The cycle connecting abuse, racism, and sexual violence

There are at least two cycles that happen often in abusive relationships. One is well researched and is being endlessly repeated before our very eyes on a daily basis. The other is perhaps less obvious and less defined by research but certainly no less harmful, problematic, or uncommon.

The second cycle happens when the abused expresses a negative feeling about the abuse to the abuser and the abuser expresses that they are hurt that the abused would express being hurt by the abuser. A healthy person in a relationship knows that when someone expresses hurt feelings, the natural order of response is to listen first, apologize second, and work out any related issues or mutual hurt thereafter.

Part of the reason abusive behavior is so insidious and harmful is because abusers are so skillful at gaslighting victims into assuming that the abuse they have suffered is actually a response to their own actions and a source of pain for the abuser. When the reality of who is actually being harmed is called into question, victims often begin to blame themselves and find it all the more difficult to leave the abusive relationship. To seek outside advice is often to be reminded that both sides have contributed to the harm. While mutual harm is almost always present in some regard, the conflation of a broken nose with the bruised hand that broke the nose is a particularly cruel form of whataboutism.

This same dynamic is present in societal discussions of racism and sexual violence. Historically and systemically oppressed people groups are saying that they are hurt and the groups historically and systemically responsible for that hurt respond by saying that they are hurt that the hurt people are expressing their historical and systemic hurt. It is a pernicious form of societal gaslighting and abuse that we so often refuse to listen long enough for others to feel heard and valued, much less safe enough to fight through to the attainment of something resembling healing or justice.   

In our current moment, the historically and systemically oppressed have finally stopped backing down when the desire for change has been met by accusations that claims of being hurt are in themselves hurtful to those causing the harm. The day may come when phrases like #blm or #metoo elicit more compassion and change from the powerful than fear and retaliation, but we are not nearly there yet. If long term change is ever to become a possibility, one of the starting lines is for us white men to break this cycle that is born out of the fragility of our collective ego. Mistakes are a part of life – learning to grow and heal requires that we embrace the power of vulnerability rather than lash out when our self perception is challenged.

Sexuality, incoherence, and the need for theological imagination

I’ve never said much publicly about how I approach the issue of homosexuality and the church. Primarily, that is because I believe there are no issues, there are only people. And secondarily, I am committed to the covenant relationship of the United Methodist church and believe that fidelity to that covenant is a vital and necessary part of fulfilling our part of God’s mission through the church. I won’t break the covenant relationship, but I also think it is a deep theological error not to engage in conversation about what the covenant says and how we are to be most faithful to the gospel message going forward.

Aside from these two foundational convictions about how I live and work and speak about the Christian faith, I haven’t chimed into many conversations because I find those conversations to be mostly incoherent yelling matches. One value, often faithfulness to a strict reading of scripture and tradition, is placed against another, often a broader understanding of love and a compassionate acceptance of differences, and the stalemate between the two has only grown stronger over the years. It should be clear to anyone paying attention that a more creative theological imagination is going to be necessary if the church is to learn how to have substantive and meaningful conversations that lead to a renewed sense of church unity instead of a whole new set of denominations and/or isolated congregations.

Put as succinctly as possible, the arrogance of modern individualism without a proper notion of or appreciation for repentance inevitably leads to the impasse at which we find ourselves now. It is not scripture or love that are pitted against one another – it is our reliance on failed concepts of modern reason that make our attempts at debate devolve into practical atheism. Our blind acceptance of modern (ir)rationality leaves us with the inability to see the world through God’s eyes and prevents us from finding the theological imagination to see past our insecurities and egos.

I hope to add to the voices seeking a way forward by offering four fundamental convictions that I find to be crucial to any avenue for substantive theological conversation regarding human sexuality. I don’t know that I’ve heard any of these four convictions taken seriously as part of the ‘debates’ surrounding sexuality in the United Methodist Church, but I would welcome any guidance toward resources where these have come up. Taken together as a foundation for theological imagination, these and other such Christian convictions are necessarily implicated in the ‘debates,’ even more so than the conflict between “scripture/tradition” and “experience/love” that is usually seen to constitute the intractability of the arguments.

The precise meaning of each conviction is debatable within different strands of the tradition – my point is not to suggest everyone must agree with my characterizations. The point is to say that when we are unable to agree (or even notice disagreement) on these foundational elements, we never wind up having the fight we think we’re having about a church stance on homosexuality.

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Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

These words of Jesus apply to more than just Sabbath; this is a succinct reminder that fulfilling the law is a means of finding abundant life. Jesus healed on the Sabbath not because it doesn’t matter if we break the law, but because the law is a tool to empower life, not to restrict healing and wholeness. The Christian goal in moral restraint and order is to be guided toward the new life Christ is and makes possible – not to fall into a dead legalism that treats the law as an end in its own right. To understand the kind of life toward which the particular instances of the law guide us, we must be willing to take a more holistic view of what the law says and how we can be faithful to it. At least these three areas of human life and law are at stake before we can consider any LGBT arguments.

1. Human sexuality in general. We (United Methodists) have broad statements about dignity and intimacy that vaguely point toward the gift of sexuality, but that is where positive discussion stops. There is no more than a common sense implication of answers to questions like a) what counts as sex/sexuality, b) what are the practices of sexuality that best embody Godly sexuality, c) is anything sexual off limits for a married Christian couple, d) what is the goal of sexual experience (intimacy, babies, enjoyment, etc), e) how do we respond when we fall short (adultery, premarital sex/pregnancy, etc.), and f) how should we cope when we are survivors of sexual abuse and any of a variety of violations of our bodies (rape, genital mutilation, molestation, etc). Nothing meaningful is ever said about these topics (and probably a variety of others), which means that we have no meaningful language to discuss how/whether LGBT choices, desires, and/or practices fit within the umbrella of Godly sexuality. Until we have said something meaningful and with practical implications, it will always be a vapid conversation about ‘normal’ vs ‘not.’

2. The historical contingency of moral judgments. It should go without question that there is some element of historical contingency in the ways the Judeo-Christian tradition has embodied its moral convictions. Two examples that ought to be relatively uncontroversial:

a) The way the sacrificial system changed once there was no temple in which to make sacrifices. Those laws were not disregarded once the temple was torn down, but the meaning and implications of having those laws on the books is quite different, for both post temple Judaism and Christianity. It’s not that there is no meaning or direction from the law, but that what it means to be faithful to the tradition of those laws changes depending on the historical reality in which God’s people find themselves.

b) The status and role of women. For modern United Methodists at least, there is no theoretical or theological distinction whatsoever between the status and role of men and women. Because we have inherited and still inhabit a culture and history, within Methodism and our world in general, in which a strong separation of gender roles was valued, our lived reality does not perfectly reflect this ideal. But any notion that there is a proper distinction between men and women in leadership is an historical accident at best. No matter how clear you believe Paul’s letters are about submission and teaching, we don’t order the life of the church or relationships in the same way that they have been ordered in prior generations.

Suggesting how deep the above contingencies go or how exactly we are supposed to relate to these scriptural commandments is not my concern here. I merely reference them to suggest that no reasonable reader of scripture and history can think that there is no element of historical contingency in how we always read and implement even the clearest words of commands. Accepting that premise, there are at least three realities of the world we now inhabit that are relevant to human sexuality and represent a complete break with the world of scripture.

a) The role of children in family life – Through much of civilization, children played a vital role in the survival of a family and in the care of related adults in a family system. The exact importance is certainly debatable in a variety of situations, but it seems quite evident that modern American life has no assumption that children will live in the same region as parents, much less in the same home, and there are increasingly close to no jobs in existence that invite, much less require, the employment of someone from the next generation of the same family. At one point, children were needed to comfortably live to an old age, now that’s not the case at all.

b) The need for children in the general population – as recently as 1800, people were almost as likely to die before the age of 5 as they were to survive. Now, there is a roughly 95% chance of survival. This is but one small stat pointing to the reality that the having of many children was once vital to the survival of humanity – and now having too many children may threaten the survival of life as we know it.

c) The role of women in the workforce – The more industrialized and, now, information driven the workforce becomes, the less sense gender roles make in the workforce. To think we can compartmentalize work from the rest of life is one of the many deficiencies of modern life – the ability and availability of women to take part in every aspect of work life has implications in every aspect of how we view the status and role of women throughout society. During a time when women had to have a greater number of children for reasons a) and b), it made an entirely different kind of sense to need one man and one woman in a marital relationship. There were, at least many years ago, things women could not do by virtue of being the ones that gave birth and nursed the children.

Taken together, these three realities imply that it is at least plausible, if not likely, that heterosexual marriage may have been almost necessary for human survival, both as a species and as individuals, in the world inhabited by the bible. The relationship of sexuality and marriage to the having of children and the societal roles of women are now so fundamentally different that we need to dramatically rethink the function and meaning of sexuality and marriage today, even if the bible really does say about sexuality what a plain reading seems to imply that it says. Put more succinctly, at one time in history heterosexual marriage may have been a moral requirement for reasons that no longer exist. We can’t say that the law of scripture is the law if we cannot have a broader discussion of what the law is for and thereby what our rules on sexuality imply about life in the world we actually inhabit.

3. Heterosexual marriage and the language we use to describe it. I cannot think of a more vacuous and less Christian topic than the romanticism that underlies virtually all conversation regarding marriage. Popular rhetoric speaks primarily of the ‘right fit’ for marriage, of ‘soul mates,’ and of ‘happy ever after.’ These concepts could not be more irrelevant to the Christian definition of what makes a marriage significant. Marriage is significant precisely because it is the covenant in which what is different and divisive between two people is not permitted to rise above the tie that binds our hearts together. To the extent that the covenant of marriage is representative of God’s love for humanity, it is so precisely because God continues to love us when we fall short – not because our relationship is smooth sailing. To the extent to which we have lost the ability to speak of marriage as a uniting of that which is different, we have lost the ability to say anything about why homosexuality in particular might not be capable of embodying Christian marriage.

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Christ died for us while we were yet sinners

The language of our communion liturgy should not be construed to imply that we are any less ‘sinners in need of God’s grace’ now than we were when Christ died for us. We constantly rely on the grace of God to guide our thoughts and actions. We constantly rely on the grace of God to empower our lives to witness to the life and love that God is. But too often and too easily a discussion about morality and human action devolves into practical atheism. I’ve elsewhere said at length what I mean by practical atheism; below is a brief attempt to work out how practical atheism plays out with regard to our ‘debates’ about sexuality.

For this argument, I ask that you take it for granted that 1) homosexual practice and, therefore, marriage are explicitly forbidden by a plain reading of scripture; and 2) the weight of scripture challenges us to love all children of God, even the people who are explicitly enemies (the shape that love takes is obviously debatable, but, here at least, I only ask that you accept that we are never allowed to not care about the pain, abuse, or harm done to another child of God).

Accepting these two premises means that we cannot ignore the practical, lived reality of any particular group of people. We have to be willing to look at the reality others face if we are to find the space in which to admit when we fail, and embrace the times we learn to more fully embody God’s love. To not look or to pretend the lived reality of others doesn’t matter is already a failure – to not look is to assume that it is within human rationality to know the rules of the game of life and how to play that game appropriately. Nowhere in scripture or church history is it suggested that humans are capable of either and it is very reasonable to suggest that the very first sin in the garden was that very assumption; namely, that we should be able to know good and evil on our own.

To look at the treatment of LGBT children of God paints a very troubling picture. Research suggests that a disproportionately high 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT and 68% of those identify family rejection as a significant factor in homelessness. LGBT youth are between 2 and 10 times as likely to attempt suicide as the general youth population. LGBT people have become the most likely targets of hate crimes in America. Violence against transgender people is particularly horrifying and may be increasing, as expressed in a 2015 report. 5 of the 9 nationally reported hate crime murders in 2007 were motivated by sexual orientation bias – as many as 17% of all reported hate crimes are motivated by sexual orientation. These are just a few revealing stats about the ways in which LGBT persons are mistreated.

Regardless of how you think about causality in this case or how the church is supposed to relate in general to those who don’t conform to its expectations, it is undeniable that people who identify outside the ‘traditional’ definition of sexuality are harmed by others because of that identification and they experience greater personal struggles with their own sexual identification. It is also undeniable that the incompatibility of LGBT thought and action with church teachings (regardless of whether incompatibility is seen as a rejection of personal choices, in-born characteristics, or actual personhood) plays a non-negligible factor in creating the culture in which stats such as these become reality. I have no interest here in determining how much blame ought to go where. I am also not suggesting that sincerely held belief should never cause harm. My point is exactly the opposite.

Every belief and moral we embrace will have some negative consequence for someone, somewhere in the world. The brokenness of humanity runs deep enough that there is no one, right, correct, eternal interpretation of any belief or rule for life that does no harm and has no unintended consequences. To assume that there is or could be one is to reject our need for God’s grace to overcome our brokenness and guide us to deeper faithfulness. We cannot say that God’s Word requires us to reject alternate forms of sexuality in isolation from the fact that the church’s rejection of such forms of sexuality helps create the culture in which LGBT identifying persons are physically, mentally, and sexually harmed because of that identification.

Note that I am not saying stats on LGBT persons are obviously significant enough for the church to change its current language and expectations of sexuality. What I am saying is that there is no neutral ground on which the church can claim to be ‘just following God’s Word.’ We are always choosing whether to assign greater value to the way we currently read scripture about sexuality or the call to care and respond when other children of God are harmed in the world. To hide from the impossibility of making a perfectly right choice is to pretend that we can conquer sin without God – it is to be practical atheists.

If we are not willing to come face to face with the brokenness our choices cause, we will never let God get past our arrogance and transform our lives. There are always multiple competing goods involved in every choice we make and every belief we hold. To take sin and grace seriously enough requires us to admit that even if alternate forms of sexuality are in some sense sinful, it may be not only possible but required of us to ignore that fact in order to reject the more pressing and impactful evils of abuse and hate that we unintentionally justify by our words.

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Salvation is an act of God’s grace, not human ingenuity or faithfulness

At least two results of continuing to draw a line in the sand regarding homosexuality’s incompatibility with Christian teaching are deeply relevant.

  1. An untold but certainly non zero number of people, some identifying as LGBT and other sympathetic to LGBT persons, will lose their faith because of the perception that the church is unwelcoming to LGBT person. Regardless of how the church thinks it is portraying its stance, the perceived harshness of the rhetoric means that people will never be willing to entertain the gospel message.
  2. A significant number of people will cross the line from not accepting LGBT practice in the church to actively abusing LGBT persons. You can easily argue that it is their fault for crossing the line from thinking something is a sin to hurting a sinner, but it would be impossible to deny that incompatibility language partially facilitates the thoughts and actions that lead to outright abuse and harm.

It is argued in conservative circles that to accept a sinful lifestyle is to consign others to hell. In this case, if the practice of homosexuality is a sin, then to not call for repentance is to forego the possibility of salvation. Put differently, too bad for 1) people, but 2) people are forgiven anyway. But such a simplification is a radical departure from the historical emphasis that salvation comes through the grace of God and not human righteousness. A straightforward reading of scripture even tells us that the salvation of the whole world came precisely through our greatest act of sinfulness, the crucifixion of the Son of God.

It is certainly the case that God’s grace is big enough to forgive those who cross the line and cause harm. But to deny that God can forgive those who come to believe and act the wrong way about sexuality is to place a firm limit on the grace of God and to treat salvation as at least as much an act of human will and intention as an act of grace. Put differently, if God can conquer death, then God can overcome any wrong stance the church could take on human sexuality. We can no more stop the grace of God from fixing our mistakes than we can stop a hurricane.

Is it not better to fall on the grace of God for being too sexually permissive than for contributing too much to the culture of hate and abuse? I can’t answer this question on behalf of the church, but I firmly believe that there is no scenario in which the outcome of any debate regarding human sexuality does not give a concrete answer to it. To think that we can make a decision in which a wrong answer eliminates the possibility of salvation for anyone is to fundamentally reject our need for the grace of God.

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We are members together in the body of Christ

The identity we have is not separable from the traditions in which we are born nor from the relationships we have with one another. To treat ‘human sexuality’ as a topic separable from the historically, geographically, and biologically contingent ways we live and relate to each other is to buy into failed portions of modern thought and morality. Sexuality is neither a choice nor is it an identity. Every action and practice in which we are involved either witnesses to the life of the whole body or tears that body apart. Who we are as children of God is more basic than who we are as individual agents capable of acting or deciding anything.

To take this claim seriously is to require us to reject notions of justice and sin that place the emphasis on personal action and punitive justice. Instead, God’s justice guides our imagination toward the reality that in and through Christ all is set right and all creation is infused with the life Christ makes possible. God’s justice does not mean universal salvation is guaranteed or even likely, but it does mean that any notion of individual fate or action is only definable and meaningful in the context of the life Christ empowers and not the other way around. We are rejecting the unity of Christ’s body and the limitations of human reason and imagination if we think that any aspect of human belief, behavior, or identity is separable from any other.

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Where does all this leave the church’s debates regarding sexuality? Simply put, I don’t know. I offer these convictions as a way to say that I’m convinced our current UMC ‘debates’ aren’t even talking about what they want to talk about. Our lack of appreciation for tradition and the contingencies of any particular argument have guided us into a place of incoherence in the way we talk about scripture and life.

To reclaim a foundation upon which Christian argument could actually happen requires a dramatic shift in learning what it looks like to keep the main thing the main thing. I’ll close with four far too brief and incomplete principles, 1 based on each conviction above, that I would offer to begin to more faithfully shape conversation.

  1. Life, not law – Conversation must be primarily focused on how to embody the kind of life God makes possible, not what are the rules we can’t break. Repentance is a call not primarily to turn from sin, but to turn toward Christ. That kind of turn ought to be reflected in our priorities and expectations for Christian thought and action.
  2. Embrace tragic action – We are not God. We cannot rid the world of wrong belief and action any more than we can save ourselves. We have to be willing to face the reality that any attempt at faithfulness carries unintended consequences and those consequences are an integral part of any decision about how to faithfully live.
  3. Grace, grace, grace – We are still not God. We cannot create the kingdom of God any more than we can be perfectly righteous in every way. We have to emphasize our deep reliance on God’s grace in every decision and belief, not just give lip service to the idea of grace.
  4. Body, not self – We are part of a story we didn’t create and over which we don’t have control. Every principle, rule, and consequence we derive out of that story must be in service of uniting the body far more than punishing a member. Unity does not mean blind acceptance as much as it means healing and wholeness.

The Cycle

1280px-Cycle_of_Abuse

If you add “Refusing to respond to the overt harm someone else causes” to number 2 of the cycle and remove “apologizes” from number 3, you have a pretty good summary of the presidency so far. To understand why his leadership is so destructive and yet so hard to specifically call out for some, I can’t think of a better framework than this cycle. Replace “of course racism is evil and the KKK is repugnant” with “of course I didn’t mean to hit you and I never will again” and you get a sense for how the (news) cycle plays out. Having someone like him in power is so insidious because most of the worst acts of violence that actually affect people don’t look anything like the ‘stranger danger’ or the ‘foreign terrorist’ that we’ve been taught to fear; they look exactly like what we see every time he takes just about everyone who isn’t like me on a ride around the cycle of abuse. Intelligent, well meaning adults can disagree about all kinds of policies, priorities, and prerogatives – we cannot abide an abuser-in-chief.

On txac17 and the GC Amendments

This is a post on the (lack of) discussion that took place at our annual conference session this year in regard to a few proposed amendments to the Book of Discipline. I don’t tend to look for all possible concealed motives or confusion within the language of General Conference voices, which means I was rather caught off guard by the way the discussion went with regard to Amendment 1 copied here in its entirety):

“As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girl’s equality and well-being.”
General Conference-approved rationale for the amendment notes that the constitution contains a paragraph on racial justice but not one on gender justice.
“The language of this petition is parallel to the language of Article 5 on racial justice already in our constitution,” the rationale states. “It is an affirmation that, as part of our core foundational beliefs, this church will forever stand against any actions, organizations or individuals that discriminate or dehumanize women and girls anywhere on this planet.”

Perhaps it should not have surprised me that the variety of speeches against the amendment all revolved around the “confusion” and “ambiguity” regarding God’s gender. Jesus is a man, the arguments went, thereby it is at least confusing if not outright wrong to say that “it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female…” At least one argument dove fully into complementarian thought and proof texting literalism, which have their own problems that I’ve commented on at the links.

I stated previously that infidelity is the only analogy through which I can make sense out of where we’ve arrived; seen here in our ability to take such an important and needed statement about rejecting the abuse of women and girls and turn it into a referendum on human sexuality and all gender related disagreements. I don’t know that any argument would be helpful/convincing in our present climate, but I feel compelled to offer below what I would have liked to say in response to what I heard on the floor of conference.

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I can respect that it may seem to be a troubling matter of “confusion” or “ambiguity” to assert that God is not male or female given what we believe about Jesus. Anytime I try to speak directly about the nature of Trinity, confusion and ambiguity are close at hand. But even granting the necessity of saying that Jesus is male in no way suggests the sufficiency of that label in reference to God. This may seem to be quibbling over words that are unrelated or irrelevant to the amendment, as one speech against it suggested, but our language about God deeply affects the actual lives of actual people every day. There may exist a world in which we could assert that God is a man in such a way that did not directly result in the abuse of women and girls throughout the world, but we do not live in that world.

Assertions of God’s exclusive masculinity and the correlative assertions of male authority/headship/gender roles lead very directly to the dehumanization, discrimination, and abuse of women and girls. If speaking of God as a man did not lead to the dehumanization, discrimination, and abuse of women, there would be no need to concretely remind the church that male and female are not sufficient categories for God. The wording of the amendment does not come to us in a vacuum – it comes to us in a world in which our fallen, inadequate, and misunderstood labels for God are weaponized against women and girls all over the world.

Making a clear and concise statement that no one should be discriminated against or dehumanized on the basis of gender is FAR more important than stealing yet another stage to hash out our incoherent yelling matches regarding sexuality, gender, and biblical authority/interpretation. I am deeply ashamed that we cannot even set aside our talking points, soap boxes, and mistrust to remind the world that dehumanization and discrimination against women and girls is never OK and never justifiable on the basis of the Christian faith or the nature of God.  

The fight we keep having is not the fight we need to have and if we don’t even trust each other enough to make a clear statement against abuse, we have little hope of making the substantive changes needed to ensure a vital and fruitful future for our church.

Techno-Babel

 

Now the whole earth had one internet and the same binary code. And as technology progressed they came upon a crash-free, virus-free, stable OS and installed it everywhere. And they said to one another “Come let us compose lines of code and Beta test them thoroughly.” And they had computers for networking, and wireless routers for data transmission. Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a chat room, with fully functional video conferencing, and let us make a search-able database of screen names for all, otherwise we’ll be scattered abroad and out of touch for minutes (or even days!).” The Lord logged on to see the chat room and the video conferencing function, which programmers had designed. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they are all using ‘C’, this is only the beginning of what they will do; no connections they propose to make will now be impossible for them. Come, let us hack in, and confuse their language there, so that their servers will crash and shut down.” So the Lord crashed their program and they left off building the chat room. Therefore, it was called Techno-Babel because the Lord confused their language and crashed their servers so all were out of touch over the face of all the earth.

01000111 01100101 01101110 01100101 01110011 01101001 01110011: 11:1-9

I’m not actually opposed to using technology (I even wrote this essay on a computer) and I don’t believe God will really come down to destroy the internet. But, I am opposed to the uncritical use of technology as a medium for communication and I do believe God speaks more in spite of technology than through it. As we continue to press forward into the electronic age, I hope to use the story of Babel as a means of considering the limitations of electronic communication. By keeping the following two thoughts in mind, just maybe we can help prevent our own Techno-Babel: 1) Relationships are necessary for accurate communication; and 2) God is the only medium for real human connection.

1) The value of modern technology in communication is ambiguous. The internet enables people to see and speak to each other instantly across the world; translation programs even enable speaking with people who don’t speak the same language. Cell phones and PDAs allow people to stay in touch from nearly anywhere in the world and satellite technology may just complete the coverage map. At the same time, NE1 who has ever been in a txt msg fight knows how easily words can be misunderstood. No matter how clear your acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons may seem to you, sth is 404 n transmission. @TEOTD, each side misses out on body language and facial expressions that are central to communication; a cold stare or a soft touch can say more than a thousand words.

Video conferencing is one of the newer gadgets to remove some of these issues. However, the relationships we develop with people, and not just the ability to see and hear them, are the basis upon which real communication becomes possible. It doesn’t take much effort to prove that miscommunication is quite possible, even likely, between people. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians provides plenty of examples of how people can take a simple idea, turn it into a slogan, and miss out on the whole meaning of the message. It’s like saying ‘All things are lawful for me’ is a justification to do whatever I want (see 1 Cor. 6:12); perhaps a logical conclusion, but certainly not at all what Paul means when he speaks of Christ abolishing the law. The relationships in which words are spoken fill out as much meaning as the words themselves.

I’m certainly not denying the potential for technology to help start or continue relationships; I’ve known plenty of people who met online and my wife and I used countless hours of Skype video chat when I was 1000 miles away at school. To say that all uses of technology are inherently wrong would even implicitly deny the Bible’s validity; writing itself was at one time a new invention with an ambiguous potential for communication. What I am pointing out is that the written or spoken word has no single or necessary meaning; even the most treasured and beautiful words of scripture can and have been used to do incredible harm to others. The ability to speak instantly with anyone across the globe does not mean that communication is just the touch of a button away. Communication requires far more than the ability to hear and understand words; a whole network of presuppositions and assumptions goes into the way words are comprehended and the assessment or universality of that network is something that technology can’t even begin to address.

To speak to one another in a global society requires human relationships developed over time; nothing can replace the value of physically spending time with another human being. To share thoughts and ideas requires more than a program to map word equivalencies and nuances. The danger we are taught by the story of Babel is that globally unified purposes, actions, and languages aren’t inherently good. Enabling everyone to speak the same language (whether a ‘universal’ English or some totally unforeseen machine language) does not make communication possible across the globe. The kingdom of God stretches over all creation and certainly implies that the whole world is necessarily a part of our human relationships; but developing the ability to see and hear anyone, anywhere is nowhere near the same thing as edifying the Body of Christ through deep and challenging relationships with all persons.

Transferring data so that information can be rationally accessed is not identical to the life altering power of gospel community. Technology can be a powerful tool for human connection, but it is only a tool. Imagine if God had emailed Moses the Ten Commandments or sent a video series on Jesus instead of sending Him to live among us. The beauty and power of the gospel is that God loved us so much that He entered our world and changed everything. Christian relationships run deeper than broad band connections.

2) If the church ever hopes to be more than just one more sound bite in an A.D.D. world of flashy ads and catchy phrases, it must realize that God is the only mediator for human relationship. Technology only passively facilitates the senses’ involvement in communication; it does not actively enable anything to happen.  Technology allows the thoughts or experiences of an individual to be transmitted into the mind of another, but it does not provide any essential means for interpretation or evaluation. To arrive at the truth of the gospel message and to realize its transformative power, we must rest our hopes on the movement and action of God and not the marketability of our mission slogans or ad campaigns.

If you want to reach someone on the other side of the globe, you have many options. You can pick up a telephone, send an email, find a nice chat room, etc. But when you actually decide to share something of yourself with that person, the transmission of 1’s and 0’s isn’t enough. When you come to know someone by your relationship to God, you are necessarily connected to that person. I don’t mean something happens in a mystically spiritual way that unites ‘life-forces’ or something science-fictional, but I do fully believe that God unites people together in an absolutely real, almost palpable way. God binds us together in all of our relationships and is most fully present in marriage when “the two become one flesh.” The type of connection that unites us as members of the Body of Christ is far more real and far more meaningful than the ability to reproduce sensory data through 1’s and 0’s.

When we sit down and consider how best to “reach” people in the church, the conversation often presumes the need to condense the gospel message or share the church website with people outside the church. Neither practice is inherently wrong, but to think that the truth of the Christian message should be primarily conveyed in a 30 second spiel (or even a 30 minute sermon) is to miss the majority of the biblical witness. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is capable of reaching someone through a 30 second conversation or even just a single word, but to turn that potential into the basis for Christian proclamation is to miss out on God’s abundant gifts to humanity. The church does not construct an intellectual portal into a heavenly realm (or hack into God’s internet servers) to provide mediation between humans and God. The church trains persons to identify the abundance of gifts that God has directly provided for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church facilitates the development of formative relationships in which we are made members of Christ’s body and enables us, by the power of the Spirit, to see that God is the only One Who actively enables communication of the Word.

To share the Christian message requires God to activate our speech and enable communication. Technology provides an unparalleled medium of communication because it seems to be a more direct and permanent connection with one another than God could ever provide; technology provides instant audio and visual connections from and to nearly anywhere in the world.  However, the problem with Babel was not the inability to speak to one another and share in “the same words;” the problem was that people thought their labor was necessary to stay united. The more time and resources we put into the development of new technologies for sharing the gospel message, the more our attention is diverted from the fact that God has already united us in Jesus Christ.

Instead of finding ways to “reach” people, we should find ways to see what God is doing among us and invite others to share in our life together. We can’t rid ourselves of technology, but we can work to reform its use given a proper understanding of God’s role in the life of the church; we can work to make God, and not the appeal of a power point slide, the center of our proclamation and worship.

The next time you open up an email or chat window, consider what connection you really have with your conversation partner. Are you relying on and trusting more in a computer’s ability to get your message across than in the power of the Spirit through whom we are all connected? Good communication is a tricky business and technology is neither necessary nor sufficient for it to occur. To use technology in the life of the church requires a community of interpretation. To share in the Word of God requires more than a detailed reproduction of sense experience. Just as we must know the voice behind the text-message to avoid misunderstanding, we must know the voice of the One Who spoke creation into being if we really want to share the gospel. As I said before, I doubt God will ever come down to destroy the internet, but I would hope our tendency to embrace technology as the bearer of truth doesn’t force His Hand into causing our own Techno-Babel.

****Written in Spring 2010

Intellect and Idol

The intellectualization of the Christian faith cannot help but lead to the idolization of scripture. The assumption that there is a definable philosophical/logical/rational/scientific background on which to stake our understanding of God and history is the golden calf of our intellectual culture. To claim instead that God alone is the arbiter of truth and definitively reveals Himself in scripture is to require that present experience of God play a key role in standing under authority – not a mind game, a mind changed to see clearly.

It does not make any more sense for us to now adopt the ‘background’ philosophical understanding of the bible than it would make for us to adopt the scientific background of Genesis – it’s not that a ‘biblical’ worldview or a ‘modern scientific’ worldview is right or wrong – the problem is that we can’t define the ground on which we stand in either case apart from the ground upon which we stand. Culture will never stay still enough to feel like we have any semblance of a solid place to stand.

Placing God at the center of our faith (and not scripture, or philosophy, or whatever else) necessarily feels like a shifting sand beneath our feet because we will never understand God to the extent that we can lock God down and know God perfectly by a set of beliefs and words. Refusing to assume there is solid intellectual ground without the power and presence of God is an essential part of the church’s continued faithfulness – just like refusing to assume a golden calf could contain the essence of God was an essential part of Israel’s faithfulness in the Exodus.

Literalism is practical atheism

Literalism as a moral guide is always a form of practical atheism. Literalism inherently fails precisely to the extent that it obfuscates the simple fact that we are not God and we will never fully understand or control our actions, intents, or the results of either. I’ve written more generally about complementarianism and it’s problems, but it is the most illustrative of this point.

For the sake of this particular argument I’ll assume that the Bible does in fact say what the most plain reading seems to say and that the Bible means to imply what complementarians take it to imply – namely, men are the head of household and women are not to have authority over men. The Bible says “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church.” (Eph. 5:23) Therefore, men are to be the spiritual leader, make final decisions, etc. A couple of other verses may also be brought in as relevant – “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1st Tim. 2:12), for instance – and a whole way of life, marriage, and church leadership is developed to most literally reflect the words of scripture.

This is the point at which a literalist reading presumes that it has made a definitive moral argument – the Bible says it, we must live accordingly. But to segment off this question of morality from 1) a further reading of God’s Word and 2) the rest of a faithful life, is to compartmentalize God out of the equation as an unnecessary distraction rather than the source of life and meaning.

1) Here are a few other things the Bible says – “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed,” Psalm 82:3. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” James 1:27. “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless,” Isaiah 40:29. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” Luke 14:11. I could go on naming verses about the reversal of power God brings about and naming those passages that emphasize humility and self sacrifice as the Christological form of power. The weight of scripture has a very clear theme – God lifts up the least, the last, and the lost time and time again. To do anything to harm these, is to do the very same to God (Matthew 25:31-46)

2) Here is something else complementarianism justifies in the real world – spousal and child abuse. I don’t know that specific research has been done to express just how often complementarian thought is used to justify abuse, but it happens infinitely more than is acceptable. My wife’s experience with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse combined with a cursory internet search lead me to a heartbreaking number of anecdotes in which it is the case that 1) a woman is made to feel by her abuser that abuse is justified by his God given authority, and/or 2) a church implies (and at times outright says) that a woman cannot escape abuse because she is to submit to her husband. The numbers do not matter to this argument nearly as much as it matters that such justification does in fact arise through complementarian arguments.

The literalist reading would suggest that the existence of people failing to live into complementarian marriage in the way God intended it to exist is no excuse for abandoning the clear sense of marriage as described in the set of verses above. Put differently, just because we’re bad at God’s ideal for marriage doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong. We should still strive for that ideal because the Bible says so. This is the point at which literalism fails so spectacularly and devolves into practical atheism.

Christians do not have any possible way to separate our decision to follow this pronouncement about men and women from our decision of whether or not to lift up the powerless, defend the widow, value humility, challenge the world’s assumptions of power, or any other desire to embody the love and life that Jesus makes possible. Again, I’m happy for the sake of this argument to accept the validity of the assumption that the above verses say and mean what a plain reading implies. But we cannot say that we support ‘biblical gender roles’ and at the same time pretend that this particular take on ‘biblical gender roles’ does not in actual, lived experience lead to spousal abuse.

To pretend like we have no choice but to be complementarian is to choose the value of male authority over the reality of female suffering. Jesus, faced with the choice to heal on the Sabbath or keep it holy, chooses healing over strict interpretation. The same logic is at play in every aspect of the way we live our lives – it’s not a question of if we are faithful, but of which attempt at being faithful is the most important for the here and now. We will fall short of some aspect of the life God intends, but I cannot see how we should ever prefer to try for a way of life that leads to spousal abuse instead of a way of life that puts the well being and humanity of women and children above any perceived benefit of complementary gender roles.

Said differently, even assuming men are scripturally supposed to have greater authority, we necessarily have to choose whether to value the safety of women and children more than the value of living into that authority structure. You may say that by choosing the former value we are choosing to violate God’s will and design, but when male authority creates the space in which women and children are abused, we have already made a choice about which kind of failure we authorize and which we ignore. Given that we are always choosing one value over another, I cannot see any scenario in which God would call us to choose spousal abuse over egalitarian relationships.

Literalism is a form of practical atheism because it empowers us to pretend like we don’t have a choice. It enables us to hide our deepest imperfections and failure to live as God calls us to live. Literalism gives us the space to pretend that we’re “just following God’s word,” when in reality we are living in a fallen and broken world in which our words and actions go far beyond our knowledge and control. Literalism suggests that we can take one snippet of scripture, divorce it from all other scripture and life itself, and have a clear understanding of how we are to live that compartmentalizes away the necessary harm that results. By pretending like we can segment our lives in this way and, even worse, that we should presume only one kind of moral question matters at a time, we do violence to the powerless in our world whose voices are not heard over the assertions of power made by those of us viewed as having authority.

Literalism never allows God to call into question the rationality and tradition that are shaped by the strong and authoritative men in the world, even though scripture itself calls those with power and authority into question time and again. The cross is God’s radical declaration that we are embraced and transformed no matter how far we fall short – literalism is practical atheism because there is no space to admit the multiple competing values and choices that we make everyday; choices that cannot be perfect to exactly the same extent that we are not God.

To live in submission to God requires us to at least 1) admit how deeply flawed we are and how impossible it is to fully embody the new life in Christ without the constant grace of God, 2) embrace and never hide the fact that we are always making competing value judgments in every decision we make, 3) refuse to hide behind tradition or bureaucracy as a reason for our failure to embody the love of God more fully, and 4) prioritize the same people and values that Jesus did – the sick over the healed, healing over Sabbath, the powerless over the powerful, the outcast over the popular, etc.