Christians Saying (and Doing) the Right Thing – and Not – on Family Separations

Since my post about the abhorrent family-separation policy enacted by the Trump administration, two major developments have occurred:

One, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders invoked Romans 13 in defending this egregiously anti-Christian policy. I don’t have much to add to the many, many words of outrage directed at this despicable misreading of Scripture, except maybe two things:

  • The Atlantic pointed out the use of Romans 13 to justify slavery in antebellum America, then said its use in public discourse essentially disappeared. That may be true, but I’d add a use of more recent vintage: To defend segregation and criticize Martin Luther King Jr.’s program of civil disobedience. I know I’ve run across examples in researching the response by Churches of Christ to the civil rights movement. So Sessions and Sanders can join apologists for slavery and segregation in misusing Romans 13 for political ends.
  • One of the most disturbing and anguished over sayings of Jesus is his assertion in the Sermon on the Mount that “not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong’ (Matt 7:21-23). I confess I don’t have any better idea than you what that really means, but it’s hard not to think of it in light of Sessions’ and Sanders’ comments.

Two, since I leveled some pretty strong criticism of “the pro-life movement” – without acknowledging, as I should have, that there are plenty of progressives who consider themselves pro-life and pro-immigrant, as well as pro-social justice, and that no movement is an ideological monolith – I felt I should return since several organizations and people who I’d consider part of that movement, and largely part of the problem of turning the “pro-life” and “evangelical Christian” labels into synonyms for “Republican Party policy priorities, have since criticized family separations at the border.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, last seen shouting down nuns for their support of expanding access to health insurance, pulled no punches:

Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma. Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.

Franklin Graham, long one of Trump’s foremost public defenders, was also critical – although notably he did pull a punch or two:

I think it’s disgraceful, it’s terrible, to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit. And I blame the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to the point where it is today.

Somehow, of course, none of those politicians over the past three decades managed to implement a policy of widespread family separation the way Trump and Sessions have done.

The Southern Baptist Convention, after hearing from Vice President Pence, passed a resolution affirming “the value and dignity of immigrants, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, culture, national origin, or legal status” and further rejecting “any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation” as “inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

WORLD magazine’s Twitter feed and website have been remarkably silent on the crisis and Sessions’ response, but one of their reporters, Mindy Belz, swatted him down:

So far, I can’t find any comments from Focus on the Family or the Family Research Council – and Democrats for Life’s Charles Camosy, in a column echoing my post, couldn’t find anything from the National Right to Life or Susan B. Anthony List. If they make a statement, I’ll post it.

Their silence speaks volumes about how much they truly care about innocent lives and family values – and how much they have sold out those lives and values for the taste of power Trump now gives them.

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The Pro-Life Movement Is Failing

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A rapidly shrinking generation.

The numbers don’t look good for the movement that calls itself “pro-life.”

After years of stasis, the most recent surveys are noticing a shift that bodes ill for the future of the movement that exists to eliminate legal abortion in the United States:

In the survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were more likely to report that their views on abortion had changed in recent years — and when they moved, they tended to move in favor of abortion rights. Of those young people whose opinions had changed, 25 percent said they became more supportive of legalized abortion compared to 9 percent who became less supportive.

That poll was taken in March, and while it did not show a noticeable change in overall support for the notion that abortion should be “illegal in all or most cases” from where it’s been for the past decade (43 percent, compared to 54 percent saying it should be “legal in all or most cases”), it’s not hard to see that the millennial generation is growing as a percentage of the public. If they continue shifting leftward on abortion, the overall numbers will follow.

A separate PRRI poll of even younger Americans, age 15-24, finds an even stronger shift: the cohort opposes making abortions more difficult to obtain by a 72-28 margin – and even 43 percent of Republicans in this group oppose abortion restrictions.

The Christian pollster George Barna is seeing the same thing: “In fact, when we compared the views of Millennials to those who are 30 or older, there were consistent differences showing that the younger generation is comparatively less supportive of life and more supportive of abortion.

Continue reading The Pro-Life Movement Is Failing

That Business about Women Keeping Silent in Church – What if Someone Else Added It In?

0800637712hI’m reading through Eldon Jay Epp’s book Junia: The First Woman Apostle, which has succeeded in blowing my mind, and we haven’t even gotten to Junia yet.

Epp starts the book by talking about textual criticism, the means by which scholars look at the oldest texts we have and study their language and variations, and the problems such criticism poses for exegetical certainty. For example, everyone here is familiar with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.

Pretty clear, right? But let’s zoom out a little and see what we find when we include it in context:

31 You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. 33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.

(Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?)

37 If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. 40 Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order.

The parentheses, which Epp includes in his treatment of these paragraphs, kind of give it away: One of these paragraphs is not like the other two. You could read from verse 33a to verse 37 without any trouble, as if verses 33b-36 didn’t exist. That’s interesting enough, but by itself doesn’t prove that verses 33b-35 or 36 are later additions to the text.

But Epp goes on to point out that not every text of 1 Corinthians place verses 34-35 between 33 and 36; some place it after verse 40. So this text is a little more mobile than your typical Pauline text. Also, though every text of 1 Corinthians 14 we have includes this passage, at least two of our earliest versions (Codex Fuldensis, dated to 547, and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 300s) include scribal notations also found with such passages as John’s story of the woman caught in adultery, a well known case of textual variation. As Epp puts it:

This combination of literary analysis and text-critical assessment has moved a sizable group of scholars to view the passage on “silent women” as a later intrusion into 1 Corinthians and most likely one never written by Paul. (19)

So what does this mean? What do we do if one of the key passages governing gender roles in conservative and fundamentalist churches turns out to be a later, non-Pauline addition? After all, it’s still in our Bibles, and – at least theoretically – Paul is not of greater importance than any other biblical writer (though we Protestants certainly seem to prefer him to, say, James).

But the point is not to simply dismiss pieces of the Bible we don’t like; the point is to recognize that the Bible itself – not any particular passage but the very nature of the texts we have – rejects our attempts to flatten it into a cut-and-paste set of rules for 21st century life and worship.

Continue reading That Business about Women Keeping Silent in Church – What if Someone Else Added It In?

What Is the Son of Man?

Son-of-ManThat’s a question I’ve had for a long time. Jesus’ self-appelation of the title in Matthew always seemed needlessly complicated, and I don’t recall ever receiving an answer that made much sense (which isn’t to say one wasn’t given). My main impression growing up – and until very recently, truth be told – was that the “Son of Man” was an arcane way of essentially asserting Jesus’ humanity, the human equivalent of his description, primarily in John, as the Son of God.

But that really sells the title short. In fact, until we understand the roots of the phrase and why Jesus uses it, we run the risk of badly misinterpreting what he is trying to say.

A great example is one my wife brought up the other day. Matthew 10:21-23 caps a series of verses in which Jesus sends out the disciples and promises persecution:

Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Given the context of Jesus sending the disciples out, the literal sense of this passage is that they will not make it far before Jesus returns (since he’s already there and cannot simply “come” unless he’s coming back, right?). Yet they did actually make it quite far, certainly outside the cities of Israel, and he still hasn’t come back. Was Jesus wrong?

Certainly some biblical scholars believe so. I offered to read up on the passage in some biblical commentaries during my weekly study night at the library, and here’s what I found (in chronological order):

Continue reading What Is the Son of Man?

The God who Flees

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Richard Beck the other day posted this incredible painting by Luc Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1879). Joseph is sacked out on the desert floor with the donkey grazing nearby, while Mary uses the now-famous Sphinx to prop herself up with her baby – the only source of light – in her arms. Her feet dangle off the edge of the Sphinx, whose nose, you’ll notice, is still intact.

What I like most is how it properly contextualizes the recent blogosphere debates over the historicity of the flight to Egypt. Because we don’t need to say the scene portrayed in this evocative painting probably didn’t actually happen. That’s not the point.

Likewise, as someone who enjoys getting behind the text of scripture to learn the actual history – Did this happen? Could it have? What really happened? How did the text come to say what it does? – it’s a useful reminder that no matter how the text got to the point where we have it, it’s what we have. In the end, after all of the historical criticism and analysis, we must arrive at the position of Walter Brueggemann, Brevard Childs and others: What we have is from what we must learn.

So the flight to Egypt may have happened, as Tony Jones and any biblical literalist argues. It may not have happened, as James McGrath, myself and any revisionist liberal argue. But in the end, what can we learn from the story, which is what we’ve got?

Continue reading The God who Flees

Did the Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

innocentThere’s been something of a debate happening in at least one corner of the theoblogosphere over Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, the incident described in Matthew 2 as Herod’s attempt to kill the presumed usurper the Magi had called “King of the Jews.”

James McGrath started it with a post titled, “Why I’m Glad the Infancy Narrative Isn’t Literally True,” in which he argued God’s warning of Mary and Joseph to flee while letting all of the other baby boys be slaughtered was an act of heinous injustice that besmirches the character of God – were it true, which it isn’t. He argues it isn’t true because Luke – nor any other ancient source – does not corroborate it, and it seems to be set up so that Matthew can cite the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1.

Tony Jones responded with “Herod Really Did Massacre the Innocents,” in which he rebukes McGrath’s seeming attempts to write off pieces of scripture with which he is uncomfortable and says he’s glad the Bible contains this narrative because it matches the horror and injustice of “real life.”

McGrath responded, correctly, that Jones didn’t actually address any of McGrath’s historical critiques of the passage but determined its authenticity based solely on theological considerations, which is not exactly the way you want to be determining the historicity of anything.

After all of that, Brian LePort stepped in with a couple of points. On the historicity of the passage, LePort argues:

Personally, I don’t find these points to be as devastating a critique as McGrath, especially since (1) the actions fit the Herod we know from other sources; (2) I think scholars often invert Matthew’s exegetical approach depicting him as having read Scripture in order to find events to narrate whereas the peculiarity of Matthew’s exegesis leads me to think he had existent traditions through which he read the text connecting events to Scripture. In other words, I think Matthew had a tradition that Herod killed the children while seeking Jesus and this [led] him to read Scripture to see if there was any “foretelling” of such an event.

He also doesn’t see anything terribly troubling about God stepping in to warn the most theologically important family in world history of impending demise: “If God intervened to stop all evil, it would be the eschaton!” He seems to be agreeing with Jones here; the passage is no more troubling than the Newtown, Conn., massacre – which is to say, no more troubling than the problem of evil existing in the first place.

I’ll leave the theology to these more able minds, though I tend to agree with LePort’s take on this – but I’m leery of simply dismissing McGrath’s theodicical (is that a word?) concerns, as well.

But I feel there’s a middle ground to be had on the historical elements, something neither McGrath nor LePort brings up.

Continue reading Did the Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

Summit Days 2-3: Putting Away the Traditional Teachings on Divorce

The final two days of Summit last week, I attended a class given by Barron Jones, whom I’ve mentioned before. The title of this post was the name of the class. Barron presented his material in a way that kept a serious subject light – lest it become too serious – and certainly made me want to study the issue more. He probably needed one more hour (he only had two), as he ran out of time both days, and as such, left me a touch unconvinced.

“This is about people,” he began. “This is not about theology. … It’s about people’s lives, and they get messy.”

The first day he devoted to simple defining the traditional teachings and poking logical holes in them.

“If I can get you to say, ‘I don’t know,’ then we’ve made progress,” he said. “We need to embrace that phrase and understand it does not mean weakness. It means humility. This topic is about pride and humility as much as it is about marriage and divorce.”

Continue reading Summit Days 2-3: Putting Away the Traditional Teachings on Divorce