Cyrus and Trump

There is a disturbing trend among politically-conservative evangelicals to compare President Donald Trump to King Cyrus the Great as a move to legitimize the support of Christians for Mr. Trump and his policies.

Here are links to a handful of articles on the subject:
Vox
The Guardian
The New York Times

I’ve written on some related topics, which you can find below:
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

But today, I want to focus directly on this idea that Trump is somehow a “chosen one” akin to Cyrus in the Old Testament. This idea is wrong-headed, theologically problematic on many fronts and, frankly, dangerous.

While I’m strongly tempted to start with argumentation about how the historical understanding of Cyrus and the Biblical writings of Isaiah don’t match up too well, so we ought to read the Bible’s commentary on Cyrus as making arguments and creating narrative about the Israelite people, the end of the Babylonian captivity, the right of returning Jews to land now occupied by the Samaritans, etc., etc. However, I’m going to bypass that argument, for two reasons. First, you can investigate that for yourselves and I don’t need to take lots of space to summarize here. Second, those who espouse this Cyrus/Trump connection dismiss the historical argument out of hand, coming as they do from a position of Biblical literalism. There are so many problems with that position, but for purposes of this argument, I’m going to avoid the historical argument in favor of logical and theological arguments as well as literary criticism.

Let’s begin with the ways in which Trump doesn’t seem to match the Biblical narrative of Cyrus very well.

First, God declares in Isaiah 45:13 that God will “raise up Cyrus in my righteouness: I will make all his ways straight.” So there’s an explicit declaration that God’s selection of Cyrus (again, if we take the text literally) necessarily comes with an instilled righteousness. But the evangelical comparison of Trump with Cyrus is founded on the idea that Trump, while not moral or pious, is still somehow being used for God’s purposes. But that argument puts us more in the realm of Tolkien’s Gollum than the Bible’s Cyrus. There are plenty of Biblical arguments that even the unrighteous can advance God’s plans for the world, but that’s not the argument made here in Isaiah.

Second, let’s look at Cyrus’ function in the Isaiah narrative. Cyrus does two main things: he releases the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity and he decrees the rebuilding of the Temple (though that doesn’t actually happen until later). Unless you see the U.S. Embassy as somehow equivalent to the Temple that housed the holy of holies, I’m not sure where you could find a functional comparison here. Trump has not drastically changed the political landscape in Isreal (except for heightening tensions), so we have to look elsewhere for the divinely mandated accomplishments (on behalf of God’s particularly-favored people, because let’s be realistic, this argument blatantly favors the paritcular interests of the evangelicals who make it and not the good of all believers or the good of the world as a whole) of the current president if we’re to make the argument that, like Cyrus, God has personally elected Trump to accomplish God’s ends on the earth.

By my estimate, here are the accomplishments: the creation of environment more permissive to racists and the alt-right; a fear and rejection of innocent immigrants fleeing crisis; benefits to the wealthy and to large corporations at the expense of the little guy; threats of war; the disparagement and disengagement from our political allies; a lack of caring about suffering that happens to other people in other countries; rejection of truth in favor of making things up as one goes and insisting it’s the truth until people stop questioning it; decreased acceptance of people who are different; scapegoating already marginalized people as the cause of the perceived problems of the rich; a preference for political success in conflict rather than the support of democratic institutions and justice for all people.

To be fair, there is an argument that Trump is the reason that the economy is good right now. But it’s just that, an argument–and certainly not one that has much to do with righteousness. While the President often gets the credit or blame for the economy (mostly because that’s the only politician the average person can name), most economists agree that the President (no matter who it is or what party they belong to) has relatively little power when it comes to affecting the economy.

And now we come to the real issue: evangelicals believe that the government should enforce their form of morality, so action that curtails the rights of women to get abortions or be believed when they assert that they have been sexually assaulted, the rights of the LGBTQ community to exist, the rights of immigrants to have a fair go in this country matches with their view of what the country should be in order to follow their definition of Christian righteousness.

You can argue with my characterization of their goals if you’d like, but at the end of the day, you have to acknowledge that evangelical Christians support Trump because they believe that Trump will achieve the type of change they want for the country. You only have to look at Trump’s policies, statements and actions to see the truth in what I’ve written.

That creates a problem for the evangelicals. They want what Trump offers them, but they also don’t want Trump, because he is amoral, narcisstic, jingoistic, self-interested and generally problematic.

Enter the Cyrus argument. This allows the evangelicals to avoid the cognitive dissonance between seeing themselves as inherently righteous and moral actors while supporting someone who is so clearly not. “Trump may not be godly, but he’s doing what God put him here to do, so we should support him.” If you’re inclined to ask about the actual morality of the policies favored by the evangelicals in light of the Gospels, don’t bother; that ship sailed a long time ago.

What makes this dangerous–for the nation, as a temptation to Christian believers and as a detriment to the Christian witness to those who do not believe–is that it again resorts to Divine Command Theory to justify what humans believe to be God’s will as absolute and unassailable truth. The “Cyrus Prophecy” argument allows the evangelicals to unquestioningly cling to a very particular interpretation of Scripture, to use an “ends justify the means” approach to their faith, and to reject outright anyone who challenges the assertions that they’ve made. Psychologically very effective. Theologically, not so much.

As I argued in my post about the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, this allows Christians to ignore the effects of the route they take to pursue their so-called righteousness. Just as the Cyrus argument requires us to selectively ignore the claim of Isaiah that God’s selection of Cyrus made him righteous, resorting to Divine Command Theory to justify beliefs and actions requires us to ignore much of Christ’s message as to how we ought to comport ourselves as Christians seeking righteousness.

To be fair, I think that there is a very good analogy in the Old Testament for Trump, it’s just not Cyrus. It’s King Saul, appointed king by God when the Israelites begged God for a king and God said (paraphrasing): “Okay, I’m gonna give you what you’re asking for, but I don’t think it’s going to be what you think it’s going to be…” Because Trump certainly isn’t the president this country needs right now, but he might be the president we collectively deserve until we take a good look at ourselves and figure out what a “great” America actually looks like.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy

The plaza in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is much smaller than one might think, flanked on two sides by the monasteries appended to the structure to accommodate some of its caretakers and inhabitants from the six denominations that share in the ownership of the edifice. By modern standards, the entire Old City of Jerusalem is cramped, the narrow streets winding through clusters of centuries-old buildings. The fact that the plaza is nearly always full of people reinforces the sense of compactness and confinement.

That alone can be overwhelming, and it causes many to miss what is perhaps the most important modern symbol attached to the site–an old work ladder (the “immovable ladder”) placed high upon the wall to facilitate repairs made sometime before 1852, when the “Status Quo” agreement established that changes to the building must be agreed to by all custodian parties. To date they have not agreed to move the ladder. This strife is emblematic of the current state of the modern nation of Israel.

On the drive to my office this morning, I heard a piece on NPR about “pilgrims” to the plaque announcing the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem (where there was previously a Consulate building). The things I heard instigated this post.

There are many, particularly American fundamentalist or evangelical Christians, who believe that the support of Israel is part of some Biblical prophecy (that I must admit I cannot find in my copies of the Bible) about conditions that must be established to bring about the Second Coming of Christ.

So many problems with this kind of theology; I feel driven to address at least some of them. First, Jesus tells us that no one knows the time of the Second Coming except the Father; this seems to indicate to me that mankind cannot manufacture a set of circumstances to “trigger” such a cosmic event. Second, a focus on bringing about an apocalyptic end time leads us away from what Jesus called us to do. Jesus tells us that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth is about helping those who need help, pursuing mercy, justice, righteousness and–above all else–love. It is not about forcing God’s hand or patiently awaiting for Jesus to unilaterally fix everything. We have been wondrously and blessedly invited by our Creator to participate in the bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth; let us not squander such a gift.

But to get to the heart of the matter, we need to look a little deeper at the foundation of this position. The argument starts with the statement that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews because God gave it to them in the Old Testament. This requires a literalist view unnuanced by things like the passage of time, the Incarnation, or the socialio-religious views of the people who participated (under inspiration from God) in the writing of the Old Testament texts.

Let’s break that down into several problems. To take the idea literally that God gave ancient Canaan to the Isrealite people after the Exodus (particularly in the beginning of the Book of Joshua) requires us to also believe that God authorized and endorsed the wholesale slaughter of native Canaanites. This requires reliance on Divine Command Theory.

In short, Divine Command Theory is that, because God is the Creator of all things, what God commands is absolutely and incontrovertibly morally righteous. At its simplest, this seems to be common sense, right? But what happens when we are told that God has commanded an action and there’s something within us that just screams that that’s not right?

While I have argued (and will continue to argue) for an understanding of morality that is contextualized, I have firmly rejected the idea that morality is relative. I affirm that morality is established by God as creator and sustainer of all that is. Perhaps the most functional approach to Divine Command Theory is to determine whether accepting any particular command as from God would contradict our understanding of the nature of God or–more bluntly–make a hypocrite of God. I think that most Christians (hopefully all!) could agree that God is not a hypocrite.

One approach would be to turn to C.S. Lewis’ idea of “natural law.” For Lewis, our conscience is the action of the Holy Spirit within us (what we Wesleyans might call “prevenient grace”). While Lewis uses this as an evidence (but not a “proof”) of God’s existence, if we accept the assertion of “natural law” as true, we might use it instead to determine whether calling something a “divine command” would lead to a contradiction of God by God. In essence, if our conscience, as the action of the Holy Spirit, would conflict with what we are told is a “divine command,” either our conscience or the command is not of God.

Some Christians might recoil at the thought of “contradicting Scripture” with “our feelings;” I imagine some might go so far as to call this Montanism. There are two equally strong responses: (1) we are not “contradicting Scripture,” we are interpreting Scripture, and (2) why don’t we then look to see if we find contradiction of a supposedly-divine command in Scripture.

Paul tells us in 1 John 4:7-21 (ESV), “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, adn whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” We are told in the Ten Commandments that, “Thou shalt not murder [or kill, depending upon interpretation and translation],” and “Thou shalt not steal” (as the land was already in the possession of the Canaanites). In the person of Jesus Christ, we see that God’s way is one of love, peace and self-sacrifice, not one of violent conquest. So Scripture gives us a contradiction to resolve if we are to call God’s command to conquer Canaan just and right because God ordered it. Is that a God of love? And if the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament (which we must surely agree to), why didn’t God send a messiah who would reconquer Judea from the Romans?

We are equipped with not only theological arguments, but also social and historical arguments to help resolve the contradiction. First, we know that the Book of Joshua was not written at the time of Joshua, but most likely after the end of the Babylonian Captivity. The Israelites needed a national story that explained why they had the right to the land against both foreign invaders and against the Samaritans who remained (and had in many cases taken possession of land formerly in the hands of the Babylonian captives). We also know that the beginning of Judges contradicts the invasion and conquest narrative of Joshua–in Judges there is a more gradual immigration of the Israelites into Canaan and an assimilation with and then change to the dominant culture. The archeology supports the Judges version over the Joshua version (Jericho for instance was not occupied at the time in which the Joshua story is set).

Elsewhere in the Old Testament we have evidence that part of the writing of the Scriptures represent the evolving understanding of God by the Israelites (and in relation to other cultures at the time) rather than as the verbatim “Word of God.” In Joshua 6:21, we are told that the Isrealites “devoted to the city to the Lord” by killing every living thing inside it. Saul is later “commanded” to do the same thing to the city of Amelek, killing every living animal to devote them to the Lord (1 Samuel 15).

But archeology has shown us that the Israelites were not the only ones to think of dedicating cities to their god by killing all inhabitants. In th Mesha Stele (discovered in Dhiban, Jordan in 1868–once the land of Moab), the Moabite King Mesha has written, “And the men of Gad lived in the land of Atarot from ancient times; and the king of Israel built Atarot for himself. And I fought against the city and captured it. And I killed all the people of the city as a sacrifice for Kemosh [Chemosh] and for Moab.” So, it seems likely that killing all of the inhabitants of a captured city as a devotion to the national god was simply a cross-cultural understanding of how things were done, and not a specific and unique command from God.

So all evidence seems to point against utilizing Divine Command Theory to claim that God definitively told the Israelites to conquer Canaan and that Israelites have somehow received eternal title and ownership of the Levant directly from God. This is not to say that God did not place the Isrealites in Canaan or lead them to it–I think it’s fair to say that God did. In my journals of my travel in Israel later this year, I noted just how geographically perfectly placed the Israelites were for God to incarnate there when Jesus came. Disbelieving the command of God to conquer all of Canaan and to slaughter its inhabitants does not mean disbelief in a purpose and design to the Israelites settling that land.

If we view the Old Testament’s claim of the Isrealites’ sole right to the land as just that–a claim of the Israelites and not a command of God–then we cannot blindly say, “God gave Israel to the Jews, they should have it and no one else” and turn a blind eye to Palestinians.

The word “Palestinian” comes from the word “Phillistine” in the Bible. The Phillistines were the Phoenician settlers of the coastal cities in what is now Isreal, like Tyre in the north and Gaza farther south. They also occupied the land in the time of the Old Testament, so without recourse to a divine mandate that only the Jews have possession of Isreal (or dominion over, if you prefer), there is an equally-historic claim to the land by Palestinian inhabitants.

Israel has not been kind to the Palestinians. From a certain perspective, I can understand how the Israelis arrived at their positions and policies–the mindset of being surrounded on all sides by Arab nations that would be all-too-happy to see Israel fail as a nation (or be reincorporated into Arab nations) must be overwhelming. But understanding does not mean that I condone those positions or policies, or that I can support them.

I do not deny that there are security threats to the people and nation of Israel from certain Palestinians. I do not deny that there are bad actors on both sides. Nor do I deny that Jews should have a homeland and that the nation of Israel should exist. But the majority of Palestinians are good people who are being oppressed by Israel through military force, economic isolation and use of a legal system that ultimately equates to Israel exercising whatever law it wants to over Palestinian territory.

The move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem–regardless of whether Jerusalem is the de facto capitol of Israel–exacerbates the plight of the Palestinians. That Christians are supporting this oppression in the name of God is unacceptable. Maybe I’m wrong, but based on everything I’ve learned and studied about Jesus, he would be far more interested in caring for Palestinians than ensuring that Jews had the rights to the land.

There are two factors that further arouse my suspicion and opposition to the stance that “good Christians must support Israel at all costs.” First is the confusion of American-conservative-style patriotism with the Christian faith. The only way that the U.S. could be called a “Christian” nation would be because Christians within the nation have risen to the challenge to love their neighbors as they are commanded to do: opposing racism and sexism, caring for the less fortunate, being tolerant to people of other faiths (and cooperating with them in the government of the nation), welcoming immigrants, pursuing true justice and mercy, standing against deceit and corruption in those who lead the nation, and honestly striving to make the world a better place–not just for Americans, but for everyone. But to claim a divine mandate for America that means that Christian Americans can do no wrong and justifying them no matter what they do is dangerous to true faith and bordering on idolatry.

The second factor is that there is a sizeable population of Palestinian Christians. Yes, most Palestinians are Muslim, but there are many Christian Palestinian suffering the same oppression as their Muslim counterparts. This means that, a position to support Israel unconditionally that is somehow founded on the Christian faith requires us to contribute to the suffering of other Christians. I don’t think that that should matter, there’re are no exceptions or nuances to “love your neighbor” based on their religion–quite the opposite in fact if the Good Samaritan story is taken into account–but there does seem to be some additional hypocrisy added by that fact.

Ideally, I think, Christians should be working to help pave a path that gives dignity and protection to both Isrealis and Palestinians and that allows them to live together in peace and collaboration rather than the military occupation that currently stands. We certainly shouldn’t be treating the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as a pilgrimage site.

 

Thinking About Kavanaugh

Since I’ve been asked to post some of my thoughts about American politics by a reader, it seems only right to reward the kind of feedback and responsiveness I’d love to see more of from readers as quickly as possible.

So, here you go, yet more commentary on the Kavanaugh nomination (though the first from me).

To begin, I am disappointed in the behavior of both major parties in our country. There have always been “winner-take-all” politicians in the world, but zero-sum, no-holds-barred, win-at-all-costs politics is now the status quo. Somehow along the way, we’ve lost the rigorous dedication to civil discourse, the ability to compromise and collaborate, and a focus on the common good over pandering to a limited electorate. This is true of persons on both parties.

I watched Senator McCain’s funeral with great sorrow. Not only did the event carry with it a sense of Shakespearean drama (I couldn’t help but think of Mark Antony’s funereal speech in Julius Ceasar, though both motivation and results differed in our reality–thankfully), but it really did seem that we’ve lost one of the last noble politicians–those who could vehemently stand for an ideology without demonizing or marginalizing anyone who disagrees. There’s some amount of revisionist idolization in there to be sure, but in his death McCain managed to become a momentary symbol of that more general loss.

I am afraid that both the Democrats and the Republicans have handled Kavanaugh’s nomination in such a way that it cannot but be polarized and polarizing. Worse still, suspicion of political motivations to the actions of both sides now guarantee that the results of the FBI investigation conducted this week will be automatically discounted by those whose opinion is not supported by the investigation’s findings. The Democrats will say that the investigation was too limited and too short if they don’t like the results, and the Republicans will call conspiracy if they don’t.

And that brings us to my real thoughts on Kavanaugh specifically. I watched a good portion, but not all, of both Dr. Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s. But what I want to say in this post is not about the truth of the allegations against him. In fact, here’s what I have to say about the truth of the allegations: I don’t know. Based on what I’ve seen, I find no reason to believe a motivation in the three accusers other than sincere belief in the allegations made against Judge Kavanaugh. I found Dr. Ford’s demeanor fully credible. I don’t see that Ford, Swetnick and Ramirez have anything to gain by publically accusing Kavanaugh, but they do have much to lose.

In all honesty, I just don’t feel qualified to give anything other than my humblest of opinions as to the truth of the matter. So, putting that aside, let’s turn to the issues I do feel I can comment on.

Let me start with some comments as a lawyer to clear up misconceptions I hear frequently in discussions about the hearings and confirmation.

This is not a legal proceeding; it is a political one. Legal standards like “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “a proponderence of evidence” or “burden of proof” are not the proper standards to refer to in the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. No one is considering criminal prosecution here, so let’s stop pretending like criminal standards matter.

The only standard that matters is “do we believe that this candidate will carry out the duties of a Supreme Court justice competently, faithfully, impartially and to the highest degree that the people of the United States deserve?”

In other words, the proceedings are not ultimately about Kavanaugh answering to the Judicial Committee, the Senate, the President or the Congress as a whole. They are about those bodies doing everything that they can to ensure that the candidate confirmed is accountable to the American people. Many of us–especially the politicians–have lost sight of that.

Additionally, let us not treat Kavanaugh as if he’s entitled to be confirmed. This is not a matter of “once the president nominates him, the burden shifts to someone else to affirmatively disqualify him.” The first concern in such a matter must never be the specific candidate, but the good of the citizenry. That should mean a neutral playing field.

So, when other people lament Kavanaugh’s treatment by the press, the Democratic members of the Judicial Committee, or anyone else, I can only partially agree. I can only agree to the extent that everyone deserves to be treated with civility and respect. I cannot agree to the extent that some deservedness of preferential treatement is assumed in such comments.

No one is entitled to be a Supreme Court justice. Personally, I’m a bit suspicious of anyone who makes it their avowed ambition to be one–I think that cuts against the expectations of neutrality in interpretation of the law, humility and selflessness that should be expected of such a person.

I also want to clarify comments about defamation. It is long established law in our country that those who are candidates for public office (or who hold such office) are under most circumstances barred from making claims of defamation. This is a function of the First Amendment right to question or criticize the operations of government and a check on the government itself by ensuring that the nation may freely debate the character and actions of its leaders. Those who run for office (for the most part) give up the right to complain about what people say about them.

On the other hand, I also believe that a respect for the democratic process must be placed above the result of any particular nomination. I do not agree with many (perhaps most) of Kavanaugh’s political ideas or jurisprudential philosophy. I do fear that his presence on the Court could threaten a reversal of long-established rights in this country, such as Roe v. Wade. But that is not a reason in and of itself to take the position any price should be paid to keep him off of the  Court.

Our nation was designed with checks and balances in mind, and there are ways to counter judicial results we don’t like–at both the state and federal levels, statutes are passed with some frequency because the legislature does not want to keep the legal result reached by a court. While the conditions under which such legistlative override are sometimes complex, we should not be mistaken for believing that any one decision within our government is an irreversible loss to anyone who doesn’t like the result.

I am willing to concede that I do not know whether Kavanaugh committed the acts of which he’s been accused, though I did find Dr. Ford’s testimony highly credible. What disqualifies Kavanaugh in my opinion (and I’m far from the first person to say this) was his own testimony on the same day.

Kavanaugh’s vitriolic description of hit-jobs, conspiracies and an intense hatred of Democrats showed a man who lacks judicial temperament. What we need in this country–across the board–are people who are willing to reserve judgment, consider the possibilities, have humility in the limitations of their knowledge and admit that they do the best that they can under the circumstances. Kavanaugh revealed himself to be a man more than willing to be partisan and to politicize judgments that should be made from a more even-keeled position. His extreme distrust of Democrats indicates a prejudice I find he would be unlikely to set aside simply because he puts on his robe and takes a seat in our highest court. For me, that’s the end of the analysis. There are other candidates, plenty whom the conservatives can get behind, who are otherwise qualified to hold the position (whether or not I agree with their views).

Now I’m going to share some thoughts on the matter as a Christian and lay theologian. As a Christian, I believe that people can change–it’s a fundamental part of our faith. Had Kavanaugh said from the get-go that he behaved irresponsibly as a kid, but that he’s grown past that, I would have had profound respect for that. Had he done that, I think I would have to give much more thought to the seriousness of the allegations against him to determine whether I personally thought him fit for the office.

But he didn’t. Instead, he tried to downplay and mischaracterize his youthful indiscretions for his personal gain. Again, the truth of the allegations against him aside, such dishonesty and dodginess is unacceptable from a person who wants to sit in an institution where the pursuit of truth and fairness is paramount. As most of the late-night hosts have remarked, his disingenuous explanations of commonly-known slang terms was deserving of ridicule. In this time of Russian bots, “fake news” and “alternative facts,” I believe that one role a Christian must play in current politics is to stand for truth and against disinformation and purposeful deception or propaganda–even (and especially) when we don’t like what that truth is.

I am disturbed by the sense of personal entitlement that Judge Kavanaugh displayed in the hearing. The general thrust of his argument was, “I’ve played by the rules of the country’s elites, so it would be unfair to deny me this position.” He responded to questions about his drinking by saying that he worked hard as a student, checked off the boxes of privilege for those with the resources and connections to attend Ivy League universities, that his position as a varsity sportsman and talented student somehow entitled him to behave however he wanted outside of those pursuits. His response to Democratic questions were not those of a person humbly submitting to vetting before potentially being given a high honor, but of a defiant man daring to challenge others to explain why he shouldn’t be given that honor.

Privileged entitlement is one of the biggest social issues in modern culture, I think. It is inextricably involved with racism, sexism, anti-immigration discrimination, the wealth divide and most of the other hot-button issues of the day. Kavanaugh’s nomination and the accusations against him, I think, have generated so much traction because these events seem so emblematic of the issues of privilege and entitlement in our country.

I am suspicious that, for some but certainly not all, an unacknowledged sense of entitlement is part of the opposition to full inclusion within the Christian faith.

I am extremely troubled by Trump, Jr.’s comments that he fears for male children more than female children in light of today’s #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh hearings. Frankly, I’m pretty tired of the privileged trying to make themselves out to be victims. It’s not a good look. But take my indignation with a grain of salt–I am after all a white Christian heterosexual male who was born into an upper-middle-class family.

Nevertheless, I do not think that we’ve yet made sufficient progress in the rights of women that it’s time to start having conversations about how we protect men in the relatively few situations where they are falsely accused.

All of this begs the question as to what I think Christians should be doing to help in today’s environment. I have some particular things to say based on my own theological understanding of our faith, but let’s save that for some other post. For now, let’s focus on some things that I think most (hopefully all) Christians can agree upon.

First, let’s stand for truth. Let’s stop absorbing our preferred news source, assuming that everything they’ve said is exactly the way it is, and making assumptions about the facts without doing much to confirm them (as best we can). Let’s hold those who blatantly disregard the truth responsible for such behavior.

Second, let’s practice some humility. It is possible to stand for strong convictions while admitting that one is not so special as to be absolutely, unequivocally sure of the truth. In light of that, let us treat each other with respect. We can disagree without hating those who disagree with us. We can protest without hating the people who stand for what we’re protesting. Sometimes, often perhaps, that’s not easy. But that’s why we must practice.

Third, let’s actually listen to one another. This necessarily flows from the second point. I will admit that one is likely to encounter some people whose beliefs are entirely unfounded and unmoored from reality at some point along the way. I will also admit that it is a waste of time to engage with some people, because they will not be reasonable enough to engage in real conversation. But I don’t think that those people constitute the majority, and you still have to listen to everyone to know who is who.

Fourth, let’s try to walk the line. What line is that, you ask? The line between understanding that the truth and what people believe are both important, though they’re not necessarily the same thing. When I advise clients as an attorney, I often tell them that they need to treat the beliefs of the other side as true. Not because those beliefs are true, but because those beliefs are nevertheless realities that must be negotiated in order to achieve a desired result.

For the Christian in political discourse, this approach is important both pragmatically and morally. First, we cannot love one another well without trying to understand where other people are coming from, whether we agree with their perception or not. Even in our strife, even in politics, we must endeavor to act with love toward one another. Practically, you’re never going to convince anyone of anything by telling them that the way that they feel is flat-out wrong and should never be considered.

In my judgment, much of the current anti-immigration sentiment is based out of fear of loss–loss of culture, loss of status or income, loss of the “way things used to be.” I may not think that the fear of those kinds of loss are based in fact or are proper responses to immigration, but that doesn’t change the fact that many who feel that anti-immigration sentiment are scared, and if you can’t help them manage that fear (or at least acknowledge it), you’re not going to be able to reach a relationship with them where you can honestly talk about why they might (by their faith, for instance) be called to change those views.

In summary, the best way for us to influence how our politicians behave is to model that behavior ourselves so that we are not hypocrites when we demand the same sort of behavior from them. This, I think, is a moral imperative of the Christian. Happily, I think it coincides with our civic duties.

Counting the Cost: (Legal) Consequences of a Split in the United Methodist Church (in Texas)

As both theologian and lawyer, I tend to view the threatened (or impending, depending upon how fatalistic you’d like to be) split in the Methodist Church from a number of angles–but no single thread (to mix my metaphors) can easily be untangled from the others.

The report of the Commission on a Way Forward has beed released–though not officially by the Council of Bishops as translation has not been completed. I’ll discuss that in a separate post.

For now, I want to talk about the legal landscape, particularly in Texas, and what that might mean if the UMC does split after the General Conference in February. I’ll try not to get too much into the details (though feel free to post comments or send me a message and I can point you to some resources) and to keep things on a relatively-plain-English tone.

Preface and Disclaimer

This post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. I make no claim to be familiar with the current state of law regarding church property disputes in its entirety–with ongoing litigation across the nation, such a comprehensive approach would be extremely time-consuming at best.

This post is instead meant to provide some background information to support the exhortation and conclusion that follows.

Lessons from the Past

In a recent opinion from the Fort Worth Court of Appeals (Episcopal Church v. Salazar, to which I’ll return shortly), the Court noted that “church property disputes [and schisms] are as old as any church.”

Recent memory has given us the split in the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church (over similar issues to those currently facing the UMC). As the styling of the case betrays, Salazar involves the dispute between The Episcopal Church and local parish churches arising out of the split within that denomination.

Salazar is emblematic of the cost of church disputes over property that spill into the courts for resolution. The initial litigation in the Salazar appeal began in 2009! The most recent opinion in the case (given in April of this year) is on the second appeal from the trial court–the case was heard by Supreme Court of Texas in 2014, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear appeal from that court, and the case returned for new procedings in the trial court before being appealed again (resulting in the opinion to which I’ll refer in this post).

That alone is indicative of the cost–in money, time, effort, heartache and reputation–that has accompanied the Episcopal Church’s litigation in the aftermath of its split. Nine years without a decisive resolution, the attorney’s fees quickly stacking up against the value of the properties in dispute (though, given the number of properties involved in this case and a lack of access to attorney billing records, it’s impossible to know exactly how much has been spent and how that compares to the value of the things in dispute). And Salazar is hardly alone; it is but one of similar cases tracking through the legal system across the country.

Why Does the Episcopal Church Example Matter to Methodists?

The answer here is relatively simple: both the Episcopal Church and the Methodist Church have, within the documents that constitute the church law of each, a “trust clause” that essentially indicates that the local churches hold their property in trust for the greater denomination. In the Episcopal Church’s case, the diocese in which the church sits; for the Methodists, the conference of which the church is a member.

For reasons I’ll describe below, the Episcopal Church’s trust clause makes for a simpler legal case than the Methodist clause–though I do not dare say that it is a simple case for the Episcopal Church, as the breadth of litigation clearly demonstrates.

The Law of Decision – Up for Grabs

The nation’s courts tend to be split between two approaches to handling church property disputes. The first is called the neutral principles of law doctrine. Under this approach, the court looks solely to state property (and business/trust) law and secular records of ownership to determine the “rightful” owner of any particular property. Currently, this is what the Texas Supreme Court has determined is the proper approach.

The alternative approach, given various names but which we’ll call the deferential approach, is a result of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Under long-established First Amendment principles, the Courts must refrain from interfering in or determining the internal affairs of a religious institution (this itself called the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine).

Under ecclesiastical abstention, a Court must not take any part in a dispute that arises out of doctrine, theology, internal matters of faith or leadership and governance issues within the religious organization, because doing so could be the state “establishing” a government-sponsored religion by approving one side over the other. This is, rightly, I believe, a core component of freedom of religion in this nation.

The important thing to understand about the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and thus the deferential approach, is that it means that the court must defer to the determination of the higher denominational authority as the deciding factor in disputes where the court’s involvement would infringe upon First Amendment rights. Essentially, this means that the denomination gets what it wants when there is a dispute with a local church. In the case of trust clause litigation, it means that the denomination wins issues of property ownership against local churches nearly every time.

As an aside, I should note that we’re only discussing matters of civil (as opposed to criminal) law here–the legal history of criminalization (or not) of religious behavior is another long story best kept discrete from this issue.

For the neutral principles of law approach to be applicable, a Court must determine that the dispute does not involve the sorts of internal religious matters that require obeisance to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

Other cases resulting from the dissolution of the Episcopal Church will be heard by the Supreme Court in the near future (though probably not before the UMC’s called General Conference). While this should provide some guidance for the resolution of future church property disputes, that also means that the ultimate decision will be determined in part by the current politics affecting SCOTUS. With the loss of Justice Kennedy and his likely replacement by a staunchly conservative judge, I think it’s likely that the United States Supreme Court will favor the deferential approach, though the opinion that comes down will ideally also include guidance as to when the netural principles approach may be safely employed. Of course, I have no crystal ball, and my own legal practice does not involve the close tracking of Supreme Court politics, so this is merely speculation.

The bigger issue (for local churches, at least) in the case of the Methodist Church is just how much our trust clause seems to mandate the deferential approach.

Comparing Clauses

The Episcopal Church’s trust clause (known popularly as the Dennis Canon) is a mere two sentences that simply states that local churches hold their property in trust for the greater Episcopal Church. This plain language allowed Texas courts to apply the neutral principles of law approach to disputes over property ownership without fear of First Amendment infringements (though it should be noted that the courts have abstained from addressing certain subissues briefed by the parties because they do involve internal church affairs).

The United Methodist Book of Discipline’s trust clause (Paragraph 2501) describes our trust clause as “an essential element of the historic polity” of the UMC and a “fundamental expression of United Methodism.” These phrases, along with the rest of the language of the UMC trust clause, quite firmly push our property ownership issues into grounds of doctrine and polity that may not be interfered with by the courts.

It is one thing to say that this simply means that the greater UMC will win against local churches in property disputes, but it also means that the courts will only reluctantly interject themselves in the dispute at all (though when they do, if my assessment is correct, they will ultimately side with the enforcement of the trust clause).

Thinking About Salazar

When I was first made aware of the Salazar case, it was described to me as indicating that “Texas had found the Episcopal Church’s trust clause to be unenforceable.”

That is partially correct, but only partially. The steps go like this: (1) The Court determined that the neutral principles of law approach applied. (2) Turning to Texas trust law, the Court determined that only the settlor (the grantor of property to a trust) may establish a trust relationship–a declaration by a putative beneficiary of the trust (as in the Dennis Canon) is not alone sufficient to create a trust relationship. (3) Thus, the Court stated that it must look to the language of the deeds conveying the property and to the governing documents of an intermediary non-profit organization that held some of the property to determine if a trust relationship had been properly created under Texas law. (4) In some cases, the Court determined that it had and property was awarded to the Episcopal Church; in others, the Court found no such trust relationship and awarded property to the local church(es). (5) In giving the Salazar opinion, the appellate Court did not reach certain additional issues that might change the distribution of property after the initial legal determinations described in (4). In particular, the Court did not reach teh Episcopal Church’s argument for constructive trust, a remedy that a court may apply under the right circumstances to deem that a bad actor, though having legal title to property, is really holding that property in trust for the plaintiff as matter of equity, thus transferring ownership to the plaintiff.

So, the following points are important to consider when we Methodists look to Salazar and other Episcopal Church litigation in trying to determine the future in the tragic event that our own church splits: (1) The issues in the Salazar case have not been fully litigated. (2) The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet weighed in. (3) The UMC’s trust clause is likely different enough than the Episcopal Church’s trust clause to lead to a different result. (4) In the event that the neutral principles approach is applied to the UMC, then additional factual determinations must be made to reach a conclusion (i.e. what is the language in the deeds to church properties?).

Conclusion

There is one thing that is certain from all of this. If the UMC splits–and I would urge that our current focus should be on finding a just and theologically-sound way to prevent a split rather than on any of the above–any legal conflict over successorship, use of names, and property ownership will be prolonged, expensive, and–most important–an extremely poor witness for Christ. Thus, should that situation present itself, laity and clergy alike at all levels of authority in the UMC must be willing to make sacrifices for and compromises with one another to quickly resolve such disputes without a need for litigation so that we can all keep our focus on making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

 

Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

(Note: I started writing this post this morning and then had to prioritize work. Now that I’m returning to finish, I’m given to understand that the President is signing an executive order ending family separation. I thought about not finishing the post, but I figured I might as well given that the points I’m arguing below have more applicability than just this situation).

Given how much coverage, discussion and debate the crisis at our border has already had, I’ve been reluctant to write about it myself–what is there that hasn’t been said? I have realized, though, that, even if I’m rehashing the same ideas, it means something to publicly stand with my righteous brothers and sisters calling for an end to this abominable practice. So that’s what I’m doing.

Since theology is a large part of what I write about, let’s start with the theological arguments that have been made in favor of the issue. First, let me point out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a member of the United Methodist Church. I must admit embarrassment by that, but also some satisfaction with the response from at least some members of the UMC–over 600 members of the UMC, both clergy and laity, have filed a complaint against Sessions under the UMC Book of Discipline–our version of canon law. The complaint alleges that Sessions’ actions–and his use of scripture to justify them–constitutes potential child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and the teaching of doctrines contrary to those held by the church. Details can be found here.

As both a Methodist and an attorney, I am quite interested in how this plays out. I find the latter three claims to be quite straightforward under the circumstances, but the child abuse claim is an interesting one to me because it will be difficult to resolve. The major issue here is one of causation–are the AG’s actions a direct-enough cause to hold him to culpability? I see arguments on both sides, though I lean toward affirming–in part because we’re not talking about criminal culpability, but a desire to reconcile Mr. Sessions to the teachings of the UMC. The tougher question is what we mean by the term “child abuse?” Herein lies my biggest reservation with this portion of the complaint.

Is the government’s policy wrongly causing children (and parents) to suffer? Undoubtedly. Is this a violation of human rights and general decency? I believe so. Is this practice causing deep trauma, some of which will never heal? Unreservedly, yes. Should we call it child abuse? I’m not so sure.

Yes; it matters. If we expand the societal definition of child abuse, more parents will be subject to claims of abusing their children–not criminally, but giving the poisonous and often hateful nature of online forums and public denunciation in our society, great potential to harm remains. This issue concerns me not directly because of Jeff Sessions, but because of how the construct of “child abuse” might be unreasonably expanded in the future if we are quick to call Jeff Sessions a child abuser.

When we talk about child abuse, I don’t think that there is any question that physical injury, endangerment, or sexual exploitation constitutes child abuse. I think we’d all further agree that emotional abuse is real and can have lasting effects on persons of any age, but especially children. Here, though, is where we run into problems. First, where do we draw the line between negative emotional treatment that is not abusive and treatment that is? Second, how do we separate emotional trauma that results as a byproduct of particular actions from emotional trauma directly inflicted? Are they both “abuse.” I do not have answers to these questions–they require much deeper moral, spiritual and logical analysis than there is space for here. So, I leave this topic with a caution: If you believe that Jeff Sessions is complicit in the violation of human rights by needlessly separating families, fine; I can understand that. If you want to call him a child abuser, I am very hesitant to agree. Is he wrong, morally, in the general sense? Absolutely.

Is he wrong theologically? Also absolutely. Let’s spend some time on that. Sessions stated that there is Biblical support for the governments separation policy by citing Romans 13:1, which reads: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Okay, that is something that “the Bible” says. But coming to the conclusion Mr. Sessions would have us reach requires a very particular–and not very logical–approach to interpretation of scripture, one that ignores (and must ignore) much for the argument to not fall apart under its own weight. Benjamin Corey would call this the “Swiss Army Knife” approach to Biblical interpretation, where we see the Bible as intended to apply usefully and directly to any human situation whatsoever and then to pick and choose verses from the Bible, while ignoring others, to accomplish that. For Corey, and I agree, the fundamental problem of this (see what I did there?) is that it views all parts of scripture as equal in authority and status.

Let’s start local, shall we? Let’s be legalistic for a moment and invoke Rule 107 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the “Rule of Optional Completeness.” This rule allows an adverse party to inquire into any part of a writing when the other party has introduced a portion of that writing into evidence.

If we read all of Romans 13:1-5, we get the following: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who dos o will bring judgment upon themselves. For rules hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The presumption of these verses is righteous rulership by a just ruler who sees himself as a servant of God (and presumably also the people). It does not address behavior when the authorities are acting unjustly and immorally. If we are to act as “a matter of conscience,” it is conceivable that there are situations in which resisting authority is the righteous action.

Both in Biblical history and the ancient world in which Paul lived, we have a multitude of examples of unrighteous rulers. Chronicles and Kings give us plenty of rulers of Israel who “commit the sins” of their fathers before them or who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The dominance of Rome and its rulers in Judea certainly demonstrated exploitative and unjust rulership. It is important, and perhaps ironic, that Paul writes this letter to the Romans and includes the words of 13:1-5. At the time Paul is probably writing, the Roman authorities had little interest in the nascent Christian movement, mostly because they weren’t really sure how to differentiate them from Jews. Persecution would soon ramp up, but at this point things were still relatively calm. Even so, Paul’s argument about the divine right of kings, though supported by the Old Testament stories of the early kings, was not entirely borne out by the long history of kings of Israel and Judah. That oughtn’t be ignored in evaluating Paul’s words.

Still in Romans 13 (verses 8 and 10), Paul writes: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law….Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is fulfillment of the law.”

So, even within the same chapter (remember that chapters are an artificial interpolation, so I use this term to mean “very nearby in the text”), Paul provides us with scripture stating that the government’s position is violation God’s law because it is causing harm.

As a side note, my instinctual response to a leader that cites Romans 13 in, however understated, a claim to divine right and authority is that that person doesn’t understand servant leadership and therefore cannot be the type of ruler described in this passage.

As important as the local landscape of Romans 13:1 is, we must interpret Paul’s words here by reference to the Bible as a whole–with particular attention paid to Jesus’ words and actions.

Here, let us start with other things that the Pauline epistles say of similar tone. I should preface this by saying that, although Romans is one of the epistles about which there is little doubt that Paul is indeed the author, both Ephesians and Colossians are of more disputed authorship, with many arguing that they are Deutero-Pauline, that is, in line with Pauline thought but not written by Paul himself.

Ephesians 6:5-6 reads: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Colossians 3:22 says almost exactly the same thing. This repetition leads to three primary interpretations, I think: (1) the author of Ephesians and Colossians is the same person; (2) the writer of Ephesians had access to Colossians, or vice versa; or (3) this statement is based on something Paul said or wrote that is not directly attested.

If we are comfortable that these epistles conform with Pauline thought, regardless of authorship, we need not resolve the authorship issue (which is good, because we can’t).

Modern Christianity has rejected slavery in all of its forms–we have reject Pauline thought here in favor of “doing no harm” as a truer practice of Christian love. If we have rejected this logic as flawed, we have decided that, inspired as the author(s) of the epistles might have been, they are prone to error in judgment at times. So why not conduct the same analysis of the statement in Romans 13?

For the best resolution of any ambiguity here (which I’ll admit remains somewhat speculative and incomplete), we have to look to the words and actions of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 22:15-22, when confronted by the Pharisees about whether Caesar’s tax should be paid, Jesus tells them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Here, Jesus clearly separates temporal rulership from divine rulership. What’s more, if the interpolated punctuation accurately reflects the rhetoric employed, Jesus has set temporal rule and divine rule in contrast or opposition to one another.

If we want to put a fine point on it, we might refer to Mark 9:37, where Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Or Mark 10:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Here we might also comment that Jesus Christ, as Messiah, defied messianic expectations by refusing to foment military overthrow of Roman (and generally foreign) dominance. There are several viable interpretations for this–nonviolence, a lack of interest in immediate temporal affairs over divine and eternal ones, a theological statement through choice of action that comments on how the Jews might have misunderstood God (especially those in the apocalyptic schools of thought of the time). I tend to believe that Jesus’s focus on love and mercy says everything it needs to about the evaluation of temporal power. Combined with Paul’s words on Romans 13 on love that follow the argument for obeying authority, I think there’s plenty here to support the stance that Jesus’s words (and actions) tell us not just that we ought to oppose unjust authorities of the world, but that we ought to do so peacefully whenever that is possible.

If we look to Jesus’ actions in driving out the money changers at the Temple, we see that (related in Matthew 22:12-13, but also in Mark 11:15-18 and Luke 19:45-47) Jesus does not shy away from taking action against those who abuse their position–though the extent to which there is any real “violence” in this act is highly debatable, as I’ve explored somewhat in my series, “The End of Violence.”

When we look more completely at the statements of Romans 13, comparing it to other parts of the scriptures, looking to our own traditions and to our experiences of rulership in history and even in the modern world we know, and when we apply logic to prioritize ideas that are contradictory (or at least not readily in line with one another), we see that we must take the position that Paul’s statement in Romans 13:1 needs to be read as speaking to a specific situation and time, needs to be nuanced, or needs to be rejected altogether in light of the example of Christ and our call to love our neighbors–especially when loving our neighbors requires standing against injustice.

Would that anyone who wants to support an argument using scripture would take such a broad and careful approach before relying on a single verse at face value!

Interim Report From Texas Annual Conference 2018

It’s 7:40 a.m. before the start of the 8:30 a.m. business session of the TAC on the second full day of the 2018 conference. I’ll be speaking in favor of one of the petitions before the conference. I figure, what better way to prepare myself than to write?

As it often is for me, the conference is a whirlwind of emotions and activities. I’ve gotten to reconnect with friends I do not see nearly often enough–including fellow travelers in Israel earlier this year. I’ve been inspired by sermons, reports and updates from the conference as well as the words of those friends. But it’s also a time of frustration and palpable tension.

I’ve described the Commission on the Way Forward and Council of Bishop’s recommended plan for the UMC–the One Church Plan–here. Yesterday morning, I attended a breakfast (attended by nearly 500 people) to respectfully discuss the plans with the Texas delegates to the General Conference in small groups. I understand that–especially as a lay person–I’m something of a nerd when it comes to the workings and polity of the UMC, but I was surprised about how little some of my fellow attendees knew about what was going on. This is especially unfortunate as certain interest groups and factions within the UMC attempt to manipulate outcomes and go largely unnoticed in such efforts. Some of the members of our conference are extremely gifted in the fields of rhetoric and diplomacy. Unfortunately, those gifts are not always employed in a way that is direct about the desired outcome. I’m used to political machinations being something I read about in fiction, set up as the backdrop for my own writing or roleplaying games, or that I am otherwise somewhat insulated from. TAC is the exception to that rule, and my involvement this year has given me access to more information about–and even participation in–those political gambits and struggles. But, the heart of our denomination is at stake here, so I feel obligated.

The highlight so far has been hearing Rev. Vicki Flippin, the Pastor of Social Justice, Exploring Faith, and Intergenerational Ministries at the United Methodist Church of the Village (in New York City) speak at the Reconciling United Methodists, Texas Conference dinner last night. If you are not familiar with her, look her up. Listen to some of her sermons. I certainly will be.

She started her inspirational exhortation by drawing upon science fiction–so of course I was sold (and K might have been sizing her up) from the get-go. She spoke about hope (finding and maintaining), conscientious resistance when our Book of Discipline doesn’t match the Gospel, and how narrative carries the power of change. Given my feelings about Paul Tillich’s theology and my own aspirations of professional authorship, these topics carried great weight with me.

This is tempered somewhat by what I hear about the conservative activity at this conference. For those of us who are progressive Christians, much of our goal this year is simply to let our brethren and sistren in the UMC know that Texas is not a monolithic bastion of religious conservativism. From what I hear from reliable sources, some (though I would caution about overgeneralization of this statement) within the conservative groups have labeled we, the progressives, as the Enemy. To my mind, that alone speaks volumes about the mindsets of the two sides (again unfairly generalized) and which interpretation is the closer walk with Jesus (when considered in toto).

Last weekend, after K’s graduation from seminary (I’m so proud of her!), I had a very good, honest conversation with my brother-in-law on my position regarding human sexuality within the Methodist Church. That discussion drew me to make a difficult confession, one that it is only right that I share with you, my readers.

I have chosen to prioritize the unity of the church over the immediate achievement of victory in regards to the justice issue that confronts the UMC. I am willing to compromise with conservatives to accept the One Church Plan because, despite how thoroughly I may oppose their theology, I wish to remain in fellowship with my conservative counterparts in our denomination. I believe that our ability to disagree and yet love and respect one another is a fundamental aspect of the witness we are called to in Jesus Christ.

But this compromise does a disservice to the LGBTQ community. The truest justice for those whose gender identities or sexual orientations do not match with mainstream social expectations is full inclusion and acknowledgment that they are children of God in the fullest sense of the phrase, without caveat or reservation, and that who they are and who they love is not a matter of sin, but a part of the uniqueness in which they were created; something that should be celebrated.

My stance asks the LGBTQ community to wait a bit longer for that true justice and acceptance–something they’ve been waiting for for far too long already. As the Supreme Court says, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Of that, I must confess guilt.

Yes, the One Church Plan will give us permission to do what is already right–to bless marriages born out of Christian love regardless of the sex or gender identities of the participants and to ordain those called to serve God in this Church without reference to their sexuality. But it does not give believers in those positions the full respect and acceptance they deserve, and it will explicitly allow the continuance of discriminatory and un-Christian practices by those who claim that “conscience” prevents them from treating the LGBTQ community as anything other than “less than.”

It is a hard path to walk; my heart aches every time think about how I’ve been forced to prioritize these conflicting convictions. For that, I ask for your prayers and your forgiveness.

The UMC’s One Church Plan: Pragmatic Grace

The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops recently released a report after the progress of the Commission on a Way Forward, detailing three potential plans for the United Methodist Church regarding sexuality issues and recommending that one of those plans be adopted.

If you’re not part of the UMC, you may not be aware of what all this means; I’ll summarize briefly, and you should feel free to skip down some if this is all old hat. The United Methodist Church polity is governed by the Book of Discipline–essentially our canon law. The BoD describes our core theological beliefs, our social principles and devotes a great amount of time and space to the labyrinthine workings of the Church as a whole, from the governance of churches at the local level to the election of bishops to the various conferences and the operation of the Judicial Council for handling complaints agaisnt clergy for violations of the Discipline.

Prior to 1972, the UMC Book of Discipline contained the phrase, “persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth.” The UMC General Conference of 1972 initiated an unfortunate period of oppression of and prejudice toward the LGBTQ community. (As an aside: I understand that the language about homosexuality in Book of Discipline does not truly address the full spectrum of persons, identities and orientations that are included within the LGBTQ moniker, but for practical purposes, I think that we can treat it as intending to do so). That conference saw the addition of the language, “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching…”

If that condemnation were not bad enough, in the 1976 General Conference, despite an attempt by some delegates to remove the 1972 language, the conference passed three measures to ban the use of church funds to “promote homosexuality,” whatever that means, and added to the Social Principles the statement, “We do not recognize a relationship between two persons of the same sex as constituting marriage.”

In 1980, conservative delegates attempted to add the language “no self-avowed practicing homosexual therefore shall be ordained or appointed in The United Methodist Church.” On a positive note, the language in the Social Principles regarding same-sex marriage was removed, but replaced by a statement that, “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant…between a man and a woman.”

Further insult and injury occurred at the 1984 General Conference, where the delegation passed a change adding language to the BoD that, “Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.” Coincidentally, the 1984 General Conference also added language to show grace to divorced heterosexual persons, recognizing “divorce as regrettable” but also recognizing “the right of divorced persons to remarry.” Strange that there was a movement toward grace on one issue but not the other.

I think that it is more hurtful than helpful that th 1984 language allowed LGBTQ persons called to ministry in the Church to serve, but only if they renounced any chance for meaningful romantic relationship–a sacred gift from God to which all God’s children are entitled.

Since 1984, attempts have been made to remove, soften, or change the Book of Discipline’s statements about homosexuality. The history of the polity shows that, since 1972, there have been advocates for equal standing and treatment for homosexual persons (and the greater LGBTQ community) within the church–but they have remained a significant minority compared to conservatives.

As the Church remained mired in injust and ultimately unjustified traditions of the past, the world changed around us. As a matter of conscience, LGBTQ rights have become increasingly accepted in the world at large. C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” comes to mind here–when our conscience tells us that something is an injustice on a visceral level without the need for an application of logic, we might do well to consider that the movement of the Spirit within us (and for Lewis, this is evidence of God’s existence and active role in Creation).

Other churches (the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church) have already addressed the issue–though it has lead to much difficulty and even a congregational split in the Presbyterian polity.

The Northwest Conference of the (U.S. Jurisdiction of) the United Methodist Church elected an openly-gay Bishop in 2016, Karen Oliveto. Although the UMC Judicial Council ruled that her election was a violation of the Book of Disicpline, it wisely chose to allow her to remain in her episcopal seat.

Young Methodists who are informed of the Church’s official stance see it as backward and wrong, going so far as to wonder why it’s such a big deal in the first place. Many young pastors I know in the UMC are in favor of full inclusion within the Church, but many keep their feelings private either because they are commissioned but not yet fully-ordained or because they fear (perhaps rightly so) that being outspoken on this issue will hurt their future appointments or take away from their ability to minister to all of their congregants.

I also find that many of the conservative laypersons on this issue are generally conservative in their political and theological positions, often such that they would be extremely surprised and frustrated if they took the time to find out what the UMC’s official Social Principles say about things like immigration, the environment, and abortion.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this issue has become (at least since I have been active as a delegate to the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC, but most probably well before that) a proxy war for the larger theological issue of Biblical interpretation, with conservatives on the homosexuality issue generally having conservative theological positions that tout the phrase “authority of Scripture” as a buzzphrase for their more literal interpretation of the Bible while those who are more liberal on the homosexuality issue (myself included) tend to put forward arguments about the primacy of love in counterpoint to the conservative position.

Of course, nothing is so simple. The phrase “authority of Scripture” does not really mean anything without a lot of unpacking, and it’s grossly unfair to say that theological progressives have rejected the authority of Scripture, though their approach to its authority certainly differs from conservatives. Likewise, the question of what it means to “love your neighbor” as Christ commands is also so complex that it’s unfair to claim of conservatives that they do not have loving intentions in their position on homosexuality either (however misguided, ultimately wrong, and actually based in fear I may argue those intentions to be).

With respect to the issue of full inclusion (including the performance of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons), the conflation of that argument with broader issues of theological hermeneutics is not helpful, but only further divides us.

We should certainly, I think, see the divisions on this issue as heavily influenced by the at-large divisiveness and demonization of those who disagree that currently grips this nation. As Christians, that’s exactly the sort of thing we should be rising above, but neither side of the debate has accomplished this.

This is the context into which the United Methodist Council of Bishops announced at the General Conference in 2016 that a Commission on a Way Forward would be formed to offer potential solutions to the divide in the UMC.

The amount of time that the Commission and the Council of Bishops have taken in preparing their recommendations, though absolutely justified given the gravity of the situation and the far-reaching consequences of any recommendation to the Church at large, has given the various interest groups time to maneuver without them. The Weslayan Covenant Association and its affiliates have prepared for an exodus from the Church if there is any change to the Book of Discipline except for stronger enforcement against LGBTQ persons and those ordained persons who do not fall into that category but who perform a same-sex marriage. Even since the Council of Bishops has released its summary of the three plans being sent to the special called General Conference in 2019, the WCA has threatened to “pick up its ball and go home” if it does not get its way (the “Traditional Model” included in the three plans).

While pushing all three plans to the delegates of the General Conference, the Council of Bishops has made clear that a majority of them support the One Church Model, even if they really would prefer a more conservative or progressive plan to be put in place.

Under the One Church Model, the “incompatibility” language of the Book of Discipline–including the prohibitions on the performance of marriage for same-sex persons and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” would be removed. In its place, however, would be placed protections on those persons who, “as a matter of conscience” refuse to perform same-sex marriages or to ordain LGBTQ persons.

The idea of this model is to preserve unity wihin the UMC (to the extent possible) by allowing ministry to be conducted “contextually.” More simply put, it allows local congregations and pastors to decide their theological approach to issues of human sexuality and gender identity.

I am disappointed that this approach will–as I see it–allow discrimination to continue in the guise of “conscience.” When the Methodist Church changed the Book of Discipline to integrate people of color into the Church, or to allow for the ordination of women, this was done in the name of social justice and did not give room for certain parties to claim “conscience” and continue to discriminate. I believe that the current issue is more analagous to those than different.

However, I recognize that, at least in a limited sense (without making this a broader issue of proper Biblical interpretation or the practice of love), issues of human sexuality and gender identity are not core aspects of our faith–no particular position on the issue is required to be “a Christian.” That being the case, I would rather remain in communion with those with whom I disagree (where we can continue to share ideas in hopes of better aligining our doctrines and dogmas with God’s desires) than to divide from them. If this compromise is necessary to do that, I’m happy to make that compromise.

I do believe that the progressive side of this issue will win out and that, eventually, there will need be no more arguments about whether Christianity is “compatible” with homosexuality. I also think that this proposal, while not the giant leap I’d really prefer to see, helps to move us in that direction. Most of all, I think that the One Church Model demonstrates the kind of “pragmatic grace” that puts people ahead of ideologies, an approach Jesus Himself employed: we can tell one another to “go and sin no more,” but we’ll love one another regardless.

The other two plans (the Traditional Model and the Connectional-Conference Plan) will lead to a schism in the Church. I don’t believe that that is good for our witness or for our congregations. Only the One Church Plan allows for grace to be shown one side for the other in a way that actually does move us forward. And the world definitely needs more grace right now.

 

 

Review: Far Cry 5: No There There

As a writer of both fiction and theology, the premise of the latest Far Cry game (creatively entitled “Far Cry 5”) quickly piqued my interest. Where the previous games in the series played upon the otherness of exotic locales, the latest installment brings the action close to home, setting us in (fictitious, though the geography is based on real geography in the southwest corner of the state) Hope County, Montana, a strange community of traditional heartland folks, stereotypical “preppers”–and a mysterious and dangerous cult calling itself the “Project at Eden’s Gate.”

The premise of such a location is full of narrative possibility, particularly in the current political and religious background of America. Here are some of the things I hoped to find within the game:

  1. Some investigation of the interplay between certain types of Christian fundamentalism and the Prepper mentality. Though entirely unscientific, my own experience with Prepper culture (some of which is through personal encounters, but most of which is through the admittedly not-entirely-trustworthy media of the internet and reality TV) seems to indicate a strong correlation between pre-millennial dispensational theology and Prepper culture. On the more disturbing end are those with even more extreme spiritually-based conspiracy theories that create within them the fears that lead to prepping for the end-times. Here, I should mention an unsettlingly-common belief that demons or fallen angels have infiltrated American government (and/or foreign governments) and are purposefully driving us to apocalypse. Yikes! This whole subject merits a post of its own, I think, but that’s for another time.
  2. Narrative that deals with the interplay between Trumpism and Christianity–the ways in which Trumpism distorts Christianity into a self-justifying parody of itself and the ways in which more honest Christianity defies the values of Trump and his compatriots.
  3. Tension between cult beliefs and traditional Christian beliefs.

Was I naive to expect any of these things? Of course I was. On the other hand, as video games are pushing into a more maintsream and respectable narrative medium, we should be expecting our games to push the envelope, to make philosophical arguments and investigate both theological ideas and political ones. Spec Ops: The Line is an excellent example of a game that’s already done this, as are the Bioshock series (is there much that’s more interesting than a well-crafted video game that investigates a philosophical system like Rand’s Objectivism?) and games like Heavy Rain.

And to be fair, the game starts off in a misleadingly promissing way for my hopes. You play as a rookie deputy sheriff in Hope County, Montana; the game starts with you in a helicopter as part of a joint sheriff’s office and federal agent task force to arrest Joseph Seed, the “father” and prophet of the Project at Eden’s Gate. Walking through the Eden’s Gate compound, surrounded by tense believers with automatic rifles, knowing what you’re there to do creates a great dramatic moment with which to launch a story.

It gets better. You approach Joseph Seed to arrest him, and he does not resist. He does tell you that God will not let you take him. Exactly what you’d expect a cult leader to say. But his prophecy becomes reality. As you return to the helicopter and it attempts to take off, fanatical cultists swarm the vehicle, with some even throwing themselves into the rotor to cause the chopper to crash. Joseph leaves the wreck remarkably unscathed and with the obligatory, “I told you so.”

That’s where the narrative peaks, unfortunately–right when it poses the following fascinating questions:

  1. Was it divine intervention that Joseph Seed walked away from the crash, or was it simply fanatical human action combined with coincidence and luck? This search for an understanding of whether some felt but unprovable synchronicity lurking behind human events is real or merely imagined is a fundamental existentional question.
  2. As a corrollary to the first, is Joseph Seed right? Is he a prophet? Of course, we never really get a clear view of the theology of Eden’s Gate, so this question falls quickly by the wayside.
  3. Has America, through its recent history, culture and politics created a landscape ripe for the likes of extremist cults?
  4. What do you do when faced with a violent cult using the trappings of Christianity but promoting patently non-Christian courses of action (Eden’s Gate are murderers, thieves, abusers, drug pushers, kidnappers and a whole slew of things that you’d think would give some of its members pause, but this is never really addressed). Is violence a legitimate means for the Christian to resist evil being done in the name of Christ (though I don’t think that Joseph actually ever mentions or alludes to Jesus in the game if I remember correctly). Under what circumstances? Can a cult like this really be taken down by violence, when the expectation of violence and aggression from external sources feeds directly into their eschatological expectations?

Instead, we are treated with a two-dimensional bad guy, a stereotype onto which the elements of religiosity have been crudely grafted. Joseph Seed is made to look distinctly like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, complete with 90’s-style yellow-tinted aviator glasses. He quotes (paraphrases, really) the Book of Revelations, but never mentions any other part of the Bible and never makes any concrete theological assertion–only claiming that the end is coming and people must repent and be cleansed of their sin. By sin, he apparently means the extra-biblical “seven deadlies.” One minor caveat to this–the signboard of the church in Fall’s End (the one non-Eden’s Gate church in the game) does have a reference to a verse (but not the text of the verse) in Jeremiah that warns to beware of false prophets.

The game sends you on a blood-soaked path of murderous resistance to Eden’s Gate without sufficient self-awarness to question what that really means, underlining it only with a repeated chorus of “America, Fuck Yeah!” The other characters in the story are likewise various survivalist and prepper stereotypes that bleed into a muddy morass that deprives the game of any real humanity.

And the cultists aren’t really even that convincing. Turns out, it’s drugs, not beliefs, that create the fanaticism of the “PEGgies,” as the game calls them. The enemies are dehumanized and the bodies in your wake only a tally of progress. This may be lamentably American, and perhaps that disturbed me most about the game (kudos to the writers and designers for that if it was intentional and not a sad symptom of our culture).

If you came to this post looking for a review of what gameplay is like, I’ll have to direct you elsewhere, as there are already a plethora of reviews to handle that. But I will admit that, if you like the previous Far Cry games, you will enjoy playing Far Cry 5. It’s the “theme-park” experience to be expected in this line of games and it does have a humor and gameplay style deep enough to entertain. I played through the entire campaign and–so long as I didn’t think about it too much–enjoyed it.

But I finished the game disappointed, as is common when some narrative promises us great ideas and interesting story in the previews but fails to adequately exploit and explore those ideas in the actual doing of the thing. In my struggle to ideologically bolster the lackluster storytelling, I even watched (yesterday) the half-hour movie teaser that Ubisoft made for the game (it’s on Amazon Video). This did nothing for me (though I did like the one they put out for The Division some time back).

And maybe that’s the greatest commentary about current culture to get from this game, whether the creators made the commentary intentionally or just happen to magnify this running theme. And that’s the idea that much of American Christianity is really only the cultural stylings of the faith appended to ideas that may be “American” but almost certainly aren’t Christian–the idea that Christianity is a style of doing things rather than a substantive approach to existence. Then again, that could be a concern of mine fully projected onto the game in a desperate attempt to create some meaning where I could find none.

That ultimate emptiness and sense of unfulfilment was all that remained after I finished the game and when I think back on the hours I spent playing it–a great opportunity lost by the writers, either because they did not understand the subject matter well enough to intelligently comment on it while coopting the trappings for the style of their game or because they opted not to make any particular commentary for fear of hurting sales. That’s understandable in a commercial sense, and money often influences all forms of art. But I can’t help but feel that it’s a cop-out anyway.

So, for the TL;DR (I know, it should be at the beginning, not the end): Far Cry 5, a game to play for mindless fun and a few cheap laughs, but don’t expect any depth. There is no there there.

Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

For the previous entry, click here.

In contrast to our evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday evening, we started our morning at Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site we visited in particular is a Franciscan chapel (the Franciscans are the custodians of most of the Christian holy sites that are not co-governed by multiple Christian denominations) built near the ruins of a Byzantine church.

It’s impossible to locate the site of the angels’ appearance with any certainty, of course, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is rapidly expanding into the few actual fields remaining in the area.

Dr. Beck took this time to speak to us about the popular misunderstanding of the location of Jesus’s birth. I had known that Jesus was more likely born in a cave than the barn-like structure often depicted, but this talk filled in many details. First of all, a manger is not a building, but a device for storing food or water for animals. This made perfect sense to me; “manger” is French for “to eat.”

I hear it often mentioned (and have said myself) that there’s a translation error naming Jesus and Joseph as carpenters, because there are few trees in Israel. That’s true in its point: there are very many trees in Israel, but few of a type and size that would yield construction-grade wood for structures. This is one reason the remains of so many Biblical sites can be seen today–they were built in stone. Wooden barns like we tend to think of in the U.S. (or parts of Europe) simply were not a thing for the Israelites. You may recall that David formed an alliance with the king of Tyre that involved the delivery of the “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of his palace (and later the Temple). But I digress.

There were two types of mangers commonly used in 1st Century Israel. The first, made of stone, was for holding water. The second, made of wood, was for holding barley and other grains used to feed the sheep raised by the families in the vicinity of Bethlehem (and elsewhere across Judea). Some mangers were “hybrids”, a stone base with a wooden fixture that could be added to the top to convert from water storage to food storage and back again. It’s likely that Jesus was placed in something like this after his birth. But let’s go back to that cave thing:

As it turns out, many homes built in the south of Israel (Judea proper, we might say), were constructed over a cave–the cave was used for storage or, more often, for the stabling of the animals husbanded by the family. This protected the sheep or cows from heat and cold as well as predators when they were not out grazing. It provided the added benefit of giving some heat to the home above, as living creatures huddled in a small area tend to generate lots of heat.

So, Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in a cave under the home of a relative–that’s where the animals would be and that’s where a manger would be in which a baby could be lain. But what about that inn?

As it turns out, this is really a mistranslation. Judean homes of common people in the 1st Century were usually constructed with one central room and a narrow hallway-like second chamber that was mostly partitioned off from the main room and which was used for guests to sleep in. The (Greek) word used in Luke can sometimes mean inn, but it more often is used to signify this guest room. Elsewhere in that Gospel, the Luke author uses the more common word for a traveler’s hotel, so we know that that word is in his vocabulary. It’s most likely, then, that Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph’s relatives claimed to have no guest room for them (I note that my NIV translation uses “no guest room” rather than the oft-cited “no room at the inn.”

After Beit Sahour, we went into Bethlehem proper. Like Beit Sahour, Bethlehem is in Palestine, which means we traveled through checkpoints and beyond the massive security wall between official Israel and the territories it occupies. We interacted with a number of Palestinian Christians over the course of the day and found the Palestinian people, regardless of their faith, to be kind and hospitable.

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity. In 614 CE, the Persians invaded the area that is now Israel. Wherever they found them, the invaders destroyed Christian churches, of which there were many. Constantine’s mother, Helena, built the early Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Ascension (on the Mount of Olives) and the Church of the Nativity. The Byzantines built many more. Of all of them, the Church of the Nativity was the only one to be spared. Why?

The three wise men. As you likely remember, the “wise men” were magi. Magi (s. magos) is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”, just as “wise man” is the origin of the word “wizard” (though in a slightly more roundabout way. The magi were Zoroastrians, probably priests of the religion in Persia at the time and had a reputation for mystical arts–astronomy and astrology among them. This jibes with the idea of the three magi following a star to find Jesus despite his being in a faraway place.

Anyway, in 614, the Church of the Nativity had a mosaic above the entrance depicting Persian holy men. When the invaders saw this, they decided not to destroy the church out of respect for their earlier brethren. St. Helena’s version of the church had not lasted until 614; the church had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolts of the early 6th Century and then rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 565.

We were able to travel into the cave–complete with manger–where Jesus is said to have been born. Again, we can’t be sure of the specific location, but the tradition from very early on (Justin Martyr visited as a pilgrim sometime around 100 CE) that the cave is located in the area carries great weight for the general locality.

We switched gears after that and visited the Herodium, the massive fortress palace built by Herod the Great (and site of his tomb). The engineering marvels there rival Caesarea Maritima: Herod didn’t think the mountain (read: large hill) on which he wanted to build the structure was big enough, so he took the top off of a neighboring mountain/hill to build his site higher (and to provide a “skirt” of fill dirt around the outside of the main palace/fortress for additional strength). The Herodium proper was a circular fortress five stories high with a tower seven stories high; the interior contained a Roman-style hot bath, a garden open to the sky and surrounded by column-lined porches, massive cisterns and a marble staircase leading inside. On the hill below the fortress was a Greco-Roman-style theatre (later filled in when Herod built his tomb). At the base, a second palace for guests and a swimming pool. Water had to be brought about three-and-a-half miles (past farmer’s fields) to supply the pool.

The Herodium was meant to be seen from Jerusalem–another sign of Herod’s grandeur and dominance. When Jesus told the Disciples on the Mount of Olives that they could command a mountain to through itself into the sea were they to pray with enough faith, he was likely pointing at the Herodium–a mountain that had already moved and that was within eyesight of the Dead Sea (which tradition held was the proper place to dispose of pagan and unholy things).

As magnificent as the Herodium was (and its ruins remain impressive, though no where as near as the complete building would be, even in our own time), its bookends easily overshadowed it. Being in the area where the Savior incarnated into this world carries a certain gravitas, as one would suspect. And our late-afternoon experience moved nearly as much.

We visited the Tent of Nations, winner of this past year’s World Methodist Peace award. The Tent of Nations (whose motto carved in an entrance stone is the picture on this post) is the result of the unshakeable faith of the Nassar family. The 100-acre plot in the West Bank known as Daher’s Vineyard (after family patriarch Daher Nassar) was first registered to the Nassar family under the Ottoman Empire (when few people bothered to register their land because doing so required the payment of exorbitant taxes). The family maintained the land’s registration under the British Mandate, the nation of Jordan, and eventually under Israel.

In 1991, the Israeli government attempted to confiscate Daher’s Vineyard as “state land.” Despite the Nassers’ ability to demonstrate a clear chain of title and right of ownership, they remain to this day engaged in a lawsuit with the Israeli state in the Israeli military courts (which handle matters in occupied territory such as the West Bank). The Israeli government has tried to take the land through misuse of legal process, through purchase (the details of which mimic the tale of Naaman’s Vineyard quite closely), and through the surrounding of the land with five Israeli settlements. Those settlers have attempted to oust the Nassers from their land through the threat of violence, through general harassment, and through the destruction of crop trees, the Nassers’ livelihood (and which take at least two years and sometimes as many as ten to replace through the planting and raising to fruition of a replacement).

The Nassers are Palestinian Christians. Their response to repeated oppression is the kind that only faith can engender. First, they decided that they would eschew all violence in any response, because violence only begets violence and they intend to love even their enemies. Second, they refuses to think of themselves as victims. Third, they refused to leave.

This required them to find a fourth way, one heavily inspired by their belief in Jesus. The first tenet is that they “refuse to be enemies.” The second is that they use avoid violence through creativity and pursuit of justice in the courts. Israel has prevented any utilities from being provided to the farm, so the Nassers have built large raincatching systems and cisterns to store water for both irrigation and domestic use. They had no power, so they set up solar panels to provide electricity where needed. The Israeli government refuses to issue them permits to build new buildings on the ground, so they have built into the caves on the property to provide additional housing, storage rooms, and spaces for their programs.

If such a noble and peaceful defiance of oppressive power is not enough, the Nassers turned Daher’s Vineyard into the “Tent of Nations,” supporting cross-cultural discussion between Jews, Muslims and Christians; providing summer programs for children to learn about recycling, sustainable farming, and caring for Creation in ways that help them to feel self-empowered and to make the choice to resist oppression through creative solutions rather than violence; and to generally be that “City on a Hill” that both inspires and instructs others so that they might move to a peaceful dialogue and respect for one another than eventually leads to some resolution of the tragic conflict between (some) Palestinians and (largely) the Israeli government.

I cannot say enough about how inspired I was in the two hours we spent at Daher’s Vineyard. Their website is http://www.tentofnations.org. I invite you to go learn more about them, consider donating for the planting of additional trees in the vineyard (which both help strengthen their claim to the land under Israeli law and provide support for the family and the programs run by Tent of Nations), or even consider volunteering to help with harvest and/or programs. They have a place for you to stay on site and provide room and board to their volunteers, who they are happy to take for–as they told us–“a day or a year.”

For the next entry, click here.

Pilgrimage, Day 7: O Brother, Where Am I?

For the previous entry, click here.

Today we left Galilee, traveling first to the Harod Spring (where Gideon had his men drink the water to determine who would accompany him in battle against the Midianites) and the Jezreel Spring (at Tel Jezreel in Samaria, where King Ahab and Jezebel would make their capital).

From thence to Beth-Shean, the site of the palace of Egyptian governors in the 13th Century B.C.E. and the site of Scythopolis, one of the Greco-Roman Decapoli founded near the trade routes. Scythopolis was founded by the Ptolemys after they took control of the Egypt and the Levant in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death.

This brings me to my first point today: After conquering Egypt, Alexander turned West to visit the oracle at the Siwa Oasis (known to the Greeks as Ammonia). It was here that the oracle pronounced Alexander the son of a god and the man began to incorporate divinity into his own identity. Alexander’s conquest enabled the Ptolemys to build the Decapoli. Between Alexander and Augustus–not to mention the men who came before and after Christ claiming to be the prophesied messiah–I am struck by just how much the shadows of human men declaring themselves to be divine loomed over this land.

Scythopolis itself was nothing short of amazing, reminding me very much of Roman ruins found in Italy. Of course, many cultures had built at Beth-Shean at least as far back as the aforementioned Egyptians until an 8th Century earthquake caused the settlement to be moved. The Greco-Romans had built the largest city there, which was followed by the Byzantines, who rebuilt and expanded in their own time.

I must admit to completely nerding out about the ruins there (is anyone surprised?). Running water, heated bathhouses, Cyclopean architecture, a 7,000-person theatre, marble-clad streets (marble is not often found natively in Israel, if at all), intricate mosaics–all of the standards for Roman achievement. But I also realized a great deficiency in my own learning (much to my chagrin, of course). The Byzantines must have considered themselves the inheritors and reconcilers of the competing cultures of the Holy Land, combining the best of Roman knowledge and achievement with Christianity. Despite this, I know relatively little about them. I’ve read Precopius’s Secret History (though I don’t remember much of it), can recognize the artwork and can name some rulers and events. But almost all of my learning about the Byzantines is tangential, a side-effect of my Western-Eurocentric historical focus and mindset. There’s no time right now, but I must soon make it a priority to study that culture and civilization for its own sake.

From there, we headed south along the Jordan to Beth-arabah, the likeliest site for Jesus’s baptism by John the–well, you know. In a power play against Syria and Jordan, after seizing the Golan Heights and preventing the former from having access to Galilean water, Israel built a dam at the south end of the Sea of Galilee, allowing them to control the outflow of the Jordan River. I’m told the river flow volume is about 5% of what it once was. Standing on a platform by the side of the river, I did not doubt it. A plaque commemorating the 2013 water level was a good fifteen feet or more over my head.

That journey led us through the West Bank–the first of several times we’ll visit that area. I was moved by the obvious difference between that place and other parts of Israel–increased poverty, dilapidated buildings, an atmosphere of desperation. We passed a sign warning Israeli citizens that the road next to the sign led to a Palestinian settlement and that, therefore, that road was not safe for them. To be clear, Palestinians are also Israeli citizens, so the sign spoke volumes about the deep divides here.

I titled an earlier post “The Ancient and the Modern;” the clearest example of that juxtaposition to date was in the West Bank, where we watched young shepherds lead their flocks in the same manner as has been done for millennia–while playing on their cell phones.

Once to the Jordan, we held a short baptismal remembrance service–keep in mind that Methodists consider re-baptism anathema–followed by singing “Down to the River to Pray” before dipping our hands in the water and making the sign of the cross on our foreheads. There is a spiritual resonance at that place (assisted by the presence of white doves and a strong wind that picked up soon after we arrived), but, for me at least, it was overshadowed by the present-day realities. This spot on the Jordan is also the border between Israel and Jordan. As such, we had to pass through a road lined on either side with warnings of the mine fields laid nearby. The detritus of past warfare littered those fields, rusted remnants of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. At the river, a buoyed line provided the border between nations–we were warned not to approach the border lest the guards on either side go to high alert. Those soldiers–Jordanians on one side and two eighteen-year-old IDF soldiers on our side–eyed one another like gunfighters at high noon. What caught my eye–and my cynicism–most about this standoff was that all of the soldiers (on both sides) were armed with American weapons.

After passing through some of the Judean wilderness, we arrived back in Jerusalem to the Knight’s Palace Hotel at about 4:30. With 2 hours to kill until dinner, we spread out across the Old City. After investigating some nearby shops that had been recommended to us (I have little desire to bring home souvenirs), we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m not fond of crowds, or waiting, so I resolved to return to the Church to see the things I wanted to see: Golgotha and the Tomb.

I cannot be certain, of course, that the spaces asserted by the Church are the actual locations of Christ’s execution and (attempt at) burial, but having done some research, there’s a very good case to be made here. As the Church opens at 4:00 a.m., I’ve resolved to make an early-morning trip in hopes of avoiding the crowds.

After the Church, we headed back to the Western Wall for a second look. It’s Friday, so shabbat is being observed today and the Wall was understandably crowded, and becoming moreso by the moment.

Tomorrow, we venture into the Judean wilderness itself, as well as the shephelah (the foothills). I’m convinced that yesterday’s experience at Mount Arbel will be the lens through which I see the rest of this journey–another seven days.

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