distant day in 1776. 

At least in theory.  Racial prejudice remains today, as does the inequality of women in the workplace. Today's SCOTUS ruling elevated LGBTs, yet they still have to face workplace discrimination in the majority of states where they can be fired for being gay.  Personal prejudices continue, as do religious sanctions barring them from membership in many churches.  Gay bashing endangering the lives of LGBTs is still a reality. So, as much as I celebrate today's Court victory, I realize there is much work left to do. There will be, at least among the allies of the gay community, a feeling that we have reached the pinnacle of equality. Gays know better. Let's rejoice in the momentous decision, yes.  But let us not retire to the comfort of the sidelines, because the work for full equality is far from over. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

Gays and The Problem of a Flat Bible

One saying that circulates among the more conservative biblical interpreters is "Let Scripture interpret Scripture." This is codified in such statements as "verses must be in harmony with other verses on the same subject." It's based on certain assumptions that prove false, such as the notion that all the biblical writers mean the same thing when using the same terms. So that once a particular understanding is made, it is transported, intact, across the entire Bible. This has led some to describe this method as reading a flat Bible.

The reality is that there is much argument going on in the Bible. Job argues with Deuteronomy. 1 and 2 Chronicles argues with 1 and 2 Kings.  James argues with Paul. One topic that appears throughout the Bible is the nature of God. Is God a God of mercy or of vengeance? Many would say both, because the Bible depicts God as both. Yet it is clear that Jesus, by his life and death, rejected a God of vengeance. Yet the notion of a God of vengeance persists and is the staple of conservative Christianity. It's their basis for a fiery hell, legalistic judgment, and retributive justice.

This is not a new issue for Christians. The first attempt to deal with it was the radical proposal of Marcion (2nd century CE) who claimed that the father of Jesus Christ was not the God of the Old Testament, and excised it from his Bible. He was (of course) declared a heretic. Yet the notion of a god wholly other than that described in Jesus persists.

A new book from John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, offers a fresh answer. Briefly summarized, it is that God is a God of distributive justice whose egalitarian dream for the world gets co-opted by human greed, which turns the biblical story (often) into a god who justifies vengence in its name. Crossan's challenge is to help us distinguish how the story gets corrupted in human hands.

Here’s a quote from the book that puts much into perspective for me:
If the Bible were all good-cop enthusiasm from God, we would have to treat it like textual unreality or utopian fantasy. If it were all about bad-cop vengeance from God, we would not need to justify, say, our last century. But it contains both the assertion of God’s radical dream for our world and our world’s very successful attempt to replace the divine dream with a human nightmare.
What Crossan attempts is to separate out the dream from the nightmare, even though both are couched in the name of God. How successful he is awaits a critical assessment.

So, why is a blog dedicated to LGBT themes and issues dealing with this? Simply because (whether Crossan's approach is right or wrong) the reading of a "flat Bible" has proved harmful, over and over again, to LGBTs. So when certain texts that purport to condemn homosexuality are used to justify vengeful behavior, some believe they are acting with the approval of a vengeful god.

Once, Mel White, author of Stranger at the Gate, was being interviewed on the radio. A caller quoted Lev. 20 to him and stated that, since Mel is gay, he should be executed. Annie Dillard's quote is particularly apt: "You know you have created God in your own image when it turns out he hates the same people you do."

Although I am happy Crossan has tackled this subject with his usual scholarly detail, there is a simple way to cut to the chase. In my book, I'm Right and You're Wrong:Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it, I propose using a "canon within the Canon." Jesus basically reduced all of the Old Testament to two useful propositions we term the two Great Commandments. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. If we use this to judge the value of any biblical statement, story, or conclusion, we will never be wrong.

Jesus used it himself on several occasions. When a dispute arose over whether his disciples violated the Sabbath by working (harvesting corn for a meal), Jesus simply said, "The sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath." In other words, when a law, even as sacrosanct as the Sabbath, conflicted with human need or dignity, it need not be observed. Human rights trump any law that would subvert human need, whether it's in the Bible or not.

Today we are beginning to understand that same-sex love is no different in quality from opposite-sex love. And that those who are attracted to those of their own sex are incapable (for the most part) of any meaningful relationship with one from the opposite sex. To deny them the right to love the one of their own choosing is to deny them of their human dignity and need. It is to deny them of their humanity. I don't think Jesus would approve, nor would his Father, regardless of how much you may want the god of vengeance to prevail.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Reader's Selection of Noteworthy Snipits

 A reader of my book, I'm Right and You're Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it, submitted some of the remarks that are especially meaningful to him. I'd like to share them with you.

No, the world is not set up with us in mind. The child’s whine that “It’s not fair!” is our first recognition of this reality. 

Pluralism encourages understanding and celebrating differences rather than anathematizing them as in the past.

None of us is born with perfect vision; we all suffer from worldview myopia, and unlike physical eyesight, there is no corrective lens that can make us comprehend the world perfectly.

Regardless of the theological positions held, they mostly spring from one or more of the areas expressed in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. How one finally interprets the Bible is determined by which of the four is most emphasized.

Experience, for Wesley, was the verification of biblical teaching in the lives of believers.

Among liberals was the belief that God is love. That is to say, that love is not simply an attribute of God’s nature, but that the essence of God’s being is love. This love means that God is primarily immanent, close to the creation, rather than transcendent and remote. This produced a belief in universalism, that God would not condemn anyone to a literal hell. A God who is love would not, therefore, condemn all at birth (Original Sin), either. But it is the idea of progress, that “every day, in every way, the world is getting better and better,” that typifies liberal Christianity through the 19th century. There was great optimism that a truly Christian society could be created. Prosperity was at its highest, the Theory of Evolution was seen as progressive and continuous improvement, the world was largely at peace, nature was being subdued, medical advances were ending many diseases with the promise of ending many more, and humanity was on the way to perfectibility. Sin, it seemed, was no longer a useful description of the human predicament.

Fundamentalists often fall prey to the notion that, “Since I derived this meaning straight from the Bible, it is equal in force to the Bible itself.”

Liberalism, they argue, lost contact with the heart of the Christian story in an effort to accommodate Modernism. It defined Christianity in such a way that it became undifferentiated from a social movement, and transitioned from a religion into a philosophy of religion.

The Progressive corrective is to reclaim the heart of the biblical story as our story (admittedly reinterpreted), ground our theology in the incarnation of God in Jesus, and return the church to be servants of the world. It also sees the Bible and tradition as authoritative voices that must be listened to critically, while understanding that both are human products, full of wisdom as well as fraught with danger. The foundational belief that the incarnation holds the interpretive clue to understanding ourselves, our world, and God, leads many Progressives to Process Theology. 

So our disagreements are less about what the Bible means than with the various milieus from which they spring. Since there is no such thing as a certifiably perfect milieu, we should welcome another’s interpretation as a necessary contribution to the whole. The foregoing chapters are intended to make this clear. Given this reality, we are better able to address one another as an equal rather than as an “other.”

“When in Doubt, Shout!: Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing.” [Note 3] Disagreeing can be either a learning experience for one or both, or another way of missing the point of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. As Henry Neufeld put it, “You are never more God-like than when you open your heart’s door to another person. The more different they are, the more God-like that action is.” Neufeld’s understanding of God makes possible such an outcome. Another view of God, much less grace-full, might wish for a more violent outcome, as for those who want gays and lesbians executed in the name of their God. Once again, what we take to the Bible informs what we take out of the Bible.

Not getting the Bible right in some of its particulars is hardly on the level of not getting our lives right. It seems that some in Matthew 25 got their lives right without knowing the particulars of why.

The best that we can do is choose wisely among the options and live with humility in the presence of others. Another way putting this is that we listen to what to us sounds like the voice of God and subordinate all other voices to it. We may as well, because that’s what we do anyway. Now it’s official!

Yes, the Holy Spirit is our teacher, but we can easily slip into the error of believing that anything we think we understand is a direct imparting from the Spirit.

Follow the Golden Rule. Don’t allow differences of outcomes to come between you and another created in the image of God. Always bear in mind that you are not the one another is called to please.

Martin Buber taught us the difference between treating a person as a human being (a Thou—one like yourself) or an object (an It—a thing to be used). If our purpose in biblical discussion is to win someone over, we no longer treat our conversationalist as a person, but as a thing to dominate. If, on the other hand, our objective is to discover something valuable and give our conversation partner an opportunity to teach us, we and our partner are one, or I/ Thou.

We learn not to appear scholarly, or erudite, or to win arguments, but to follow Jesus as a faithful disciple. That’s the difference between being right and righteous. It’s also the point of why we study the Bible in the first place.