Monday, June 29, 2015

Marriage Equality and the Bible

Gay Marriage White House Lit 
This past week has been a tremendous one in American history. We saw the Supreme Court uphold the Affordable Care Act. We witnessed perhaps the finest display of presidential oratory, certainly of my lifetime, in Obama's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. We also saw the Supreme Court uphold marriage equality, providing the right for gays and lesbians to marry all across the land.  We have also seen calls for the removal of that hideous symbol of hatred, the confederate battle flag, from monuments and depictions all across the South. Sadly too we have seen a racist backlash, with nonsensical rallies by hate groups, the burning of at least six African American churches, as well as many right wing evangelicals coming out of the woodwork to challenge the Supreme Court's findings on marriage equality.

It is this latter issue that I'd like to engage here. Some of you are familiar with my stance on homosexuality and the Bible from my blog on the now defunct Amendment One that passed in North Carolina. Others may also be familiar with my post for ONScripture on the legacy of Dr. King for our divided culture.  I don't want to repeat myself here on these issues. But I do want to reflect on marriage and what the Bible may have to say on it.

Marriage equality of course is not described anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, the marriages described in the Bible are anything but equal. I teach through these texts year in and year out. I am hard pressed to think of a single case in either Old or New Testament in which there is an egalitarian marriage between male and female. So I'm not sure that the Bible presents us with an egalitarian ideal to emulate, when it comes to marriage. Now, one could argue that the rhetoric of the household codes in the deuteropaulines (see how many assumptions I make when I refer to these passages in Col, Eph, 1 Tim, Titus?) tones down the patriarchal understandings of the Greco-Roman world. I doubt, though, that would be of much comfort to twenty-first century women who are taking the lead in their marriages.

To be honest, I'm not sure what most conservative evangelicals are talking about when they speak of the "biblical view on marriage," as if it were some kind of ideal. When I look at the Bible what I see are stories of human frailty and brokenness. Let's talk briefly about one of the texts many conservative theologians take out of context when they claim that the ideal is marriage between a man and a woman.  It comes from the Yahwistic creation account, the story of Adam and Eve, in Gen 2:24.  "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (NRSV).  As I teach my undergraduates in Old Testament, this is one of the many etiologies that can be found in the Yahwist's stories, particularly in the early chapters of Genesis. An etiology is an explanation about a current reality that is grounded in a narrative retrospectively. As I tell my students, the Yahwist is a master story teller and folklorist. Good folklorists color their stories in such a way that the stories explain a contemporary reality. It is as if  the Yahwist is telling a bedtime story to a child that has asked a question. For example, to the child's question, "how did the animals get their names," the Yahwist tells the story of how Yahweh shaped every animal of the field and bird of the air and gave Adam the chance to name them (Gen 2:18-20). Why did God do this?  Because Adam was lonely and God was seeking to make him a companion. It is a sweet story. Before God took a rib out of Adam to make him a wife, he tried to console Adam's loneliness with parakeets, sheep, and puppy dogs. As etiology and folklore, the story is lovely and charming. But is this the kind of story upon which folks really want to base their ideal for a lifelong commitment?

Some evangelicals are concerned about protecting the sanctity of marriage, or guarding marriage as a biblical institution. I fail to see how marriage equality threatens anything but the most patriarchal, and hierarchical forms of marriage. I'm also not convinced that the marriages presented in the Bible present us with something all that sacred.

How about Father Abraham? OK, he more or less raped his wife's slave-girl, Hagar.  I don't know what else to call it.  Sarai gave Hagar to him to sleep with (Gen 16:2). Hagar was a slave-girl! Given her position in the household and the likely fact that she was a young teen, consent was clearly out of the question. I don't see any marriage ideal here.

Well, what about Jacob?  He married Rachel and Leah; and, uh, they were sisters (Gen 29:15-30)! On top of that, he slept with their slave-girls, Bilhah (Gen 30:4) Zilpah (Gen 30:9), as well. If we are charitable, we might say that the house of Israel was the product of a very messy mixed marriage. Read from contemporary eyes, though, the house of Israel was the product of a horrendous conflict between two sisters who were fighting over a man whom today we probably would prosecute as a bigamist and rapist (could Bilhah and Zilpah have said no?).

I don't believe these stories help us to come up with an ethical ideal for marriage.  For the narrative imagination, actually, I find such biblical stories somewhat of a threat to the ideal of the sanctity of marriage. What I find praiseworthy for the narrative imagination is the kind of love that is shared between two people of the same sex who--in spite all the hardship, oppression, and prejudice they have faced--still want to make a lifelong covenant with one another!  Thank God this is now legal in this nation.

To the social conservatives who oppose it and those who are rejoicing over the Supreme Court ruling, I would offer the same word of caution. Theologically, I believe that the biblical narrative, time and again, portrays human beings as broken, deceitful, sometimes violent, covenant-making/covenant-breaking creatures. Apart from God's love and God's grace, we human beings are incapable of maintaining lifelong covenants; not with God, who has chosen to be in covenant with us, nor with the partners with whom we have chosen to be in covenant. I would caution conservative theologians to think very carefully about what they mean when they praise the sanctity of marriage.  Maintaining a lifelong covenant is a gargantuan task and there are bound to be times when we as humans fail our spouses in one way or another. If theologians are to take the Bible seriously, they ought far more to preach the messiness of marriage and the reality that there will be times when people we love and trust (whether they be spouses, parents, children, siblings, or close friends) will fail us and our expectations of one another. The biblical message is not the sanctity of marriage, but the brokenness of human beings. Only through God's grace can we even begin to attempt fidelity and approach sanctity.

To those who are rejoicing over the recent ruling, I say, I rejoice with you. Same sex couples should not be denied equal status and protection under the law. We should all rejoice that human rights are being expanded in our society; although there is still much to be done. Still, I would caution that marriage is no panacea. It certainly confers legal and economic protection for same-sex families. And for this, one should rejoice. This change of status, however, does not magically make a person any less broken.  It does not automatically heal one from past wounds or unresolved anxieties. As a believer, I think what I have said above holds true for married couples, regardless of whether they are of the same or differing gender. We are all frail and broken creatures. Only with God's grace can we attempt to maintain covenant fidelity to one another. My prayer is that those churches that have not already recognized marriage equality might follow this ruling. Instead of blocking it, the church should be a source for God's grace and comfort. Regardless of whom we love, the church should be in the business of blessing and enriching our covenants with grace and community, not condemning them with fear and lack of knowledge.    


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Slaying Giants

Slaying Giants

The Goliath of Racism in Light of the Shootings in Charleston, S.C.

I Samuel 17:31-49 (NRSV)

31 When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. 32 David said to Saul, "Let no one's heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine." 33 Saul said to David, "You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth." 34 But David said to Saul, "Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God." 37 David said, "The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine." So Saul said to David, "Go, and may the LORD be with you!" 38 Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39 David strapped Saul's sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, "I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them." So David removed them. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd's bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. 41 The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43 The Philistine said to David, "Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?" And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 The Philistine said to David, "Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field." 45 But David said to the Philistine, "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD's and he will give you into our hand." 48 When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.
 49 David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

Here we are again. With the events of this week in Charleston, S.C. our nation once again has been thrown into the downward spiral of anxiety, hate, and loss after a senseless, violent tragedy that has claimed the lives of innocents and saints  I wasn’t planning on preaching about this topic this weekend, especially since I am a guest in your house of worship and this a particularly difficult and charged topic; but preaching the Word requires us to be timely and prophetic. I know this event has been on all of hearts and minds this week. So if you’ll allow me, I thought I would venture into these difficult and sobering issues in the company of our Old Testament Scripture.

The story of David and Goliath is one that many of us have known since our childhood. I can remember as a little boy hearing this story in church and going back home and finding a forked stick and putting a rubber band on it to make my own slingshot to play David and Goliath. But that memory is vague; and who knows whether maybe some well-meaning children’s church worker got the bright idea to make slingshots with the children as a craft for that Sunday. I’m sure my parents would have been glad that their little boy came home with a weapon and five smooth small stones with which to torment the family dog.  It’s a good thing I was never that good at crafts! But David and Goliath is a romantic story, when told to children. We tend to focus on David as the sweet little shepherd boy whom neither King Saul nor Goliath take all that seriously; the little boy who kills the giant with his slingshot.

From a scholarly point of view, this story may accent the Royal Ideology of the Davidic Kingdom. Viewed from this perspective, the story of David and Goliath is a wonderful piece of propaganda that represents David’s great cunning and resourcefulness as a warrior, as well as his close reliance upon God and the institution of Israel’s religion. The contrast between King Saul, the fearful warrior, and David, the unknown young shepherd boy, is particularly powerful here. As an adult reflecting on it today, I find it astonishing that we have made this into a children’s story. It is a particularly violent text. Not only does David proclaim to Goliath that he is going to cut his head off, after he slays him with the stone, he goes on to defile the giant’s body by cutting his head off. Not only that, he takes the head with him as a trophy to Jerusalem, and with Goliath’s head in his hand, he goes to Abner, the commander of Israel’s army, and King Saul, simply to display his military prowess. At least from the perspective of violence and horror, there is little to redeem this text; and yet we still view it as a children’s story.

I do believe, though, that this text still can speak to us today, particularly during a time of distress such as the one we’re facing after the massacre at Charleston this past week. To do so, we’ll need to read the story as a kind of parable of our own contemporary moral and spiritual dilemmas, embracing what is called a tropological reading of Scripture, a way of reading the echoes back to the ancient church, yet is still commonly practiced in the Black Church tradition. In this sense, Goliath represents for us any giant that we might struggle to slay in our lives. Those giants can be different things for each of us.

As a white worshiping community in the South in the US, even in the 21st century, the events of this week demonstrate very clearly that racism is a giant in our culture and in our own lives. Racism is a Goliath who is threatening to destroy and defeat us, and is acting on his threats to kill our very own brothers and sisters in Christian community. We know that the scourge of racism and the horrors of violence (particularly the gun violence) must be defeated. We know this just as surely as King Saul and the Israelites knew that Goliath must be defeated, if they were to live in peace. Yet, we are riddled and disabled by fear. Saul and the Israelites could not imagine how they were going to defeat this giant.  In the ancient ways of war, Goliath seemed undefeatable. He is portrayed as huge and tall, even by modern standards. He was also armored like a tank, with all the most advanced weaponry. Compared the Isrealites, the ancient Philistines were well known for their technical prowess, especially their metalworking. So a giant 10 feet tall, wearing somewhere around 150 pounds of armor, and able to throw a 25 pound spear, that would have been something to fear!

What’s more amazing is that the sight and words of Goliath caused the leaders of Israel to quake in  terror. This is the kind of terror that seizes you, the keeps you from moving, or acting, or doing anything. No one believes they have the wherewithal to take on Goliath. They are seized and disabled with fear. We’ve all been in situations like this, haven’t we? We may be facing a workplace bully or an addiction problem that seems so huge it is insurmountable. Some of us have been so beaten down and had our self-esteem battered, that we are disabled with fear, self-loathing, and self-doubt that prevents us from even seeing the opportunities ahead of us. When we think about Goliath this way, I think we can also draw a parallel to our own contemporary situation and racism. Racism is a particularly powerful enemy, in that it is something that is both at large in our culture and history, but also insidiously at work within each one of us, oftentimes without our even being aware of it.

What makes racism so powerful, is that it tends to instill, especially among the privileged group in society. a doubling of “otherness.” Not only do we in the majority culture project “otherness” upon the minority culture, it also instill within some of us a sense of moral superiority as we tend to project upon “others,” who act or speak openly on their fears and prejudices, as the “racists.” And we see such project going on in the media today. If we are charitable, this young shooter down in Charleston becomes an “isolated individual,” or is portrayed as a “troubled youth,” or someone who is wrestling with “mental illness.” If we are judgmental, this young man becomes a “redneck hick,” a “racist monster,” or a “vile terrorist.” Either way, we are projecting upon this young man a sense of “otherness.” He is the terrorist.  He is the redneck racist. He is a troubled young man.  We place all the blame on him and take no responsibility at all upon ourselves. And so Goliath continues to play with our minds and our hearts, to trick us into a sense of moral complacency and defeat. We come to believe that racism and violence are giants that just too large for us to confront or defeat.

Maybe we even become defensive. Saul’s approach to the problem of Goliath was a defensive one.   Even after David volunteered to take on Goliath, Saul tried to outfit David with the latest and greatest in Israelite armaments. We have this humorous picture of the young boy David struggling even to walk when wearing Saul’s armor. And yes friends, in my facebook feed these past few days, I’ve seen folks on the defensive. White friends of mine have posted that the battle flag flying over the monument at the South Carolina state capital is just a memorial, is not really a flag that historically represented the Confederacy and, blah, blah, blah—and then you see the fights and nasty comments in the facebook feed, and you begin to feel sad and sorry for everyone (both for and against) in your wider community.

Racism, like Goliath, pushes everyone towards the defensive. I wonder how many of our African American brothers and sisters came to church this morning with at least a slight tinge of fear and defensiveness this morning. I wonder how many of those of us in the white community may have wanted to shout out to the world this past week, “Dylan Roof isn’t me; he doesn’t represent me; he has nothing to do with me. We are different. Our community is loving and peaceable. Our church doesn’t preach hate.”  Or worse, we become part of the silent majority, not unlike the many German Christians whom Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called out for remaining silent, as they saw Jews, Gypsies, Adventists, Socialists, and even activist Christians rounded up by the Nazis for extermination.

With all of these reactions and defenses, we are just throwing ourselves deeper into the clutches of racism. We are like Saul and the Israelites, disabled and broken, unable to confront our giant enemy before us. So David represents for us hope, a hope that we can participate in slaying the giants before us. He starts by acknowledging Goliath as a serious enemy to be defeated.

With racism, this is crucially important. As a member of the white community in the South, I must start by recognizing that all the forces at work in my culture and in our history have made me, whether I was complicit in it or not, into a racist! We must start by recognizing our enemy, as the enemy within.  Racism is like any demonic power or principality that is busily trying to capture and enslave us and our society.  It is part of what liberation theologians call structural sin.   It is bigger than any of us and to combat it, we must recognize that we are in its grasp  Just as the alcoholic cannot truly begin recovery until he or she recognizes that alcohol has power over him/her, we too must recognize that we too are caught up in the clutches of racism, consumerism, materialism, and militarism, and the like that dominate our contemporary American empire.

We cannot begin to embark upon the road to recovery until we recognize the power of the enemy within us and claim the reality that we too are racist. This is the frightening reality of sin that has caught hold of us. It is hard, but we cannot recognize our redemption until we take seriously that we have become beholden to the clutches of sin and death. But I must struggle to recognize that I am not much different than this baby-faced young boy. In many ways, Dylan Roof is me. We cannot begin to be changed by God’s grace, until we recognize the power that hateful messages, the experiences of bullying, and low self-esteem have upon our own broken psyches.

The good news is that we do not need to rely on our own defenses to save ourselves.  As David says to Goliath in the text, “The Lord will deliver you into my hand…that all may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear, for the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand.” You see, David rejects Saul’s armor. David rejects the standard weapons and defenses of war. David recognizes that God can work through him and his five small stones to defeat Goliath. You see, read allegorically, David’s defeat of Goliath is not unlike Christ’s defeat of Satan and Satan’s empire upon the cross. The forces of death and evil have been defeated through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. We can live again, in the freedom of what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community” because of Christ’s self-sacrificial death on the cross.

Yes, racism is indeed a giant in our culture, a giant that takes a hold of us in our fear and perplexity, and turns us against one another in acts of defeat, and violence, and hatred. But Christ has overcome this giant, and all of Satan’s forces, through the self-sacrificial death on the cross, and he has been resurrected in the Glory of the divine light. Brother and sisters, I say to you today, even when we are in the darkest clutches of any of Satan’s power or principalities, whether it be racism, addictions, struggles with illness, or pain, betrayal, or low self-esteem, the crucified Christ is with us. We are not alone! We are empowered, with Christ, with our brothers and sisters in the African American community, to take on selfless acts of love and self-sacrifice to overcome the bounds of racism and prejudice, and defeat that great old mortal enemy.  It may, it must, start within.  It may, it must, start with the recognition that we too have been joined with the forces of sin as enemies of Christ. But through Christ, through the cross and resurrection, our story ends with Love.  Our story ends in the Beloved Community, where there is no “other.” May we find ways to recognize the enemy within and undertake selfless, self-sacrificial acts of courage and justice, standing up to hate in all its forms, whether within or without, and join in vigil and memory of the countless martyrs who have died for racial reconciliation and transformation in our world today.