Posts tagged ‘Compassion’

The Supreme Court Takes the Cake

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Credit: Ted Eytan

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court rendered a verdict on a case that pitted a cake shop owner against a same-sex couple.  Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado declined to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins when, in 2012, they married in Massachusetts and asked Mr. Phillips to craft a cake to celebrate their union.  Mr. Phillips cited his Christian commitments concerning marriage as the reason he could not, in good conscience, provide a custom cake for this particular celebration.  The case went to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled in favor of Mr. Craig and Mr. Mullins.  The verdict was subsequently appealed and finally found its way to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court found in favor of Mr. Phillips, but also took great pains to offer an extremely narrow ruling.  Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy reasoned:

The case presents difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles.  The first is the authority of a State and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be, married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services.  The second is the right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment …

Whatever the confluence of speech and free exercise principles might be in some cases, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality … When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.

Justice Kennedy cited an example of the State’s lack of “religious neutrality” by quoting one of the persons on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission who first heard this case:

Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be – I mean, we – we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination.  And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.

Justice Kennedy responded to this characterization of Mr. Phillips’ faith with a stinging decrial:

To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical –something insubstantial and even insincere.  The commissioner even went so far as to compare Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.  This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s antidiscrimination law – a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.

This case is yet another example of the tension between Christians’ desires to live and operate, both at home and in the workplace, in ways that respect historic Christian norms concerning human sexuality and same-sex couples’ desires to freely practice their views concerning human sexuality, which includes the ability to ask a business to create a product that accords with their views and serves their needs.  This ruling does not resolve this tension.  Instead, it leaves the tension squarely intact while siding with Mr. Phillips in this instance seemingly simply because the Colorado Civil Rights Commission denigrated Mr. Phillips’ faith in an egregious and offensive way.

Christians will most certainly continue to be faced with these kinds of cases, questions, and tensions.  How we respond is critical – both for the sake of our faithfulness and for the sake of our witness.  Here, then, are two things to keep in mind when these cases, questions, and tensions arise.

First, we must remember to respect everyone simply because they are someone. Regardless of how a Christian may feel about same-sex intimate relationships theologically and personally, respecting others with whom a Christian may disagree is not only generally kind, but explicitly commanded in Scripture: “Show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17).  A Christian’s basic respect for others and gregarious treatment of others should not be fundamentally contingent upon others’ belief systems or moral commitments.  Instead, it should be first based on their foundational statuses as creatures crafted in God’s image.  As the philosopher Charles Taylor puts it in his book, Sources of the Self:

The original Christian notion of agape is of a love that God has for humans which is connected with their goodness as creatures … There is a divine affirmation of the creature, which is captured in the repeated phrase in Genesis 1 about each stage of creation, “and God saw that it was good.”

The simple fact that God has made someone should be enough to command a certain amount of respect, for everyone is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

Second, we must remember to be empathetic to those with whom we disagree.  I have had many conversations with Christians who are scared that those in LGBTQ communities are out to trample their rights and destroy their faith.  This leads them to sometimes marginalize and demonize these communities.  I also know many in LGBTQ communities who worry that some Christians are out to destroy their communities and condemn them to hell.  They do not see Christianity’s objection to same-sex practices as part of a broad ethical stance on human sexuality generally, but as an attack on the very core of their identity specifically.

What would happen if we entered into each other’s fears?  Might it change our fears?  Might it move us beyond myopic court battles over whether it is legally necessary to bake cakes for each other?  I have no doubt that some Christians are out to get LGBTQ people and that some in LGBTQ communities are out to get Christians.  For the rest of us, however, a little empathy can go a long way.  Christians can advocate for a certain set of sexual ethics while still comforting those who feel threatened or marginalized.  Those in LGBTQ communities can continue to advocate for fair and respectful treatment for themselves without attacking the sincerity of Christians who have questions and concerns about the helpfulness and morality of the sexual revolution.

Christians must continue to tell the truth and live according to the truth in a world that is full of confusion.  The truth is that human sexuality is not indefinitely malleable.  It is a gift from God that is to be celebrated guardedly and gladly in the context of a commitment in marriage between a man and a woman.  But at the same time Christians must care about this truth, we also must care for people.  This means sharing God’s truth, modeling God’s truth in our actions and decisions, listening to others’ fears and, yes, even objections to this truth, and loving them – not because they always do the right thing, but because love is the right thing to do.

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June 18, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Obergefell v. Hodges

Arguments at the United States Supreme Court for Same-Sex Marriage on April 28, 2015When the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges[1] a little over a week ago, the verdict was not a surprise, but the reaction was fierce. Facebook profiles and even the White House went rainbow. Crowds gathered to celebrate and shed tears of joy. Others were not nearly so jubilant. Jonathan Saenz, President of Texas Values, issued this statement:

This decision is the most egregious form of judicial activism of our time, overriding the votes of over 50 million voters, including millions in Texas. The freedom to democratically address society’s most fundamental institution is central to ordered liberty. The Court has taken that freedom from the people.

This decision has no basis in the text of the Constitution and will never be accepted by millions of Americans and Texans that understand that marriage, by nature and God’s design, can only be the union of a man and woman, husband and wife, mother and father. No decision by five judges can ever alter this fundamental truth.[2]

As Christians, it can be hard to know what to say or where to stand. The day the Supreme Court’s decision came down, I offered some initial reflections with the promise of more to come. These are those further reflections.  Though these reflections will not address every concern, they will hopefully give us a way to begin to think theologically and pastorally about what has transpired and help us live together peacefully and in love.

What Scripture Says

As I said in my original blog on the Supreme Court’s decision, we need to remain committed to what Scripture says about all our relationships and, specifically, those that are deeply intimate in nature. But we also must remember that our understanding of Scripture can prove fallible. It is easy to fall prey to foolish and sloppy readings of what the Bible has to say on sexual ethics, making assumptions that are based more in our cultural biases than in careful exegetical study. As William Eskridge explains in an article for The New York Times:

Biblical support for slavery, segregation and anti-miscegenation laws rested upon broad and anachronistic readings of isolated Old Testament passages and the Letters of Paul, but without strong support from Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels … The current … view that God condemns “homosexual behavior” and same-sex marriages comes from the same kind of broad and anachronistic scriptural readings as prior support for segregation.[3]

Although Eskridge’s assumed contradiction between what Jesus taught and what the rest of the Bible has to say is problematic, he does have a point: we have not always gotten things right.

So how do we avoid misreading Scripture on gay marriage? To begin with, we must never handpick proof texts without context. Arguments made in this way against gay marriage are not only not persuasive theologically, they’re also not solid methodologically.  A better hermeneutical case for traditional marriage can be made by looking at the sweep and scope of Scripture. Scripture begins (Genesis 2:24) and ends (Revelation 19:7) with the wedding of a bride and her groom. Jesus affirms both God’s creational and eschatological pattern for this staid institution as one that involves a husband and a wife (Matthew 19:4-6). Furthermore, when this pattern for marriage is abandoned, the results never seem to be good (e.g., Genesis 29:30; 1 Kings 11:1-4; Proverbs 6:32; 1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

The Bible does not seem to be nearly so concerned with condemning gay marriage specifically as it is with affirming God’s design for marriage generally – and not just because deviating from God’s design is morally wrong, though, in fact, it is, but because it is personally hurtful. Marriage has not only a moral design; it has a compassionate intent. This is why God institutes it as gracious gift (cf. Genesis 2:18).  The biblical authors do not want people to miss out on God’s gracious gift by not receiving it as God intended it.

How We Say What Scripture Says

When speaking about same-sex marriage, we must stop embracing and employing over-the-top rhetoric. A pastor who threatens, even if figuratively, to immolate himself if the Supreme Court allows for nationwide gay marriage sounds, and perhaps is, insane. A preacher who drops the Supreme Court’s ruling to the ground while holding up the Bible in the middle of his sermon may garner some applause from the faithful, but such grandstanding does nothing to contribute to civil and important conversation.

I can’t help but wonder if the reason we are sometimes tempted by such silly stunts is because we live with a kind of Chicken Little apocalypticism. We really are afraid the sky is falling. But it is not.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissenting opinion, writes:

The Court today not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now. I agree with the majority that the “nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.” … As petitioners put it, “times can blind.” … But to blind yourself to history is both prideful and unwise.

This is well stated. As Justice Roberts notes, the ethical stances of yesteryear are by no means unimpeachable, but they are also not meant to be thoughtlessly discardable in an assumed inexorable evolutionary advancement toward ethical nirvana. C.S. Lewis would remind us that there is a “great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of [our] own age.”[4] In other words, we’re not as enlightened or as advanced as we think we are.

Thus, we need not fear. What is happening now does not mean the sky is falling. It simply means that history is marching – sometimes wisely and sometimes foolishly. Waiting and watching to see what comes of “the heady days of the here and now” is a much smarter – and, I would add, much less stressful – option than opining about the doom and gloom that lurks around the corner.

Religious Liberty and Pastoral Care

Sadly, the Supreme Court’s decision does raise real concerns over religious liberty. In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy addresses these concerns, writing:

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.

Justice Kennedy’s synopsis of the First Amendment is interesting – and troubling. He sees the First Amendment as protection to “teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to … lives and faiths.” This is well and good. But what happens when teaching faith translates into living faith?  What happens when those living their faith intersect with others who do not share their faith? Does religious protection now extend only to what one says?

The dissenting justices are rightfully skeptical of the majority’s nod to and definition of religious liberty. Justice Thomas Roberts warns:

Religious liberty is about more than just the protection for “religious organizations and persons … as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” … Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.

It is not just paranoid, martyrly Christian activists who have concerns about the narrowing parameters for religious liberty; it is a sitting justice of the Supreme Court. So how are we to respond?

I would argue that the best way to respond to threats against religious liberty is not politically, but pastorally. This is not to say that Christians should never be involved in politics; it is only to say that politics must take the backseat to love. So rather than offering a political strategy, allow me to share a few pastoral thoughts.

What makes same-sex marriage an ethically thorny issue is that it simultaneously aches for something that deserves our compassion while also promoting something that calls for our repudiation. On the one hand, the desire to marry someone to whom you are attracted, whether that person is of the same or opposite sex, represents an ache for companionship. This is why, in the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy writes:

From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.

Such an ache for companionship not only ought to be acknowledged, it ought to be affirmed by all Christians. God did, after all, create us as relational beings (cf. Genesis 2:18). Desire for companionship, regardless of whether you are gay or straight, is perfectly normal and natural.

At the same time the Bible affirms the human ache for companionship, however, it also puts boundaries on how such companionship is expressed erotically and, ultimately, maritally. Again and again, the Bible calls upon us to control our desires – erotic and otherwise (cf. James 1:14-15). Though such a call runs quite contrary to the spirit and sensibilities of our age, Christians must continually uphold this call in their speaking and living.

Tragically, many Christians have spent so much time proclaiming that people must control their desires that they have forgotten to empathize with them in their loneliness. People who are romantically attracted to the same sex have much deeper and more profound needs than just sex. They, like everyone, need love, which we must be prepared to show, lest we defy the command of Christ: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Ultimately, we must never forget that same-sex marriage involves people. Indeed, though nearly everyone knows the Supreme Court has now legalized nationwide same-sex marriage, few know the particulars of the plaintiff who brought the case. Jim Obergefell married John Arthur three months and 11 days before John died. Jim knew their marriage would not last long because, when they wed, John was in the dying throws of ALS. Jim brought a case to the Supreme Court because he wanted to be listed as the surviving spouse on John’s death certificate in Ohio, a state that heretofore did not allow for gay marriage. Their story, then, is not just about gay marriage. It’s also about sickness, sadness, and caregiving – all universal themes to the human experience. Even as we express concerns over same-sex marriages, we must also recognize that the people in them do things that are noble and hold values that we share.

Decrying same-sex marriage with protests, rallies, and votes will not change hearts. Love, however, just might. So let’s focus on what people actually need – not a vote against them, but love for them. In today’s milieu of broad and fierce political support for same-sex marriage, it is probably our only option. But that’s okay. Because it just so happens that it’s also our best option.

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[1] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. (2015).

[2] William Eskridge cited by David Walls, “Supreme Court’s Marriage Ruling Is Egregious Attack On Democracy, Will Never Be Accepted,” Texas Values (6.26.2015).

[3] William Eskridge, “It’s Not Gay Marriage vs. the Church Anymore,” The New York Times (4.25.2015).

[4] C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory, Walter Hooper, ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 59.

July 6, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments

On Confederate Flags and Moral Clarity

South Carolina CapitolOn the heels of a terrible tragedy has come a robust debate. When 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston for a Wednesday evening Bible study, 50 minutes later, he had shot eight people dead with a ninth victim who died later at the hospital. His stated reason for the rampage was horrifyingly racist. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” he said to the African-American churchgoers, “and you have to go.”

As our nation has been processing its grief, it’s also been engaging in a debate over an old symbol connected to racism and slavery: the Confederate flag – specifically, the one that flies at the South Carolina State Capitol. In one way, I am still trying to wrap my head around how this debate was sparked by this tragedy. Although I would heartily agree that racism and slavery, in all their forms, are egregious, it seems that a debate over how to keep a firearm out of the hands of a man like Roof would be much more directly related to the tragedy at hand. In one way, I can’t help but wonder if we needed to find something over which to be morally outraged as a catharsis for our deep shock and grief. My psychologizing notwithstanding, this is still an interesting debate.

Sadly, as with so many of our debates, this one has quickly degenerated into cheap attacks. Take, for instance, this tweet from Vox’s David Roberts: “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy. Can we admit that now?” Somehow, Roberts managed to connect a racist lunatic with a gun and a Civil War era symbol to a whole region of our country and its prevailing cultural sensibilities. Thankfully, CNN ran a much more nuanced piece on the history of the Confederate flag, which, it turns out, is not the Confederate flag at all, but the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee’s army unit. David Brooks of The New York Times provided us with a thoughtful biographical analysis of General Lee – both the good and the ugly.

I, for one, though I certainly see and would uphold the value in preserving the history of the Confederate flag, am not quite sure why this particular flag needs to fly outside the South Carolina State Capitol, especially when it is a reminder of terrible pain and division to so many. Preserving history is more the job of museums than it is of flagpoles outside capitol buildings.

But there is more here than just a debate over a flag. For out of this debate, a broader trend has once again emerged that deeply troubles me. Our cultural conversations have become so anemic and, in many instances, so vile that they are often of little to no value. Politically, sociologically, and morally, we have divided ourselves into traditional and progressive camps, loathe to admit that there is any worth, insight, or righteousness on the side to which we are opposed.

I happen to come from the generally progressive Pacific Northwest while finding myself much more at ease now living in the generally traditional state of Texas. This does not mean, however, that progressivism has nothing to teach me. I think of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year.  But that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Senator Kennedy may have been progressive, but it is hard to find sharper moral clarity than his. Traditionalists need to listen. Likewise, in what may come as a surprise to David Roberts, traditional culture – even when it’s from the South – has a lot that is good and outright charming. Chivalry, Southern manners, and a biblically informed, even if imperfectly so, moral compass are important to the thriving and future of any civilized society. Progressivism needs to take note.

As Christians, no matter what our general cultural sensibilities may be, we will always find ourselves as strangers in the midst of raging culture wars. After all, our first loyalty is not to the sensibilities or hobbyhorses of any particular culture, but to the truth of the Word of God. And God’s Word has a funny way of challenging every culture and every sinner.

Let’s remember that when we fight over flags – or over anything else, for that matter.

June 29, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Calling Her Caitlyn

Caitlyn JennerI first saw the cover early in the morning. I was watching ESPN when there flashed a picture of a striking woman on the cover of Vanity Fair with these instructions: “Call Me Caitlyn.”

Caitlyn Jenner, who we got to know first as Bruce Jenner, the decathlete who wowed the world at the 1976 Summer Olympics, officially came out as a transgender woman last week. And she made quite a splash. The New York Times reports that the online version of Vanity Fair’s article featuring Caitlyn had more than 6 million visitors in a matter of hours. Caitlyn’s Twitter account garnered more than 1.1 million followers in about the same time.[1] This is no doubt a watershed moment for the transgender movement. It is also a source of big questions for many in the Christian community. What are we to think?   How are we to react? The Church of England is considering introducing a transgender naming ceremony into their liturgical rites that parallels the baptismal rite. Is this the way to respond?

A comprehensive discussion about the transgender movement, or even about Caitlyn Jenner, is far beyond the scope of a blog like this. My aims here must be much more modest. What follows, therefore, are simply four pastoral thoughts about how we, as Christians, can appropriately and charitably address what can only be described as a tectonic shift in traditional understandings of gender.

Thought 1: Be compassionate.

Last week, I was listening to the radio in my truck on my way home when I heard a cruel parody song mocking Jenner’s transition. Following the parody, people dutifully called the radio show to add their jeers, saying every hateful thing imaginable about Caitlyn Jenner.

The bottom line is this: disagreeing with someone else’s decision does not give anyone a right to make fun of them – ever. Even if you think morality is decaying and our country is declining, mockery is never an appropriate response. Disagreement must be drenched in compassion.

So before you speak disagreeably, listen attentively. If you have a transgender friend or family member, take the time to listen to their story and to care about their fears, hurts, and hopes. If you don’t have a transgender friend or family member, there are plenty of published accounts out there of transgender journeys that you can read or watch. But while you take them in, make sure you whisper the famed prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:  “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek … to be understood as to understand.”  Listening leads to understanding. And understanding leads to compassion.  And in a culture that is way too acerbic way too often, Christians ought to be known for their compassion.

Thought 2: Be careful.

If you do disagree with someone over the ethics of their sexual or gender identity, be very careful how you express your disagreement. Because these two topics are so emotionally volatile in our cultural conversation and go to the heart of what our culture considers to be one’s identity, and because those who are first coming out as gay or transgender are acutely sensitive to and deathly afraid of how their friends and family will respond, be painfully measured in how, when, and where you express disagreement, lest you wind up with a heartbreaking story like this. If you have a loved one who has come out and is engaged in some sort of destructive behavior like substance abuse or is demonstrating suicidal tendencies, seek professional help immediately.

Thought 3: Be thoughtful.

Columnist David Brooks recently bemoaned the simplistic state of our societal dialogue, writing:

Settled philosophies are meant to (but obviously don’t always) instill a limiting sense of humility, a deference to the complexity and multifaceted nature of reality. But many of today’s activists are forced to rely on a relatively simple social theory.[2]

Reaction to Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out has ranged from the barbarous parody that I heard on the radio to unfettered adulation for Jenner to unrestrained venom for anyone who thinks what has happened here is anything less than “courageous” and “heroic.” All of these responses are sadly simplistic and, if I can be so bold, just plain wrong.

We need to be asking more thoughtful and complex questions about the transgender movement. We need to be paying attention to its medical and psychological effects. Though many transgender people report being happy with their new gender, such a transition is not a psychological “fix all.” We need to be aware of and conversant with this reality.

We also need to be on the lookout for logical inconsistencies in our cultural causes. For instance, how does Caitlyn Jenner’s claim that, as a transgender woman, she has “the soul and brain of a female” square with the feminist contention that so-called “hardwired” differences between male and female brains are merely societal, and in many cases oppressive, constructs? How can Caitlyn, as a transgender woman, have a “female brain” if there is no female brain to begin with? In one way, I fear many of us have become little more than “cause addicts,” jumping from one cutting-edge social cause to the next – in this case, jumping from the cause of feminism to the cause of transgenderism – all the while being oblivious to the logical lacunae between them, thereby trapping ourselves in wildly inconsistent understandings of our humanity and our world.

It is also worth it to consider the assumption behind transgenderism that human desires – especially if these desires manifest themselves at an early age – and, later in life, human decisions are sovereign. If one feels like a woman, one must be a woman. If one decides to be a man, one must be a man. I can’t help but wonder with James Davison Hunter if:

The power of will first becomes nihilistic at the point at which it becomes absolute; when it submits to no authority higher than itself; that is, when impulse and desire become their own moral gauge and when it is guided by no other ends than its own exercise.[3]

A person’s biological sex, though it may not say everything about them, certainly says something about them. Likewise, a person’s desires, though they have something to say about them, certainly do not have everything to say about them. To make a person’s desires and decisions the sum total of their being is to lapse into disastrous nihilism.

Admittedly, none of these issues are simple to confront or sort out. But a society uncommitted to intellectual and philosophical responsibility is a society dangerously close to poisonous inebriation on bread and circuses. As Christians, we must be thoughtful.

Thought 4: Be biblical.

The Bible has a very different conceptual framework than we do when it comes to gender. Indeed, I find it ironic that at the same time our social and moral theories, as David Brooks notes above, are becoming more simplistic and bifurcated, our gender taxonomy has become increasingly and frustratingly complex, now involving everything from assigned biology to inward identity to outward expression to sexual attraction. The Bible is much more matter-of-fact in its opening reference to gender: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). Importantly, this verse reminds us that there is part of being created as male and female that reflects the very image of God. And though this image may be distorted by sin, it is not destroyed by it. It continues to play a role even after the fall (e.g., Genesis 9:6). Thus, respecting and understanding our biological sex as a part of humanity’s continuing reflection of God’s image is vital. Our biological sex should not be discounted or despised out of hand. Likewise, our biological body build is worthy of our careful stewardship (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and, in many instance, is appropriately unalterable, even as Jesus Himself reminds us when He asks rhetorically, “Can any of you add a cubit to his height by worrying” (Luke 12:25)?

None of this is to say that transgenderism is worthy of some special sort of theological scorn or that transgender people deserve and need anything less than deep compassion and care.  We must never forget that anyone can be a part of God’s Kingdom. Indeed, though transgenderism was not a topic of discussion in the ancient world, people who were eunuchs were an accepted reality. Many men became eunuchs so they could serve in high political positions unencumbered by family concerns (e.g., Esther 1:10-11; Acts 8:27). Others became eunuchs for cultic reasons. God’s law puts parameters on such practices when Moses commands:  “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 23:1). Yet, God’s grace extends to those who are eunuchs:

This is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who choose what pleases Me and hold fast to My covenant – to them I will give within My temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:4-5)

No matter who you are, God has a heritage waiting for you for the sake of Christ through faith in Christ. And this is a message that must never be muted or obscured. Instead, this is a message that must always be fearlessly and forcefully proclaimed by all Christians. For at a time when our attention is riveted on gender dysphoria, this is a message and hope that promises eternal euphoria.

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[1] Ravi Somaiya, “Caitlyn Jenner, Formerly Bruce, Introduces Herself in Vanity Fair,” The New York Times (6.1.2015).

[2] David Brooks, “The Campus Crusaders,” The New York Times (6.2.2015).

[3] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 211

June 8, 2015 at 5:15 am 7 comments

On Michael Brown and Darren Wilson

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

They are the protests that just won’t stop. The cries of activists in Ferguson, Missouri are loud and only seem to be getting louder. One cry in particular caught my attention. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was reporting from Ferguson when protestors began to throw rocks at him. Some of them yelled, “Tell the true story!” But one man shouted what I think is perhaps the most profound insight into this whole, sordid affair I have heard to date. “This isn’t about Mike Brown no more,” he said. “It’s a civil rights movement. It’s about all people.”

I agree with the protestor. Though they are often conflated, what’s happening in Ferguson today can and should be distinguished from what happened in Ferguson on August 9. This is not about Michael Brown anymore. This is about – be they real or perceived – civil rights grievances.

On the one hand, this is not all bad. This tragedy has ignited some important national conversations. On the other hand, in these conversations, we have taken the very real pain of two very real families – the Brown family and the family of the officer who shot him, the Wilson family – and turned it into an expedient talking point for rallies, protests, and cable news brawls. But their pain deserves more than our marginal mentions. We need to do more. We need to go deeper. We need to take some time to empathize with these families.

Empathy is when you take the human experience and personalize it. In other words, you use what you know from the human experience in general to try to understand one human’s experience in particular. What has happened in this case is the exact opposite. We have taken the personal experiences of two families and de-personalized them, hoisting their pain on our petard.

Michael Brown and Darren Wilson have become emblems. Michael Brown has become an emblem of racial tensions that have plagued Ferguson for decades. Darren Wilson has become an emblem of mistreated law enforcement officials. But these men are much more than impersonal emblems. Michael Brown was a son with college aspirations. Darren Wilson is a man with a family at home.

In an effort at empathy, I’ve been pondering what questions these families must be asking themselves as they watch all this unfold. I’ve been thinking about the questions I would be asking if was in their situation.

As I’ve been thinking about Michael Brown’s parents, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Did Officer Wilson really have to use deadly force to subdue our son? He has lots of ways to subdue suspects.
  • It was broad daylight! How in the world did the officer not know our son was not pointing a weapon at him?
  • Did Officer Wilson overreact because he was scared of a black man?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

As I’ve been thinking about Officer Wilson and his family, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Why can’t people understand how difficult it is to make snap decisions as a police officer?
  • Why do people always assume officers have the worst of intentions?
  • Don’t the protestors realize that their threats scare our whole family?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

Of course, I don’t know for sure what questions they’re asking. And I would never claim to understand how these families are feeling. But empathy is not about claiming to know how somebody feels. It’s about caring how somebody feels. And we should care about and for these families.

To this end, I would ask you to pray for these families – both of these families – and for peace to be restored in Ferguson. Try to empathize with them – their pain, their fear, their confusion – and then pray that God would give them strength, comfort, and hope during this difficult time. Remember, these families are more than causes, they’re people. We cannot forget that.

Allow me to add one final note. Just because I seek to uphold the value of empathizing with the Brown and Wilson families doesn’t mean I don’t believe larger discussions around race are unimportant. But I pray we don’t have these conversations like it’s 1963. I pray we’ve grown since then. I pray our discussions are more civil, our thinking is more compassionate, and our hearts are more, well, empathetic toward those who have different experiences and perspectives. But for now, my prayers are with the Brown and Wilson families. I hope yours are too.

August 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm 1 comment

Serving Others In Jesus’ Name

Credit: CBS News

Credit: CBS News

A state of emergency has been declared in Liberia.  Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria have lost more than 930 people to the virus.  Monrovia has set up a military blockade to keep people from regions known to have high instances of infections from entering the city.[1]  And the World Health Organization is meeting to discuss whether or not to use experimental drugs to try to help those infected by the virus.[2]

All this over a virus called Ebola.

The problem is that there is no known cure for Ebola and, as President Sirleaf of Nigeria noted, “ignorance and poverty, as well as entrenched religious and cultural practices, continue to exacerbate the spread of the disease.”[3]  Indeed, many people infected by the virus, rather than being quarantined at medical facilities to stem Ebola’s spread, remain at home and pass the virus on to their families.

The fear surrounding this outbreak is intense.  When Dr. Kent Brantly, a medical missionary who contracted the disease while treating patients in Liberia, was brought home for treatment here in the States, some questioned the wisdom of bringing a man infected by a dreaded disease into this country.[4]  Others took their criticism farther, like political pundit Ann Coulter, who lambasted Dr. Brantly for going to Africa in the first place:

I wonder how the Ebola doctor feels now that his humanitarian trip has cost a Christian charity much more than any services he rendered.

What was the point?

Whatever good Dr. Kent Brantly did in Liberia has now been overwhelmed by the more than $2 million already paid by the Christian charities Samaritan’s Purse and SIM USA just to fly him and his nurse home in separate Gulfstream jets, specially equipped with medical tents, and to care for them at one of America’s premier hospitals …

Can’t anyone serve Christ in America anymore?[5]

I would point out to Ms. Coulter that there are, in fact, many people and organizations that do indeed serve Christ in America like, well, Samaritan’s Purse.  You can learn more about their local relief efforts here.  I would also point out that Christ’s commission is to make disciples of “all nations” (Matthew 28:19), which, by definition, includes nations other than our own.  Finally, I would point out that the Christian Church has a long and storied history of reaching out to those in dire medical need.  For instance, in the 160s, and again in the 260s, a series of plagues struck the Roman Empire.  These plagues were so devastating that during one smallpox epidemic, a quarter to a third of the population died.  When these plagues swept through, most people – scared of becoming infected – took the sick and threw them into the streets to die.  But Christians, rather than casting the sick out, brought the sick in.  Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria during the second sweep of plagues, writes about how Christians responded to these outbreaks:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.[6]

The Christians in Dionysius’ day, like Dr. Brantly in our day, cared for the sick – many of them dying because of their efforts.  Dr. Brantly’s faithfulness is to be commended, not derided as Ann Coulter has done.

With this being said, all Christians need not travel to Liberia to respond faithfully to this worldwide health crisis.  We can be faithful in our prayers that the spread of Ebola would be stemmed, and we can certainly join in prayer for Dr. Brantly and others like him.  Finally, we can reach out in Christian love to the sick in our own communities, offering them our prayers and support.

When I think of Dr. Brantly’s efforts, I can’t help but believe he will hear some very pleasant words one day:  “I was sick and you looked after Me” (Matthew 25:36).  Let’s make it our goal to hear these words too.

__________________________________

[1]Liberia declares state of emergency over Ebola virus,” BBC News (8.7.2014).

[2] Sydney Lupkin, “World Health Organization to Debate Ethics of Using Experimental Ebola Drug in Outbreak,” ABC News (8.6.2014).

[3]Liberia declares state of emergency over Ebola virus,” BBC News (8.7.2014).

[4]  Joel Achenbach, Brady Dennis, & Caelainn Hogan, “American doctor infected with Ebola returns to U.S.,” The Washington Post (8.2.2014).

[5] Ann Coulter, “Ebola Doc’s Condition Downgraded To ‘Idiotic,’” anncoulter.com (8.6.2014).

[6] Dionysius of Alexandria in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco:  Harper Collins, 1997), 82.

August 11, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

What We Say (And Don’t Say) About Homosexual Practice

When President Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage in an interview with ABC News on May 9,[1] I knew I would get a lot of questions.  And sure enough, I did.  This is why the pastors of Concordia have prepared a Christian response to same-sex marriage specifically and homosexual practice generally.  You can find the response here.  This response will also be published this week in a booklet along with an appendix which will answer some of the questions we have received in response to the document.

I have found this whole brouhaha (to use a technical, theological term) to be fascinating – not so much because of the common, perennial questions I have received concerning same-sex marriage, but because of the way many prominent Christians have responded to this now top-of-mind topic.

It saddens me that when questions are asked, so many Christian people have responded in a breathtakingly nebulous way.  Take, for instance, popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans.  In her blog, “How To Win A Culture War And Lose A Generation,” she decries the way in which the Church has responded to homosexuality:

Every single student I have spoken with believes that the Church has mishandled its response to homosexuality.

Most have close gay and lesbian friends.

Most feel that the Church’s response to homosexuality is partly responsible for high rates of depression and suicide among their gay and lesbian friends, particularly those who are gay and Christian.

Most are highly suspicious of “ex-gay” ministries that encourage men and women with same-sex attractions to marry members of the opposite sex in spite of their feelings.

Most feel that the church is complicit, at least at some level, in anti-gay bullying.[2]

Here, Evans has no problem being sharply specific.  Evans places her finger squarely on the pulse of something profoundly tragic:  Those who are not Christian feel belittled and berated by the way traditional, orthodox Christians have often responded to homosexuality.  They have come across as judgmental, self-righteous, bigoted, and they have even contributed, at least in a complicit way, to the heart-wrenching stories of anti-gay bullying we read in the news.  Tragic.

So what is Evans’ way forward?  Her last sentence, “Stop waging war and start washing feet,” seems to present itself as her proposed solution, but I am still left puzzled.  Though I know there are some bigoted, self-righteous, mean-spirited Christians who delight in waging culture wars, brandishing about the word “sinner” like a weapon of mass destruction while refusing to serve and love according to Jesus’ call and command, I know many other Christians who make it their life’s work to humbly call sinners to repentance while serving them in love.  I see the service part of a Christian’s vocation in her statement, “Start washing feet,” but what about the calling to repentance part?  Are we not supposed to do both?

Interestingly, Evans wrote a follow-up post where she proposes yet another solution:  “We need to listen to one another’s stories.”[3]  People’s stories do matter.  And listening is terrific, yes.  But to what end?  Do we have nothing other than our own stories to share?  Isn’t the glory of Christianity that it is extra nos, that is, “outside of us” – that we have a righteousness not our own to save us from sin all too tragically our own (cf. Philippians 3:9)?  We need to come to grips with the fact that what Jesus says about us is far more important than what we say about ourselves.  His story matters more than ours because His story redeems ours.

There’s an old country song by Aaron Tippin where he sings, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.”[4]  I fear that, when it comes to homosexual practice and same-sex marriage, we have abdicated our duty of standing – not charging, not belittling, not berating, not politicking – but just standing – standing in the truth and speaking that truth with grace.

The apostle Paul writes, “Stand firm in the faith” (1 Corinthians 16:13).  Notice the definite article in front of the word “faith.”  We are to stand firm not just in any faith, but in the faith.  This means that we say what the faith says:  Homosexual practice is a sin.  It is one of a million ways that humans have invented for themselves to break God’s law, just like I invent for myself a million ways to break God’s law too.  But God loves sinners.  God loves you.  That’s why He sent Jesus to die and be raised for you.  So repent of your sin and trust in Him.  And please allow me to walk with you and love you as do so, or even if you do not.

There.  Was that so hard?


[1]Obama Affirms Support For Same Sex Marriage,” ABC News (5.9.12).

[2] Rachel Held Evans, “How To Win A Culture And Lose A Generation” (5.9.12).

[3] Rachel Held Evans, “From Waging War To Washing Feet: How Do We Move Forward?” (5.11.12).

[4] Aaron Tippin, “You’ve Got To Stand For Something,” RCA Records (1991).

May 21, 2012 at 5:15 am 4 comments


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