The Ecstasy of Gold

I’ve been struggling for some time to understand how conservative Christians are able to maintain such dogged adherence to the ideas of ultra-capitalism without seeing a conflict with their faith. Ultimately, I think the only way to hold the two beliefs together is by not asking too many questions or examining very closely the assumptions required by the beliefs (either ultra-capitalism or their brand of Christian theology). This is my criticism of most conservative theologies–they start from incorrect assumptions and hold incorrect goals, resulting in theology that is doomed from the start, having never really grasped what God is about in the first place.

Still, I think I have discovered some of the unspoken underpinnings that allow for ultra-capitalism to thrive within the ideologies of (political) conservatives, and that an examination of these ideas compared to theological ones may be instructive.

Ultra-Capitalism

We should start with a definition. By “ultra-capitalism” I mean a modern approach to capitalism that: sees market competition as social Darwinism; this social Darwinism as the natural (and thus best) arbiter of success and social standing; self-interest and the profit motive as the defining characteristics of the human individual (and as moral prerogatives); as a corollary, associates economic poverty with moral weakness; assumes that those who have become rich have proven themselves both intellectually and morally fit to rule; holds personal property rights sacred over all other things; and bears a fear of and revulsion to social programs as allowing weakness to thrive, thus undermining the moral and social fabric of a society–and this in particular at the expense of those who have “rightfully acquired” their wealth through natural and all-encompassing superiority. It is in many ways Nietzschean and nihilistic, eschewing compassion for power. It is, in short, the economic version of “might makes right.”

First and foremost, it is the dogmatic belief in the “profit-motive” as the most defining characteristic of humanity. Thus, all people are seen as acting for selfish reasons to acquire money as best they can, with a division between moral methods of acquisition of wealth based upon ideas of “work” and “dessert,” and those methods of acquiring wealth that do not result from an adequate amount of work as immoral. Thus, the thief acquires money immorally, because he takes something earned by “honest labor” through the employment of “easier” means of acquisition. That the Ten Commandments dictate that “thou shalt not steal” coincides with this moral tenet, we need not look at the analysis that brings God (and us) to this conclusion, even if the rationale is different from the capitalist one. There is, then, the added result that the idea of thievery under the capitalist’s definition then extends to those who are on social welfare programs. Those who need food stamps, or Social Security Disability, or who would benefit from socialized medicine are getting material benefits for less work than is morally required of them to deserve economic gain, making social programs nothing more than government-sanctioned thievery. I imagine that, if you’ve read this far, you already understand that social welfare programs (like socialized medicine, even) is not the same as socialism. As an economic system, socialism means the collective ownership by the workers of the means of production, not the provision by the government of safety nets for all of its people–a method of providing for the “general welfare” that is a core element of the legitimacy of a government under “social contract” theory–though admittedly so is the protection of property rights, so we are left here with a dispute over what exactly the social contract is, how competing priorities under the social contract should be balanced, and, ultimately, who gets to set the contract’s terms.

From this starting place, the sovereignty of the profit-motive goes further. If there are those who leech of the system through providing the least amount of work possible, then my pursuit of self-interest and the selfish accumulation of wealth cannot be blamed, because no one is acting outside of self-interest and I am earning my wealth. This rationale justifies a moral insistence that my property rights are sacrosanct, that taking from me (through taxes, perhaps) for the basic needs of others who will not (cannot is seldom considered) earn for themselves is a fundamental injustice, both a moral failing and an insidious idea that will cause a nation to lose its overarching economic power and thus its place in the world. The belief here is that America is the best nation in the world because of its capitalism. Both the cause and the effect should be questioned.

Let’s look now at some objections typically raised by ultra-capitalists against criticisms:

One of the statements I often hear is: “I believe that the needy should be taken care of, but I believe that that’s the church’s role, not the government’s.”

This statement greatly amuses me as a student of history. Until the Christian reformation, the church did fulfill this function in western European society–but it did so by requiring tithes, indulgences, beneficences, the donation of land to save one’s soul and other forms of coerced re-allocation of property. In other words: taxes. At the time the Reformation occurred, the early modern economy was also developing. Guilds were transitioning into private corporations and “venture companies” designed to share risk between multiple investors (the predecessor of modern business entities), the obligations of traditional feudalism had already been replaced by a system of payments rather than personal service (so-called “bastard feudalism,” which, by the time of the Reformation, was converting even more to a system where wealth and nobility had been divested from one another instead of being tightly bound, because land ownership continually lost footing to new ways of generating wealth), and “middle class” (including the “New Men” of Tudor England) was rising. The modern idea of nations, centralized enough, organized enough to actually provide for the general welfare, was nascent, and though they remained mired at the time in arguments over the divine right of kings, the power was shifting from those with hereditary right to those with wealth earned by the sweat of their brow and the cleverness of their business designs, those who could afford to send their sons to the universities and the courts of law, not to become churchmen, but to become bureaucrats and wielders of political power in the name of those whose only entitlement was the fortune of birth

The misuse by the Catholic Church of its wealth provided an impetus to the Reformation (the extravagant lifestyles of those higher in church hierarchy coupled with a general negligence toward their spiritual duties and the reduction of penance to an economic transaction through the sale of indulgences), it also resulted in a diverse approach to economics by Protestant groups. By the 17th century, you had in England on the one hand the Diggers, who attempted to set up settlements with communal property and a focus on the ecologic interrelationship between humans and the earth; on the other, you had the Puritans: Calvinists (particularly of the Reformed tradition) who largely believed that the demonstration of a good “work ethic” and the accumulation of wealth were signs of status among the Elect, those whom God had predestined for salvation. There is much, I believe, in the Puritan legacy in the United States that resulted in the modern theologies that allow the marriage of ultra-capitalism with Christianity.

While religious organizations would conduct the majority of charitable works for centuries to come, religious ideas of the time intermingled with the rise of new economic realities to create a heritage we largely follow today–even for those who have forgotten the origin of such beliefs in post-Reformation theologies.

To step back into the present, the major problem with the assertion above about the “role of the Church” in social programs is that it really represents a desire of control over one’s wealth: “I don’t want the government to make me help just anyone; I want to get to decide who is worthy of helping.” This idea both maintains the ego-driven idea of comparative dessert while maintaining social power in the hands of those with money.

The second objection is that “no one will ever accomplish anything for society unless rewarded with wealth for doing so.” In other words, the ambition for economic gain is the only instigating factor for innovation, growth or achievement in human society. This idea is flawed for two reasons:

First, the pursuit of wealth in exchange for achievement does not promote the common good. The pharmaceutical and medical research industries (again, particularly in America) are a prime example of this. If we want to look at an egregious case, we need only read the history of OxyContin and Perdue Pharma, where the pursuit of profit led to the opioid epidemic. But there are many more examples to examine, because the very premise of allowing the profit-motive to control pharmaceutical development results in intentional harm to individuals. This is codified through the system of patents that protects new drugs. The argument goes that, if the developing pharmaceutical company is unable to make a profit on a new drug, they’ll never develop it, so we need to protect their discovery by giving them a temporary (but long-lived) monopoly on their discovery so that they can profit from it. This in turn results in life-saving medications that only some can afford, while we let the rest suffer or die. If we adhere to the ideas of social Darwinism and wealth means worth and morality that are endemic to ultra-capitalism, then we should have no moral qualms about this.

Take the Covid vaccines as an example. If those vaccines had been made “open source” so that they could be synthesized by any lab with the ability to do so without having to pay Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson for the privilege of doing so, would more people be vaccinated right now (particularly in places where people are not prey to misinformation about them but, for economic reasons, cannot procure them)? I think so.

The more insidious–but perhaps equally reprehensible–aspect of this system is that research projects are selected only with profit in mind. If there aren’t enough sufferers of a condition to make the development of therapeutic techniques or medications profitable, no research will be conducted into the condition, and doctors remain forced to tell patients, “we just don’t know enough about this disease/disorder to have an effective treatment plan.” While I’m not absolutely sure that the pharmaceutical industry actively pursues the development of treatments of symptoms over ways to cure disease, the aspects of the industry I am sure about make that a likely prospect.

The second problem with this argument is that it reduces human beings to economic units by assuming profit is the only human motivation. We can but look around and see that this is not true–we all know someone who has taken a lower-paying job to work in the non-profit sector because they believe in doing good, and many of us know people who have left one job for another that pays less because it allows them to have a better quality of life. Some of us ourselves have turned down good-paying jobs out of a distaste for the effect the particular company or type of industry has on the world at large. The profit motive is, in fact, a social construct rather than an inherent human quality, pervasive as it may be.

It is a curious thing that Puritan ideas (in general, there was theological diversity even within Puritanical groups) seem to have some coincidence with the ultra-capitalist approach to economics and politics, and not just because of the “Puritan Work Ethic.” The “five essential points” of Calvinism are often summarized with the TULIP acronym (for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints). The idea of Total Depravity pairs well with the idea of the profit-motive being the natural state of man, and the idea that those who achieve their wealth through hard work are likely the Elect (and thus inherently more moral) and those who do not are not. The ideas of justification by faith alone and irresistible grace, in theory and perhaps in an antinomian way, take some responsibility off of the choices of humans, because humans cannot affect their salvation.

I should note that my own United Methodist Church doctrine also espouses the belief in justification by faith alone as a matter of salvation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s my own belief that God has made salvation easy but sanctification difficult and, having heard a sermon by K this morning discussing the role of action in our faith (reconciling the ideas of the Letter of James with the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith) I ought to admit in fairness that the belief in justification by faith alone does not, in and of itself, result in antinomianism or a rejection of the need for moral action. There are plenty of people of Calvinist doctrine (as there are of any religious faith or no religious faith at all) who are committed to moral ideals we’d likely all agree upon.

A Note About Happiness

As a quick aside, a few comments about the relationship of money and happiness. There is a study by Nobel Prize winners Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman that is often cited for the precept that “happiness does not increase for people making over $75,000 dollars a year.” That’s not what the study says. Deaton and Kahneman measured two things in their study, neither of which was happiness. They measured “emotional well-being,” referring to day-to-day feelings and experience, and “life evaluation,” whether people thought positively or negatively about their life as a whole. They found that emotional well-being did not increase for people making more than $75,000 a year, but life evaluation did increase with higher incomes. So, increased income resulted in fewer negative (and more positive) feelings day-to-day to a cap of $75,000 a year, but life evaluation continued to increase beyond that. To nuance this, subjective experience related to life and money seems to cap at $75,000, but people continued to more positively rate the achievements in their life if they made more. In a nation where we see income as directly related to achievement and worth, the latter is not at all surprising–but I also wouldn’t equate it with happiness. Emotional well-being, on the other hand, seems to be a more valuable thing (though I’m sure many scholars and psychologists have investigated or are investigating how life evaluation relates to emotional well-being). We should be weary of using this study (or any other single study) to make categorical statements about reality, but I think that, anecdotally, at least, we’d agree that money and happiness don’t necessary corollate directly. Certainly, Scripture tells us that repeatedly.

On the other hand, rankings of the “happiest countries” in the world tend to perennially place Northern European (particularly Scandinavian) countries at the top of the list. These are countries with high taxes, many social programs, and smaller wealth disparities between those with the most and those with the least. To my mind, they are a strong argument that taxation and social support do not result in the degradation of a society. On the other hand, these nations are also strongly secular, so an argument might be made on that front.

At the end of the day, while we should be striving to find emotional stability and contentment, and should be treasuring and seeking out those things that make us happy, the scope of our lives is much larger than that. We must consider what makes us happy and why, and whether that explanation is a moral one. We must also consider the value of our lives apart from our own personal happiness. If we are called to self-sacrifice for the good of others, as Christ beckons us, then we must believe that personal happiness is not the prime metric by which to consider our success in life.

A Note on Privilege

I came from a background of privilege. Less than some, but more than most. My parents were both highly educated, driven and upwardly mobile. We lived in large houses in the suburbs and I wanted for nothing. I attended public schools, but I went to the best public schools available. I was encouraged to be curious and academically curious from a young age, with frequent trips to the library, tons of books at home, and a number of trips abroad when I was young to broaden my experience of the world. There was never a discussion about whether I would go to college; it was a given, and my parents ensured that it cost me nothing to earn my bachelor’s degree. Though I choose a more precarious path out of law school by immediately establishing a practice of my own, I was able to do so with somewhat less fear than I might have had because I knew I had a safety net in my family should I fail. Indeed, the expected disappointment of family if I failed wore heavier on me than any worry about where I would live or how I’d get by if my business failed.

And so, I realize that the achievements I’ve had in my life, whatever they may be, are not simply a result of my own intelligence and personal will. I had parents who paved a way for me through their own hard work, but, perhaps more important, I had the fortune to be born into a family that had enjoyed some amount of wealth and opportunity for generations. It would be foolish of me to consider my success to this point in my life to be only a matter of what I “deserve” or have “earned.”

And so it is with many of those who currently enjoy wealth, power, status and privilege. To endorse ultra-capitalism and asset one’s dessert of property as a matter only of hard work and dedication lacks introspection, a view of the interconnectedness of all things, and short-sightedness. How can one say in a worship service that “all good things are gifts from God,” while secretly believing that every good things one has has been earned by individual effort alone?

Scripture (in Constrast)

Jesus gives us many warnings and hard sayings about money. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13; see also Matthew 6:24).

I have argued elsewhere in this blog that participation in the “kingdom of God” is an existential matter of sanctification, of coming to understand the way that God sees things, to see the rightful relationships between all things (see, for example, the post “Salvation and Sanctification“). Read this way, Jesus’s statement in Matthew 19:24 is not to be a statement about salvation, but about sanctification–those who love money above all else are that much less likely to bring themselves to adopt the priorities God has created for the world. The second statement is like the first (for another look at material wealth as an obstacle to spiritual freedom, see “Dukkha in Christianity.”) Even so, the warning is dire, and there are more like it.

But the point goes far beyond the effect of wealth on personal spiritual growth. It’s the reason that is that case. Put simply, worrying more about protecting what’s yours than helping others is antithetical to the Christian ethic. The second-greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). To allow the exploitation of others to amass personal wealth, as is the status quo in American business, is not loving others as oneself. To believe in the justice of a system that protects one’s own wealth at the expense of leaving others without access to healthcare, an economic safety net, or other basic aspects of the moral good and human dignity, is foolish at best, but more likely: it’s sin.

We are repeatedly called to protect the poor, the infirm, the widow, the orphan: the least and the lost. The exhortations to do so are not subjected to caveats or exceptions–especially not those that involve cost to those called to provide for them.

This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with personal property rights, with owning property, or with gaining wealth (though the early church described in Acts did hold everything in common, we’re told). It is the prioritization of one’s own status and wealth at the expense of others that we are most warned against. It is the amassing of wealth through unjust means–which includes exploitative economic systems–that is suspect. As Chaucer’s Pardoner ironically recites from St. Jerome’s Vulgate version of 1 Timothy 6:10: radix malorum cupiditas est.

For the Christian, this should not be a political question. Christ requires us to make sacrifices of our own as we are able to care for those without the resources and privileges that we have. The only argument for Christians to have on the subject is how to best fulfill the obligations to which we are called. Maybe social programs run by the government are not the best way to accomplish this but, if not, we ought to be stepping up to fill in the gaps without judging who is “deserving” of help. First and foremost, we must oppose a society so mired in the ultra-capitalist ideal as to continue to increase wealth disparity and economic injustice in the world.

Grace and Mercy, Justice and Accountability

For the past few weeks, I’ve both wanted to make a theological statement about the current state of the U.S. and to absolutely avoid doing that. Well, I’ve decided to go with the former approach.

As with many subjects, I’ve a lot of thoughts on a cluster of related topics, so I’ll try to to organize the thoughts in a reasonable manner.

I first want to say a few things about the role of religion—and Christianity in particular—in American politics. Unfortunately, in taking a firm stand on this topic, I fully expect that some folks will take my words as inflammatory: such is the cost of conviction, I suppose. I can only hope that the full breadth of my statements will demonstrate well-considered positions intended to make reasonable arguments about (what I believe to be) objective truth. You’ll be the judge.

The U.S. as a “Christian Nation”
First, let’s address the assertion often made by conservatives that the U.S. was “founded on Christian principles” (and thus should be run now under a—very particular—view of Christianity). This statement is, at best, a half-truth. Many of the founding fathers would not have considered themselves Christians. Our country (as an independent nation with our current form of government) was formed during the Enlightenment, when hostility to organized religion could be openly demonstrated—see Voltaire and the reactionary, anti-religious elements of the French Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson believed in Jesus as a moral teacher, but not a supernatural person. Even without resorting to C.S. Lewis’s argument that you must see Jesus as liar, madman or God, with no room in between, it’s clear that Jefferson doesn’t hold the core belief of being a Christian. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin likely would have considered himself a deist rather than a Christian, believing in the existence of a God (probably in the sense of the distant “Clockmaker God”) but not in the dogma, doctrine, theology or “mythology” of the Christian faith. These men, as some of the best-known fathers of the nation, are emblematic of the diversity of religious thought—and the acceptance of such diversity—among the framers of the constitution. Yes, the diversity was ultimately limited to Western thought, ignoring for the most part Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism and only incorporating Judaism viewed through the lens of Christianity.

We must also remember that the history of the Americas prior to the founding of the U.S. is one of a search for religious freedom on the one hand and religious conflict on the other. I’ve written a number of articles on piracy, particularly in the context of gaming, but the history of piracy is instructive here as well. Bear in mind that the time when Columbus discovered the Americas was the same time that the (newly combined) Spanish crown concluded the Reconquista and expelled the Jews from Spain. There is evidence that Jews of affluence had a hand in securing the funding of Columbus’s initial expedition to find a safe place for them to live as they relocated. Others fled to the Ottoman Empire, which was generally more tolerant of them. In the following century, the development of Protestant sects of Christianity in the German principalities and in England led to fierce, violent, and prolonged conflict over the “One True Faith”—see the Spanish Armada, the attack on Cadiz, the German Peasant’s Revolt, the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil Wars, the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries, etc. This conflict links directly with the history of piracy—in the Mediterranean, some Jews turned to privateering in service to the Ottomans to exact vengeance on European countries that had persecuted them, while in the Caribbean, the Protestant or Jewish faiths of many privateers and pirates helped justify (to them at least) their aggressions and assaults on the assets of Catholic Spain. Francis Drake’s famous expedition is emblematic of this, but consider also that many famous privateers and pirates who followed were English or Dutch protestants or French Huguenots who saw themselves as paramilitary actors in the same conflicts that were rocking Europe.

On the North American mainland, many of the early settlers were looking for a place to freely practice their faith (usually a form of Christianity, but divergent from other forms holding more political power)—the Puritans of Plymouth and Salem were too prude or fundamentalist for mainstream Anglicanism and Rhode Island was formed by those outcast for religious divergence from other settlements.

The establishment of my own Methodism as separate from the Church of England also demonstrates that religion and politics were a messy dialectic, not the influence of a monolithic Christianity on the development of new political systems. John Wesley considered himself a reformer within the Church of England, not a rebel seeking to establish a separate denomination, but, when the English government began to require clergy to swear oaths of fealty to the English Crown during the American Revolution, those Methodist preachers who refused to swear such oaths were left with few other choices.

Further, the ecclesiastic structure of the United Methodist Church follows the three-branch system of American secular government; an instance of politics influencing religion (something that has become common nowadays not in polity but in theology) rather than religion influencing politics.

If anything, the recent past had demonstrated to the founding fathers of religion and politics being too closely bound together, not the value of creating a Christian nation when so many had died fighting over what Christianity was supposed to be.

Had the intention been to establish a monolithic Christian republic, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would look very different.

Deus Vult
“Deus Vult” is Latin for “God Wills It.” It was a battle cry of the Crusades and has occasionally reared its ugly head in human history ever since.

I have a relatively easy time making the argument that Jesus had nothing to do with the Crusades. Consider the following:

(1) Jesus did not bother with a physical overthrow of the Romans. Why, a millennium later, would he sponsor European outsiders undertaking an equally bloody endeavor to take the Holy Land from Muslims? There is a sweeping argument from the Old Testament to the New moving away from the pagan belief that God is geographically bound–see especially the tearing of the veil in the Temple upon Jesus’ execution. I understand fully the power and inspiration that comes from being where God lived out God’s incarnation on Earth, but placing an overemphasis on the places and material remnants of Jesus’ life misses the greater point Jesus incarnated to make. That Jesus’ body could not be found in the tomb accomplishes more than only providing evidence of Jesus’ divinity.

(2) Ever heard the phrase, “Kill ’em all; God’ll sort ’em out?” It comes from the Albigensian Crusade, a war on heterodox believers in Southern France (in Languedoc, which literally means “the land where they speak lenga d’oc (the Occitan language). The Cathars there where heterodox to the Catholic faith, with a gnostic approach to Christianity, but political and material concerns were motivating factors just as much as religious ones (see below). In 1209, Crusader forces were besieging the city of Beziers, but they encountered a problem. The city contained both Cathars and Catholics in good standing. The Crusaders, let by Simon de Montfort, exhorted the Catholic citizens to leave the city before the Crusaders assaulted it. They refused. Now, I’d like to believe that the Catholics did so in true Christian spirit–to protect others from violence by hopefully making the moral cost of an assault too high for the besiegers. But, I’m also a realist, and it’s equally likely that, knowing what happens when a city is sacked, the Catholics were trying to protect their own homes and property without regard for the Cathars, knowing that the invading Crusaders would make little distinction in their pillaging. Maybe some of column A, some of column B.

Regardless, the Crusaders were forced to make a choice. As the story goes, the Papal Legate to the Crusaders, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, cut through the conundrum by saying something like “Kill them all; God will know his own.” That’s been rehashed to the, probably more familiar, “Kill ’em all; let God sort ’em out.” This, I think is indicative of the problem with both the Crusades and the “Deus Vult” mentality applied to anything–even if the cause is good (and, for the Crusades and most of the other times “Deus Vult” language has been employed, the cause isn’t good either), the mindset justifies any atrocity–no matter how un-Christian–committed in pursuit of the goal.

For many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, conservative politics and fundamentalist Christianity collided to create a Deus Vult mentality, with a number of the insurrectionists carrying flags that said, literally, “Deus Vult.” In their mind, Trump’s presidency was God-ordained.

On the one hand, they came to this conclusion because Trump supported policies they believed are “Biblical.” that’s a fraught idea, and I’d much prefer to focus on ideas and policies that are “Christian” (in following the person, nature and teachings of Christ) rather than those that are “Biblical”–the Bible says a lot of things, which are contained in different types of literature, are often not intended as examples of righteousness but quite the opposite, are bounded by the human context in which they were written (even if divinely inspired), are sometimes contradictory, and must always be interpreted to be understood.

On the other hand, equally or more problematic, the people who believe that Trump represented the last, best hope of Christianity–while behaving and spearheading policies that are absolutely anti-Christian–are guilty of one of the most damning indictments of American Christianity: that we shape Jesus into our pre-existing understanding of cultural and individual values rather than conforming ourselves to the righteous values taught to us and demonstrated for us by Jesus in his incarnation. This is a fair accusation often leveled against popular American Christian theologies, particularly by Liberation theologians who can personally speak to the injustices that just such an approach has perpetrated.

Think about this: In America, if you go into a “Bible bookstore,” or even if you order online, and you’re looking for a Nativity set, what color is Jesus in the default selection. He’s usually white. Now, there is a longstanding tradition of artistic pieces that portray Jesus looking like the person who made the art (in terms of ethnicity, not specific features), and there is some reasonable theological argument for that as an indication of how Jesus connects with each of us beyond barriers like race, ethnicity or language. But when the portrayal of Jesus as white becomes part of a subtle message of “Jesus is the best, and so is being white, so of course we should should see Jesus as white,” we have a problem.

K and I are currently listening to the audiobook of Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired; she makes a point that the Bible was used as justification by the abolitionists seeking to end slavery, but also by those seeking to maintain slavery. That something is “Biblical” by itself is a term that is worthless without greater context.

I am in agreement with the idea that we Americans have largely perverted the truth of Christianity to justify our baser desires, and I see this more and more in conservative politics in this country. I want to be careful here in not saying that I think one cannot be politically conservative and be a righteous Christian; nor does being liberal and calling yourself Christian make you good or righteous. But, on the whole, I see much more in leftist politics that coincides with the teaching of Jesus and much more bad behavior from conservatives that uses a skewed view of Christianity as cover for un-Christian behavior.

I also want to make a distinction here that I’ll try to develop more below: because I do not have the cognitive or moral capability to know someone else’s heart and soul, it’s important to me that my statements about the “un-Christian” are meant to be about behaviors, beliefs and ideologies, not about people. We are all fallible, we all fall short of doing all the things that would make us righteous, and I do believe in grace even for those who know what is right and fail to do it–we’re all there sometimes. As we’ll discuss below, there is a fine line to walk between grace and forgiveness on the one hand, and accountability, truth and justice on the other.

(3) Strong historical arguments have been made that the Crusades arose as much or more out of the socio-economic environment and psychological fears of the Middle Ages as any theological justification. Primary among these causes were issues of land division and ownership related to population growth. If your region practices primogeniture (all the land is inherited by the firstborn son), what do you do with all of the “noble” children who receive no inheritance but do not lack for ambition? If your region doesn’t practice primogeniture, how do you keep the land from being divided so much between so many children that no one is left owning a useful amount of land? The answer to both questions seemed to be to add more land to the equation, and the argument goes that the idea of Crusade to liberate the Holy Land (and other places in later Crusades) provided reasonable cover for what was ultimately a move to create an economic pressure valve.

Think about the mindset of the time, the fear of hell and the desire for heaven (especially when heaven was the only chance to live a better life than the squalor of a peasant) and then imagine being told that, by undertaking a Crusade, you’ll be cleansed of all sins you’ve ever committed (including those you commit on Crusade), you’ll skip the lines in Purgatory and go straight to St. Peter’s Gates. You’ve been indoctrinated to rely on the Church to tell you, de facto, religious truth and this comes directly from the Pope. How would you feel? Do those feelings, does that psychology, actually make you righteous? Does it actually justify–theologically–the things you’re likely to do–to be asked or told to do–while on Crusade?

All of this is to say two things: (1) we ought to call out those who claim it is their Christianity calling them to do un-Christian things; (2) at the same time, we must be very careful that we are constantly seeking to conform ourselves to true Christianity in our pursuit of justice, lest we start to be the ones saying “Deus Vult” as we seek to destroy that which we perceive as unrighteous, because we have become more convinced of our own righteousness than we are sincere in our desire to humbly follow the commandments God has given us.

How Should Christianity Influence American Politics?
C.S. Lewis wrote some profound–and still applicable–statements about how one’s Christianity ought to influence one’s politics. If you want to hear his comments, or if you’re becoming tired of mine, take a break and go look that up (I believe that topic is found in Mere Christianity, but it might be in God in the Dock).

Some of what I will have to say will parrot Lewis and, like him, I’m going to try to make some comments about how I believe that Christianity should influence a person’s (and particularly the American’s) approach to politics.

(1) Christianity directs the believer to be more concerned with striving for personal righteousness than fixing the immorality of others.

First, let’s acknowledge the pragmatic reality that laws don’t change morality. For example, when abortions are illegal, they become more dangerous, more shadowed, more exploitative, but not necessarily less common. For a less controversial example, see Prohibition. It came out of a well-meaning Temperance Movement intending to fight the definite societal ills caused by drunkenness and alcohol addiction. The end result was to give power to criminal organizations to supply what could not be had through legal channels but remained in high demand.

There are better means than legislation to try to make humans more righteous. Let’s think about the ways we can address systematic issues that push people toward destructive, injurious or “immoral” acts instead of focusing on codifying what is and is not categorically immoral. When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” is this not a legal intervention? That’s something we should think on when looking at our own motivations for supporting certain kinds of laws.

(2) Christianity is about personal sacrifice for the greater good of others.

Political analysts make most of their predictions based on the ability of logical people to conduct cost/benefit analyses and to choose in favor of their own self-interest. We know that there are plenty of people who are incapable of or unwilling to understand the true costs and benefits of certain decisions, and some decisions will have costs and benefits to wide-ranging to be readily apparent.

But how would politics in our country change if the greater good of others were our focus in voting rather than the preservation of our own powers, rights, and socioeconomic status? What if we were able to step back and say, “Yes, this will cause a minor hardship for me, but it will alleviate a much greater hardship for many more people, so I’ll vote for it?” What if our politics was only about “us” instead of “us and them?”

(3) Christianity weighs the moral costs against the pragmatic benefits.

American politics has, in many senses, become a Crusade–all will be forgiven if you achieve the desired result. This has led to political gamesmanship, underhanded tactics, stonewalling, and all manner of other dishonorable approaches to “winning at any cost” that have undermined the systems that were put in place to protect our freedoms and to support a politics that uses compromise to reach results that benefit the greatest number of people possible. Both parties are guilty of this.

If we’re to be generous, neither party intended for things to go this way, but decades of tit-for-tat and “if they’re playing dirty, we have to, too, to have any chance!” without enough politicians standing up and saying “Enough!” that, by degrees we’ve dug ourselves into a hole from which there seems no escape.

We’ve got to get away from that. And a good Christian ethic can help us to do this (to be fair, the Christian ethics I refer to here are found in the moral systems of most or all all world religions of which I’m aware). We have to support the right way of doing things before we support getting our own way. To be ethical, procedure must be as important as results, or we end up where we are now–no one trusts that the procedures have been fair and so no one trusts the results. The results we speak of may differ between the parties, but the problem is the same.

Grace and Justice
In reflecting on my own personal experiences, my own passions and convictions, and then looking to the state our country is in, I see finding the balance between Grace and Justice to be the hardest line to walk of all. Thank God that ultimately, it is God who is responsible for bringing us to that perfect balance and not me.

You’ve probably seen in this post my own struggles with this issue–to look for the good and reasonable in the beliefs of those with whom I disagree while also trying to stand up for what I deeply believe is right. I am aware of no easy answers. But I also know that the struggle to strike the balance can never be abandoned.

This is at issue with my stance within the United Methodist Church. I deeply believe that the current treatment of, approach to, and status of people within the LGBTQ movement within the theology and polity of the UMC is unjust in the extreme. And yet, I also long for the maintenance of a unity within the believers and grace for a diversity of theological positions and interpretations within our church. It often feels impossible to balance both, and when I am forced to prioritize one over the other, which should I choose? Both rejecting unity and failing to stand up for those who are oppressed seem to be failures. And, in the end, unity isn’t just up to me–if there are some people (and there are many) who will refuse to allow the justice we seek, unity be damned, what can we do then? What must we do to be faithful followers of Christ?

Our country is in the same position. There are those who have peddled lies about election fraud, who have supported racist ideologies, who have voluntarily ignored the existence of injustice, who have placed themselves and their own well-being above all else. Some of those people attacked our very democracy by storming the Capitol on January 6th. And many of the politicians that instigated that behavior are now crying foul because “unity” should be the thing we seek above all else, and holding them accountable for their actions will hurt unity.

Here’s what I have to say about that, and it’s the answer to the issues of the UMC as well: There cannot be unity until there is justice. What those who demand unity without accountability want is for us to prioritize their approval and willingness to work with us over the approval of and unity with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the impoverished, and the exploited. This same cry for “unity” is why we have made so little progress in almost two-and-a-half centuries in regards to racial equality, the disparity of wealth and equality of dignity, why we’ve allowed so much social injustice to persist.

I’ve spent a lot of this post (and it’s a doozy, I realize) arguing that our Christianity requires us to be graceful in our approach to politics in this country. But our Christianity also requires us to adhere to truth and demand that others do the same–and here I mean in facts, not in philosophical truth, Our Christianity requires us to seek justice. If we are forced to choose whether to seek unity with the disenfranchised and downtrodden or those who demand that we acknowledge their rights and superiority, I know where Jesus will be, and I will seek him there.

If we do not seek justice, to whom can we show grace? Without requiring accountability for one’s actions, the only grace we have to offer is the “cheap grace” that Bonhoeffer warns us of. Or, worse yet, what we’re giving isn’t grace; it’s appeasement.

So we have to continue to walk the line, as difficult as it is, offering grace but demanding accountability and justice. We must set an example, never resorting to violence in our demands, but always insisting peacefully. It’s not an easy road, but we can walk it together, calling ever more people to walk it with us.


Texas Annual Conference 2019 – A Fiery Start

K and I arrived at the Hilton of the Americas this afternoon at about 4:30, just ahead of the start of our annual “meetings vacation” (her term; she likes meetings way more than me). By good fortune, we managed to avoid the long line to check into the hotel–turns out there’s an app for that now. The future is here.

Of course, checking in remotely didn’t get us a room key, and the app told us we’d have to present ID at the desk to use the phone as a key. I took a chance and asked the concierge whether she could check our IDs and give us phone access to our room. She didn’t seem to be aware that that was a thing, but she was able to make us a physical keycard, so no harm no foul. In the middle of her programming the keycard, she got a phone call. After a few short words exchanged, she apologized to me and made another phone call. I overheard something about a car being on fire on the side of the building. About that time a fire truck rushed by outside.

In all honesty, I didn’t think much of it. I took the keycard and went to check that it worked before K stepped out of the line for check-in. Once inside the room, I first sent a text to Kate telling her that she could meet me upstairs. Then, I sent a message to a colleague asking for confirmation that our 5:30 meeting was still on. She responded with, “The building is on fire.” A non-sequitur if ever I’ve seen one.

I looked out the window from the hotel room and could see black smoke billowing skyward, a disturbingly dense cloud. I left the room in hopes of meeting K and found her coming down the hallway toward me, determinedly, and with her face held tense as she does whenever she worries. “We need to leave. I see smoke,” she said, matter-of-factly.

I went back into the room, grabbed my briefcase with my computer, and we decided to take the stairs. The Hilton of the Americas has internal stairwells as wide as the Champs Elysee, if you didn’t know–and we had them all to ourselves. It wasn’t until we reached the first floor that we heard the fire alarms: piercingly high-pitched and all but irrelevant at that point.

We made a beeline outside, where we were able to confirm that, yes, there was a fire. But it wasn’t actually the hotel, but the parking garage across the street and the skybridge between the two buildings. The parking garage, mind you, where we’d parked our car an hour earlier.

The smoke on the street, couple with the crowds and the multitude of firetrucks, quickly proved unpleasant. We decided to journey a few blocks away and find a place to take refuge. We chose the site of our impending meeting and ended up having a pleasant dinner with great company (which is usual for TAC).

The fire was taken care of in due time, with little permanent damage. The skybridge was reopened, our car and all of clothes (which had remained inside while we got checked in) and everything else turned out fine. The opening worship ceremony was delayed by fifteen minutes, but other than that, everything proceeded as normal.

It’s election year, and as I’ve mentioned, I’m running as a delegate to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, with idealistic hopes of finding some middle ground that can bring inclusion and some amount of justice to my LGBTQ brethren and sistren while preserving the unity of the denomination. It’s a tall order, and the deck isn’t stacked in my favor. Let’s just hope our fiery welcome was not an omen.

More to come…

Voter Fraud is Real! (But Not Where You Think)

I came into the office this morning to begin knocking out my Friday tasks to find an article from the New York Times (click here) detailing voter fraud at the 2019 UMC General Conference.

So far, four fraudulent votes–all against full inclusion–have been discovered. They originate from discrepancies between who voted and who was actually a delegate from the South Congo Conference. One, Phillipe Kasap Kachez, was not a delegate and resides in Brussels but voted as a delegate from South Congo. When asked why, he said that his father–UMC Bishop Kasap Owan–asked him to attend and vote against inclusion (the NYT article contains more direct language but, as the origin of the quotation is questionable, I have not included it).

There was a call from the floor of GC expressing concern about fraudulent voting and asking for investigation. I’m not sure what, if anything, came from the referral to the Ethics Committee that followed. While GC is not in session, the Ethics Committee does not have jurisdiction to investigate, nor are there provisions within the Book of Discipline for dealing with fraudulent or unethical activity in the polity’s legislative process.

Except for cases where clergypersons orchestrated the fraud, I’m not interested in finding a way to punish those who fraudulently participated. I find no utility in that effort. I am, however interested in the truth of what happened and why. Certainly, most of the supporters of the (Modified) Traditional Plan acted and comported themselves in good faith and with honest intent. I may find that intent misguided at best, but I’ve no reason to doubt their sincerity of belief or commitment to following the Book of Discipline in how resolution is reached.

There are those on the conservative side who have been maneuvering politically and playing Machiavellian games to further their goals. That’s not against the letter of the rules (and so not actionable in any way), but it is against the spirit of them. There have been progressives doing the same thing, I’m sure, but my bias prevents me from picking up on that to the same extent.

What the NYT has revealed, however, is on another level. The willingness to commit violations of the trust and fellowship established by the UMC in order to win an issue that they’re afraid they can’t win by honest means is deplorable and should be denounced by all members of the Church, regardless of position on homosexuality or the Traditional Plan versus the One Church Plan.

The NYT reports a 54-vote margin on “the vote against gay clergy and same-sex marriage.” I’m not sure which specific vote this refers to, but the margin between most of the votes was similar. Four fraudulent votes are not enough to change the result by the numbers, but they are enough to throw the whole process into question. It remains to be discovered if more fraudulent activity will be brought to light, but this news does not bode well. The votes also raise the specter of other fraudulent or nefarious activity behind the scenes that may have influenced voting in ways other than improperly cast votes.

I favor removal from office for any bishop shown to have participated in such a breach of trust of the polity. Again, this is not a matter of punishment, per se. With the issue already as divisive as it is, it becomes even more important to protect the integrity of the process by which we reach a decision. Anyone who can be shown to have willfully violated that process should be removed from participation to protect the process itself.

Additionally, we must proceed with caution. These allegations, and those that follow (if any), cannot be fairly imputed to the entirety of the conservative or “traditional” position. It is important that we identify who was involved so that we can protect and respect the integrity of those who were not.

I am curious to see how the leaders of the conservative wing of the UMC respond to this revelation. The bishops have already hired an outside consulting firm (which makes it sound excitingly like Sherlock Holmes, but don’t get your hopes up) to investigate the affairs at General Conference.

The 2019 General Conference, it seems, has created more problems than it has solved.

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.