Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Judge Not: More Refections on American Evangelicalism and Same Sex Marriage

“Judge not, lest ye be judged. ”

That's how the Authorized Version puts one of our culture's most quoted saying.

It carries great authority because Jesus said it.

But what does it mean?

Surely Jesus did not mean we should not discern the validity or usefulness of ideas or actions. Otherwise, inhaling the vapors of a boiled newborn bat, as one translated Egyptian hieroglyphic proscribes as a cure for the flu, would be as valid as the prescription your doctor recommends when you get sick.

“Judge not,” does not mean we should never evaluate, compare, discern, distinguish, differentiate, appraise, or calculate. It doesn't mean we cannot decide for ourselves what kinds of habits lead to the well being of an individual or a society.

The Bible teaches readers to pursue wisdom by discerning, developing, evaluating, considering, pondering, reflecting, and reasoning. Jesus once told a story about a man building a tower who didn’t make a budget first. The man never completed the tower because he ran out of money.  "Count the cost,” Jesus concluded. Therefore, "judge not," could not have meant to Jesus something contrary to the overall message of the rest of scripture. 

The Book of Job and Ecclesiastes contain passages – not often read or used as topics for sermons – that call into question the value of living a godly life. Some of the Psalms ask why God doesn’t seem to answer prayer. Abraham argues with God about the concept of justice. So whatever other purposes the Bible may serve, it is unethical to use it to brainwash people.

Jews and Christians  cultivate wisdom by considering scripture as a whole and by discussing it within community. We don't do it by proof texting or by building structures of thought on an isolated passage. The Bible only leads to wisdom if we actually enter into it; if we consider the whole while we are reading the parts. Doing this requires discernment and evaluation and leads Bible readers to different conclusions.  When we discuss scripture with those who reach those other opinions, we are sometimes shocked to learn that they are apparently as wise and holy as we are.

Reading scripture as way of achieving wisdom requires social maturity. We must learn to judge and evaluate ideas rather than the people who hold those ideas. This is not often easy. 

So what does it mean to ‘judge not’ in the broader society, given the current, superheated, politically polarized society?

One example of what this might look might look like was on NPR the other day. People were discussing abortion. Each side was passionate. Each pressed the other for real answers to real questions. Each side had also agreed to avoid name-calling, sarcasm, and other kinds of insults. Each side had a right to make the other stop if the people on that side of the table perceived their opponent to be indulging in such tactics. Furthermore, each side had to promise to give non-sarcastic responses to two questions:

  1.     Which of your opponent’s arguments presented do you find the most compelling?
  2.     Which of the argument on your side gives you the most difficulty?

As I listened, my guard came down because the participants seemed to be genuinely listening to the other. They did not seem to be pretending to listen while actually forming their rebuttal.

As a result, the questions of the participants became more difficult to answer. They seemed to address deeper levels of the issue than what we normally hear in such discussions.  

I realized I was paying close attention.  

Since my sermon on Gay marriage, I have been answering a lot of email. Nearly all of it has been respectful. However, I have received – from both sides – a few emails which asked me something like “how can there be any ambiguity about an issue that is so clear-cut?

One side appeals to my human decency, for my respect for personal liberty.

The other side appeals to Holy Scripture and to the structures of civilization that have never before defined marriage in the way we are defining it now.

One side questions the validity of the received canon of scripture, or at least of our traditional ways of reading it. 

The other side counters that our very knowledge of Jesus, or of Moses for that matter, comes from two sources: tradition – which is the informal system by which knowledge and beliefs pass from person to person and from generation to generation -- and the scriptures –which are written records sent to us by our spiritual and cultural ancestors. They claim that if we remove both tradition and scripture as reliable sources of spiritual information (and Protestants removed one of these long ago) what is left of Christian faith except personal opinions?

This issue is thus provoking a major crisis among Christians.  Secular-minded people do not often grasp this or respect it.  They should. For although professing Christians are sometimes bigoted -- I certainly acknowledge that – most Christian leaders are not reacting to this issue because of their personal prejudice toward Gay people. They are trying to understand the grounding upon which their faith rests if scriptural authority, which seems to clearly forbid same sex expression, is so trivially set aside.

In many ways, this is an unintended fruit of the Protestant Reformation. The reformers began by arguing that the tradition of the Christian community was on a lesser plane of authority than Holy Scripture. Gradually though, many Protestants, especially Evangelicals, came to express an outright disdain for Christian tradition. This left scripture as their only legitimate authority for establishing doctrine, morals and piety.

This is not the place to address the serious absence of serious Bible study by the churches. It is enough to say that although liberal theology certainly undermined the reliability of scripture, many self-professing conservatives have not taken scripture very seriously either, despite their claim that the Bible is the church's ultimate authority. That is obvious when one listens to our sermons. But if scripture really is our ultimate spiritual authority, where does our current theological deficit leave us in these current social debates? 

My point is this: the reason sexuality has provoked so much anger in Christian circles is because it exposes our current deficit of serious thought. Popular social conservatism has turned out to be a woefully inadequate spiritual defense. That is because it is shifting and will continue to shift. But since political conservatism is the real religion of many church leaders, the pragmatic requirements for keeping their religious institutions afloat will lead them to first remain silent about sexual issues and finally to a quiet capitulation to the demands of the broader culture.

The conversion of these leaders will not be because of any reasoned argument they have carefully considered, but from lack of any legitimate reason for their present, but silent, convictions.

Of course there will always be some Christian leaders yelling about a flat earth, trying to pretend we still live in 1750. Those types of Christian leaders will undoubtedly take a stand. However,  the stand they take requires a lobotomy. 

The result of this unfolding scenario will be the utter loss of an authentic reason for our churches to stay in business. It forces our leaders to say that our churches exist because they exist and therefore they ought to continue to exist. It forces them to say that the reason they believe in Jesus is because they do and that although they love the Bible they are not sure what the Bible says, what it means, or where the Bible came from.

A new generation smells something rotting.

That’s why they are running.

I think we must  walk another path. It is one of humility and repentance. On this path, we will hear our Lord’s command to “judge not.” We will acknowledge that human beings are incapable of knowing the motivations, the subjective experience or the eternal destination of others.  On this path, we will listen respectfully to the stories of others. We will ask them questions that will deepen our understanding. At the same time, we will remind those on the other side that we are trying to remain under the authority of writings we believe came through history from our Creator. Nonetheless, we realize that these writings did not float down from heaven on a velvet pillow. We understand the scriptures were not compiled or even definitively settled as scripture until several centuries after the life of Christ.

These kinds of humble acknowledgements could lead us to a more humble stance before the world. Perhaps, they might even lead us to take a more humble stance before the rest of the Christian community, past and present.

I have listened to a lot of Gay people tell stories that broke my heart. So I care about them. I do not want to abuse them. I do not want to cause them any pain. I openly confess that my sin is not less than theirs. I am in no less need of God’s grace than they. For all these reasons, I welcome Gay people to walk toward heaven with me. Furthermore, I acknowledge that among their number have been many great Christians, past and present, who have struggled secretly with desires they could not name for fear of rejection or even persecution.

Nonetheless, I remain constrained by the boundaries established by a community and a Book. These form an authority I cannot violate without loss of the whole. I do not know how to doubt the validity of both tradition and scripture and retain any sense that I am representing anything legitimate at any level. I have lived my entire life believing that God once spoke on a mountain to a people at a specific time in history; that He said, “I am the Lord Thy God  … do these things and you will live.”

The resulting text from what He said on that mountain contains many ambiguities, paradox, mysterious and baffling passages. This text, which I receive as sacred, requires reflection and discussion in order to comprehend and apply its lessons. But once I believe I understand what it says, I bow my knee to it. I do not bend its words toward me. 

The question is, as I wrestle with these issues, will I expand my conversation to include the reflections of those outside my sect, people who do not belong to my ethnic and linguistic community, and who live in a different era than I? Am I willing to really listen to others, even if I ultimately come to different conclusions than they? If I am, I may encounter fresh insights into this Book of Books. I may even acquire some wisdom.  

The alternate is to turn the Bible into some sort of talisman, into an icon we seldom read, whose passages we read selectively, and which we treat as a set of quotes and dictums to memorize and batter others into compliance. In that case, we will cross a line more serious than we can possible imagine. “For the judgment you use to judge others will be the same judgment by which you shall be judged.”

And that, as Paul Harvey used to say, “is the rest of the story.”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I vented today about this very topic on my Facebook page... God is so awesome to arrange through that very same Facebook, for me to find your article... penned or at least posted the very same day. Thank you so much for writing this, and for doing so in such a sensitive, cogent and honest fashion. God bless you sir.


Jason Weiand