The Politics of the Empty Tomb

I guest-posted a Scriptural reflection on the politics of the empty tomb earlier today.

Political theology, like many other forms of theology, is in constant danger of quests to secure the stable and settled presence of Christ. It risks denying the continuing reality of his absence and, indeed, how integral absence is to the ascended Christ’s mode of presence in our world. Louis-Marie Chauvet suggests that the presence of this temptation to political theology is most acutely experienced in a moralistic tendency associated with social action. Effacing the absence of the risen Christ, we risk identifying his reign with forms of this world and his salvation with our political visions of liberation. In such a manner, we would return the risen Christ to the safety of his tomb, our political praxis being the memorial of the departed prophet. This is a Christ who can be securely known apart from faith and love.

A truly Christian political theology must start with the experience of Mary Magdalene, with the death of ‘natural religiosity’ and the discovery of the absence of the body of Christ. Our praxis must be thrown open, like the tomb of our risen Lord. Our political activity is not the spicing of a sepulchre, containing and maintaining the presence of Christ’s cadaver. Rather, it is a site of a glorious absence, a sign of resurrection to be believed by those whose loving eyes have been opened.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in Bible, Christian Experience, Ethics, Guest Post, John, NT, NT Theology, Politics, Theological | Leave a comment

Death Before the Fall

Lions hunting

Over on Jesus Creed, RJS asks about death before the Fall. Following Ronald Osborn, she suggests that the place of death within the creation is a problem, especially for those who take Genesis literally. As death is supposed to arise from the curse, she suggests three ways in which we might choose to reconcile the text with the reality that we observe:

Possibility One. After the sin of Adam, God gave over the animal kingdom to natural predation.
Possibility Two. God cursed or dramatically modified the animal kingdom after Adam’s Fall.
Possibility Three. Predatory animals are a result of demonic forces at work in the world.

I haven’t yet read Osborn, but the following are a few thoughts on a fourth possibility. I believe that this possibility is suggested by reflection upon the text of Genesis itself, rather than being a highly speculative theory to fill a crucial gap in the biblical account.

The fourth possibility begins by challenging the premise that there was no animal death before the Fall (along with the assumption that human beings were naturally immortal). The claim that there was no animal death before the Fall is not one that the text itself gives us, but arises out of the conviction that animal death is characteristic of the futility and bondage of corruption to which creation was subjected following the Fall of Adam. For this fourth approach, death is associated with the state of innocence, immaturity, wildness, and being unperfected.

How might we develop such a reading from the text itself?

The world was never created ‘perfect’, but was created ‘good’. In Genesis 1:2, the entire creation was formless, void, and untamed. In Genesis 2:5, this situation is recapitulated on a smaller scale. God begins to address this situation by creating a man. Then, after creating the man, he creates the Garden and places the man within it. It is not unreasonable to assume that the man would have witnessed both the unformed, void, and untamed creation and then God’s planting of the Garden within it.

The Garden is the divine sanctuary, the place where God walks in the midst of mankind, and the template for the solution to the problem of the wider world. The Garden is walled or hedged and there is limited access to it, enabling those within it to defend it against intrusion (cf. Genesis 3:24). In creating the Garden, God establishes boundaries within the land, preventing unauthorized access and dividing one zone from others. The act of creating the Garden is one of forming and filling, much like that of Genesis 1. The Garden is walled off from the untamed creation that surrounds it and then it is filled with trees and with beauty. Within the Garden itself there are further boundaries established. The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil were placed in the heart of the Garden. These trees don’t only organize space—identifying the centre of the Garden—but also create a world with new ethical boundaries.

James Jordan suggests a set of parallels between the events of the creation days of Genesis 1 and the establishment of the Garden in Genesis 2, following the formless, void, and untamed situation of Genesis 2:5. The first day, the day when God created light, corresponds to the creation of man in his image, the human light of the world. The second day, when God created the firmament division between heaven and earth, corresponds to the division of the heaven-model of the Garden from the general formless void of the rest of the earth. The third day, the separation of dry land from the waters and the creation of grasses, herbs, and fruit trees, corresponds to the creation of the trees of the Garden and the river that flows out from Eden to water the Garden and to divide the earth into its respective lands.

The fourth day, the placing of lights in the firmament of the heavens, corresponds to the placing of the human light, Adam, in the firmament of the Garden as its ruler and priest. Jordan connects the fifth day, the creation of creatures to fly across the face of the firmament above and to teem in the waters beneath, with the blessing and judgment associated with the trees. I am more inclined to join together days five and six (the day of the creation of land creatures and humanity) and relate it to God’s formation of the birds and the animals and his bringing them to Adam to name. Just as the sixth day of the creation of Genesis 1 culminates in the creation of humanity, so the bringing of the animals to Adam to name culminates with God’s formation of a new human from his side, who is brought to him to name. The union of man and woman in the Garden that follows corresponds to the seventh day, the day of rest. In this manner, the larger order of the creation is recapitulated in microcosm in the creation of the world of the Garden, not merely in structural order, but also in its temporal sequence.

The man is placed within the Garden as the priest. As the priest, he is charged with the task of guarding and serving the enclosed sanctuary in the midst of which God walks. He is also given the law concerning the holy food, a law that he will be expected to treat his wife when she is created, and to their children after them. The priest is the one who maintains the ‘tamed’ and ‘domestic’ character of the Garden and the one who upholds, defends, and enforces its boundaries.

As the man upholds the order of the Garden, it will provide a model that he will bring out into the world and a temple into which he will bring in the riches of the world (we should note the references to precious stones and metals in the description of the lands surrounding Eden). He must make the world into a Garden and the Garden into a glorious garden city, clothed with all of the riches of the world, much like the city that we see in Revelation. He learns within and from the order of God’s own creative work, so that he can engage in creative work of his own as God’s image.

The world is unlike the Garden and doesn’t yet have any gardener working within it. It is formless, void, and untamed, and the beasts that dwell within it are also untamed. It remains to be subdued by a gardener and a tamer of wild beasts. God brought the animals to the man for him to name. Just as God had planted the Garden after the man’s creation, providing the man with a model for his own work within the world, the bringing of the animals to the man also served to acquaint him with the nature of his task. As God brought the great wild animals to the man to name, the man was like a son learning from his Father’s example. Just as his Father tamed the wild beasts—even the Leviathan and Behemoth—so he was to exercise God’s rule over them. The Garden is to be glorified as God’s ‘domus’ and the wild creation must be ‘domesticated’, as man shepherds God’s good yet untamed creation. The fulfilment of man’s rule is seen when the lion is made to lie down with the lamb, house-trained creatures in the temple of the Lord.

To fill out this picture, we must recognize that the original creation was good, yet imperfect. It is a world in its infancy. Adam and Eve are naked like infants in a kindergarten, under the training of angels, not yet clothed with glory and honour as rulers over the whole creation. God protects them from the wildness of the wider world within the walls of the Garden. The task within the world still remains to be done: they have yet to be fruitful, multiply, fill the world, and subdue it. Perfection was not the creation’s natural state, but its intended destiny (and salvation is not a ‘rebooting’ of creation to its primary state, but the restoring of creation to the future that God originally intended for it).

Death is related to immaturity in various ways. I have already mentioned the issue of being untamed. Death is also an engine of growth. It clears away the old to make way for the new. Without death the world could easily become stagnant. No wind would blow away the stale air of an older generation’s prevailing ideologies. The world would be a place of exhausted possibilities, with little space within which a novel departure could occur.

‘Death’ can be part of the means by which new life comes, as we die to an old form of existence and are raised up to another more glorious form (‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies…’). 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 would suggest that Adam’s original physicality was immature too, that it was always destined to become a glorious spiritually empowered mode of bodily existence, and that a ‘good death’ was an essential mechanism by which this would take place. As Christ bears the alienation of ‘bad death’, we are able to view death as a good thing, as that which delivers us from our old failing Adamic bodies in preparation for being clothed with a much more glorious physicality.

The immature world is also a world of inchoate ethics. Innocence is not an ideal moral state, but is characterized by moral naivety and a lack of knowledge of good and evil. The innocence of the newborn is its incapacity for moral action, either good or evil. The infant cannot morally ‘fall’, because it cannot yet ‘walk’. Animals can’t sin in the same way as human beings not because they are perfect, but because they do not possess our moral capacity. An immature world is one with limited capacity for moral responsibility with respect to life. As various people have observed, the violent criminal is just a two year old who never learned how to stop functioning as a two year old. On a related front, human sinlessness before the Fall shouldn’t be considered in terms of moral perfection according to the Ten Commandments, for instance. The commandment concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil assumed only a very limited moral capacity of those receiving it (also, biblical evidence strongly suggests that Adam and Eve would have been given to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when they had matured). The sinlessness of Christ is a radically different thing from the sinlessness of the pre-Fall Adam.

As infants don’t yet know good from evil, they must be directed to the good by external command, which is how God trained Adam and Eve. It is also why they were capable of falling. However, with maturity, we are more internally oriented to the good and ethics starts to function according to different principles (wisdom, persuasion, etc.). With perfection, our wills will be so capable of apprehending our good that we will no longer be capable of willing to do evil, not by virtue of some external compulsion, but by virtue of mature wills and natures and their appropriate mutual correspondence.

How does the judgment upon Adam following the Fall play into this picture?

First, after the Fall, in the task of taming, ordering, and mastering the creation, Adam would find that the creation would be far more powerfully resistant to his efforts. He would try to make the creation into a garden and the creation would fight back with thorns and thistles. He would have to engage in the task given to him with bitterness and pain. The beasts that he needed to tame might even take his life. He wouldn’t have the power to hold the creation in check and the violence of the natural order would increase (Genesis 9:1-7 is a significant development, as it gives men greater power relative to the wild animals).

Second, by expelling man from the Garden, God removed mankind from the protection of its walls and hedges. Cast out from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve would have to operate in the wild, in an untamed and hostile world. Much as God removed the ‘hedge’ surrounding Job and protecting him from the assaults of Satan and his enemies (cf. Job 1:10), so God made Adam and Eve vulnerable to being harmed or attacked by wild beasts, natural forces, Satan, sin, and later human violence.

Third, picking up on the third possibility identified in RJS’s post and related to the previous point, there are suggestions in Scripture that demonic forces can exercise a measure of power within the created world and over its forces (not least in the instance of the serpent in the Garden). By lifting the hedge of protection from Adam and Eve, God gave Satan and his forces a longer leash with which to attack them. The serpent was to eat dust, but Adam was reminded that he was dust and that he would return to it: prey of the serpent. As his children rejected him, God would not protect them in from the hostile forces within the creation to the same extent.

Fourth, by expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden, they were denied access to the holy food of the Tree of Life and to the transfiguring presence of God. Cut off from the source of their life, they would wither, as they had no source of life in themselves. Cut off from God’s vivifying presence, we gravitate to the grave, physically as well as spiritually.

I submit that the proposal outlined above is a much richer, more biblical, and a considerably more satisfying way of understanding the role of death within the original creation as described by Genesis. In addition to its value in understanding Genesis, it also provides us with a number of key insights that help us better to understand the work and person of Christ.

First, Christ’s obedience is not about ‘innocence’ but about ‘perfection’. Christ brings humanity to the height and fullness of its divinely intended moral stature. He gives us, not merely innocence or obedience, but full maturity.

Second, humanity was always intended to die and rise again to a more glorious form of life. Christ death and resurrection achieves this destiny.

Third, as the last Adam, Christ will pacify and tame the entire creation, ruling until every enemy is placed under his feet.

Fourth, as we are in Christ, the bad character of death is minimized. We are not unclothed to be left naked, but in order to be more fully clothed, to have death swallowed up in life. We are still subject to the hostile attacks of the world and to the possibility of death within it, but Christ is the Tree of Life and we have unrestricted access to him. Death is no longer the alienating power that it once was.

Posted in Bible, Creation, Ethics, Genesis, OT, The Blogosphere, Theological | 62 Comments

Open Mic Thread 1

Mic

At the suggestion of ‘The Man Who Was…’, a frequent commenter in these parts, I am going to start a new series of posts. Every couple of weeks, I will publish a post like this, without a specific topic. The comments of this post will be thrown open to you, the readers of this blog, to:

  • Discuss things that you have been reading/listening to/watching recently
  • Share interesting links
  • Ask questions
  • Put forward a position for more general discussion
  • Tell us about yourself and your interests
  • Publicize your blog, book, conference, etc.
  • Draw our intention to worthy thinkers, charities, ministries, books, and events
  • Post reviews
  • Suggest topics for future posts
  • Use as a bulletin board
  • Etc.

It is up to you to make of these posts what you want. If they catch on, they will be an ongoing fixture here. Over to you!

Posted in Public Service Announcement | 58 Comments

Jesus Before Pilate

While on the subject of guest posts, here are two other pieces that I wrote over the last couple of weeks. Both are reflections upon political themes present within Jesus’ appearance before Pontius Pilate as recorded in the gospel of John.

The Politics of a Misunderstood Kingdom—John 18:28-38


The Politics of the Mob—John 19:1-16a

You can see other guest posts that I have written here.

Posted in Bible, Holy Week, John, NT, NT Theology, Theological | 2 Comments

A Conversation on Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety

Lent

My friend Jake Meador and I had a wide-ranging e-mail conversation over the last few days. It was posted on Mere Orthodoxy earlier today. It is lengthy, but worth checking out. The following are a few quotations from our discussion to whet your appetite.

[M]ost of us haven’t taken the time to adequately understand the role that Lent plays within Catholic or Orthodox piety, nor have we stopped to ask whether a similar role even exists in evangelical piety. I think Lent is far less problematic for evangelicals than, say, praying to saints. But unless we try to understand the particular thing Lent accomplishes in the piety of other traditions we run the risk of sloppily importing a practice into evangelical piety that actually doesn’t work in evangelical piety–and may even undermine it.

***

Part of the genius of Lent historically was the manner in which it knit together personal and communal formation, overcoming the individual-corporate polarity that is so often present in our thinking. It expressed the intimate connection between the preparation of individual baptismal candidates and the more general preparation of the whole church body for the celebration of Easter.

***

As Mark Searle observed, ‘We seek community as a means of self-fulfillment, looking to it to meet our needs but reluctant to submit ourselves to its constraints, we merely succeed in turning our parish liturgies into “life-style enclaves,” as Bellah calls them, the coming-together of people who enjoy the same things.’ Few are truly aware of the degree to which, even when faithfully going through the motions of traditional liturgy, prevailing forms of subjectivity lead us to perform them against their grain, leaving us untouched by their true formative power. Beyond the recovery of traditional liturgy, we need consciously to reflect upon how we might re-establish the sorts of subjectivity that ought to correspond to them. This is a matter to which much less serious thought has been devoted. How can we move beyond what Searle terms ‘shared celebrations’ to genuinely public and common worship?

***

Even the things that we think of as creating an experience of being compelled are actually still under our control to a large degree–I might hate my job and hate the things my boss makes me do, but I can always apply for other jobs. The normal experience of my life is that I possess a tremendous amount of control over my circumstances–and that is seen as an unambiguous good by most in the contemporary west today. And obviously a lot of good things have come from greater personal liberty. But these personal liberties often have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors–which is why we’re seeing so much chatter amongst certain traditionalist conservatives about Burke’s “little platoons.” Some of us are starting to realize that the kind of autonomous freedom we aspire to brings with it a heavy price.

***

The ashtagging phenomenon that I mentioned earlier is one example of a use of social media that comes fairly naturally to us within the current ecology of the Internet, but which may reveal distortions in the modes of our engagement. As a ‘viral’ Internet ‘meme’, ashtagging works by means of imitation. The power of the meme to bring people together is profound: when we participate in a meme we feel as though we are ‘part of something’, something bigger than ourselves that unites us with others. This sort of ‘viral’ imitation is a mode of community that is very powerful and effective in contexts where people are fairly undifferentiated and where emotions can pass rapidly from person to person without much to hinder them.

***

Perhaps the thing that first piqued my interest in the ashtagging trend was its use of ‘selfies’. Žižek has used the concept of ‘interpassivity’ to discuss such things as canned laughter on television. The canned laughter substitutes for my own laughter, laughing for me, and saving me from having to do so for myself (for those who can’t relate to this, just think of the ways that you use emoticons and Internet abbreviations to substitute for actual displays of emotion). The selfie can often perform a similar purpose. The selfie—which typically exists to be posted online—is part of an image of myself that I construct in and for an online community, such as Facebook. This online image of me can start to substitute for me, virtually performing my identity so that I don’t really have to. I haven’t truly had a wonderful holiday unless I have an incredible photo album for my friends to ‘like’ on Facebook. In fact, while on holiday much of my attention may be diverted from the immediate enjoyment of it to the construction of an image of the holiday to stand for this enjoyment. This online image—or perhaps idol—of the self can even become integral to my identity, becoming the means by which we know ourselves. We all risk functioning like mini-celebrities now.

Anyway, there is much, much more there. Do take a look and leave your thoughts in the comments!

Posted in Church History, Culture, Guest Post, Lent, The Church, Theological, Worship | 2 Comments

On the Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage in England and Wales

Today has witnessed the first legal same-sex marriages within England and Wales. This development heralds the movement into a new stage of public discourse surrounding marriage, within which a different set of issues will become more prominent and pressing. The following are some thoughts at the current juncture in the cultural conversation.

1. Irrespective of its legality, same-sex marriage still isn’t marriage.

In challenging same-sex marriage, our argument has not been that it shouldn’t be permitted, but that it isn’t possible. Calling the union between two persons of the same sex a ‘marriage’ doesn’t make it one, even if that definition is made legally binding. Marriage names the committed sexual union between a man and a woman. By recognizing and naming its unique character and significance, it protects and celebrates the natural relation that brings the sexes together, within which new life is brought into existence, and by which humanity is constituted as a race. This natural relation is the source of our deepest given bonds and integral to the well-being of society, providing a horizon of our existence and relations that precedes and transcends law, politics, technology, and economics, disclosing the primary telos of our sexed bodies and the deep natural grammar whereby we exist through, by, and with others. While Christians recognize a deeper set of issues that are at stake here (about which more soon), recognizing and upholding the natural reality at the heart of marriage and resisting the pressure to present it as being on a par with other forms of sexual relations is a matter of importance for society and its members more generally.

2. We’ve lost a big battle, but the war is far from over.

The legalization of same-sex marriage is a big step in the direction of the normalization of such relations and a significant milestone in our culture’s forgetting of the meaning of marriage. Nevertheless, the currency that same-sex marriages will have in our society is not singlehandedly determined by their being enshrined in law. It is far from assured that placing same-sex unions on a par with relations between the sexes in law will lead to the same equivalence being maintained in the minds and imaginations of the public. While same-sex marriages are now legal, we should seek to ensure that the public continues to regard such marriages as if in scare quotes or with an asterisk attached. The public may want to tolerate such unions, but that does not mean that they are on board with all for which they stand. As marriage culture deteriorates in our society more generally it may well be the case that the preservation of a robust definition and practice of marriage within the Church will lead people to recognize how chipped the coin of marriage is in the society more generally and not give it the currency that it claims for itself. Here the ‘quadruple lock’ may prove very significant.

3. The legalization of same-sex marriage further pushes open the door on other cultural struggles.

When society holds homosexual relations on a par with those between a man and a woman, it compromises its well-being on various fronts. Perhaps some of the most immediate effects are seen in the gradual diminishment of the significance of and weakening of the protections for the natural bonds between a child and their mother and father. The rights of children to their natural mother and father or to a mother and father more generally are compromised as same-sex marriage leads to a normalization of circumventions of procreative relations in favour of the use of reproductive technologies, economic transactions, or legal arrangements. With the legalization and normalization of same-sex marriage, it will be increasingly difficult to speak publicly of having a mother and father as natural, ideal, and normal, or to speak of the bond between children and their parents in terms of natural procreation. The normalization of same-sex unions will also encourage a decay of any public discourse concerning what is ‘natural’ in the sphere of human relations—between children and parents, between the sexes, or within wider family networks—and the elevation of social and legal constructivism over all else in this area.

4. The legalization of same-sex marriage gives momentum to other challenges to marriage.

Now that the big wave of same-sex marriage has broken down our cultural defences, successive waves will find fewer obstacles to their ingress. One of the developments that we should expect over the next decade are a push towards the normalization of non-monogamy, ‘monogamish’, or ‘open’ marriages. A number of the gays and lesbians who have been interviewed or have written on the subject of the legalization of same-sex marriage in the UK over the last few weeks have pointed out that gays and lesbians will retailor the institution for their own needs and preferences. Some have even used the language of ‘redefinition’. The sexual exclusivity of marriage is one thing that will be steadily challenged, weakened, or abandoned over the coming years. A further possible development is a rise in advocacy for the legalization of polyamorous relations.

5. This has the benefit of clarifying where we stand.

The legalization of same-sex marriage is a signal development within what has for the most part been a slow and gradual erosion of the institution of marriage. The foundations of the institution of marriage have been crumbling for decades. However, now that one of the walls of the institution has dramatically fallen away, there is a greater chance of making people aware of what is taking place. We would be deeply mistaken to see same-sex marriage as a development unrelated to previous developments in marriage more general. It is the cultural decay of the meaning of marriage between men and women and marriage culture more generally that has led quite directly to our current situation. For Christians, this development also clarifies where we stand with respect to our wider society and government. Christian values, which were formerly honoured and protected now seem to be in jeopardy and protection for Christian conscience, teaching, and practice are matters of growing concern. Our full participation in the public square and the right to air and uphold historic Christian convictions in education and elsewhere are increasingly uncertain. The expression of many Christian convictions is in danger of being consigned to private reservations and excluded from the broader realm of political, economic, cultural, and civil life. Christians who uphold and express orthodox views on sexual ethics risk marginalization, stigmatization, discrimination, or cultural exclusion. All of this will help Christians to process the fact that we are no longer a Christian country and will have the benefit of teaching us to act and think accordingly. While it has been important to address these issues publicly and politically, our primary concern should be that of creating a distinct culture within the Church, one which exposes the failures in the wider society.

6. As the primary context for our marriage apologetics shifts, we have the advantage of appealing more frequently and explicitly to some of our deepest, distinctively Christian, convictions about marriage.

In the more general cultural and political debate around marriage, in defending marriage we had to limit ourselves to secular categories and principles. While such defences are quite possible and still necessary—Christianity does not have any monopoly upon natural marriage—as the contrast between orthodox Christian understandings of marriage and those of the culture becomes sharper, we will spend more time defending marriage on our home turf. Here we have many more resources and arguments to call upon in its defence. We can make clear, for instance, that same-sex relations are an idolatrous distortion of the image of God—an offence directly against God and against human nature. We can also ground our defence of marriage upon the robust account of nature and teleology that exists within Christian orthodoxy.

7. Many of us will face a raft of new problems of conscience, tensions in our relationships, and difficulties in our workplaces.

Now that same-sex marriage has been legalized, those of us who still believe that such unions are not marriages will face pressures upon our convictions from various angles, personal, relational, legal, social, and political. Some of us will be invited to the gay weddings of friends or family. We will face the challenge of being seen to be rude and intolerant in standing for our convictions. We may risk losing or hurting friends or being socially ostracized. Others of us may be in forms of work that will require us tacitly or openly to approve of such unions with our actions or words, to facilitate the formation of such unions, or to act in terms of their legitimacy. We will need a great deal of grace, nerve, and wisdom in the coming years as these issues are ever more likely to hit closer to home.

8. We need to maintain a resolute and vocal witness on this matter.

We can reasonably regard the first legal same-sex marriages as nails in the coffin of the public debate on this matter. For many Christians who have opposed same-sex marriage, the closing of the public debate will lead to a change in their stance on the issue. Instead of openly speaking out on the matter, they will quietly resist or disapprove of it, regarding it as a lost cause. However, as in the case of abortion, even if there is no change of changing law or government policy, we need to bear a firm and uncompromising witness. Our witness to marriage and Christian sexual ethics are not merely apologetic in character, depending upon a public hearing for their rationale, but are essential dimensions of our Christian identity and testimony within a society. We aren’t merely in a position where we ‘can’t approve of’ same-sex marriage, but in one in which we must actively disapprove of them and have the responsibility to declare this fact as part of our Christian witness. This isn’t going to get any easier.

9. Grace is essential.

Holding a Christian position on same-sex marriage is increasingly going to put us in the position of being regarded as hateful, intolerant, uncivil, and disrespectful. Being in such a position is profoundly uncomfortable for many of us, especially as we instinctively desire to make clear our unconditional love for our gay and lesbian neighbours, friends, and family members. When our Christian witness will lead to our motives being maligned, aspersions being cast on our characters, and being represented as hating people for whom we care about deeply, it can be painful and difficult to maintain it. We must pray for wisdom and opportunity to express such concern, care, and love in such a manner that the true nature of and motives driving our resistance to same-sex marriage will be apparent. Sadly, for other Christians a different struggle will exist. For such Christians, the legalization of same-sex marriage will excite anger, hate, and bitterness towards gays and lesbians who are perceived to be vicious opponents of Christians. We must make clear the sinful character of such passions, wherever they might take root in our hearts. The Christian response to our gay and lesbian friends and neighbours should never be characterized by bitterness, spitefulness, or vengefulness, but must be expressed in a love addressed to them as they are—not to what we might want them to be—and a general pattern of behaviour towards them characterized by respectfulness, grace, and compassion.

10. This is a time for repentance.

In light of this latest development, we should recognize our own complicity within it. We should recognize how our failure to bear strong witness to the decay of marriage paved the way for this. We should recognize how Christians’ hatred and their use of God’s truth to justify and underwrite their hatred—and the way that many of us, while not following along, stood silently by while this was taking place—have given ammunition to those who dismiss the orthodox Christian position as a mere cloak for homophobia. We should recognize how professing Christians have contributed to the oppression of LGBT persons within our society in a manner that left our society and the Church without the moral credibility to withstand the unreasonable demands of the gay rights movement. Rather than just lamenting the state of our nation, let’s take this opportunity to lament the shameful role that we have played in its creation and seek both for God’s forgiveness and that of our neighbour.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

I have written lengthier treatments of the subject of same-sex marriage in various places in the past. The following are the main examples:

The Institution of Marriage, Same-Sex Unions, and Procreation
Questions and Answers on Same-Sex Marriage
The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage—Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, In the News, Sex and Sexuality, Theological | 58 Comments

Thoughts on the World Vision Debate

World Vision

The following are various thoughts on the recent World View USA brouhaha. The bitter disagreements that have been played out over the last few days have, with a few exceptions, followed familiar and predictable patterns, with the various antagonists performing well-rehearsed parts.

I presume that most of my readers are already aware of the basic facts of the story. The American branch of the Christian charity World Vision announced its decision to change its employee conduct policy, which formerly restricted sexual relations to marriage between a man and a woman, to include Christians in same-sex marriages. Two days later, following a lot of anger, hurt, protest, and outrage at the original decision, the decision was reversed. Over the course of the last few days, existing divisions in evangelical circles have become even more polarized and World Vision USA has alienated or annoyed Christians across the spectrum on the issue of same-sex marriage.

In making the original decision, World Vision USA made clear that they were not thereby intending to take a stand on the issue of same-sex marriage. Rather, they were seeking to conform their employee conduct policy to their broader stance on controversial issues between denominations and churches, taking a neutral stance and deferring to the authority of local churches.

I have been appalled by so many of the uncharitable and vicious responses to these developments on various sides of this debate. I doubt that I am alone in thinking that it represents a new nadir in intramural evangelical discourse. I have written at considerable length in the past about the unhealthy dynamics of much evangelical discourse online, especially within the context of social media. The responses to the changes to World Vision’s policy on both sides of the evangelical aisle have confirmed me in my conviction that we need to give careful thought to the way that we respond to issues and to each other and that we develop processes to encourage healthy discourse and defence mechanisms against the contagion of reactive and hateful outrage.

Among the many unhelpful responses that I have read, there have been a few perceptive and balanced treatments of the issues. It was not a surprise to me that Matt Anderson had some measured thoughts on the original decision in a post over on Mere Orthodoxy and some broader and insightful reflections on the story after World Vision reversed its original decision on Twitter (Matt has brought his tweets together here). Ian Paul also has written a helpful post on the matter here.

The last few days have raised or revived a number of key points, issues, or questions for me. I thought that I would list them and leave others to thrash them out in the comments or elsewhere.

1. Social Media and Evangelical Discourse

Disputes among evangelicals very consistently overheat, and most particularly on social media. We need to give close thought to why this is the case, why social media tends to bring out the worst in us, and the measures that we can take to protect ourselves from these dangerous dynamics. Evangelicals have often been insufficiently cautious and wary in their use of social media. Despite their many notable advantages, they have deleterious effects upon our conversations, not least on account of their false urgency and the other means by which they privilege emotional reactivity over consideration and reflection in response. The reactivity on all sides over the last few days is not a new phenomenon. It has happened before and it will happen again. We need to understand how and why it happens and what we can do to resist or prevent it.

2. Leadership

The outrage firestorms that often whip through the world of Christian social media, destroying or harming many relationships and ministries, primarily have to do with a failure of leadership. Seeing the responses of leading voices on both sides over the last few days, I have been dismayed by how many of our leaders manifest a failure to control their reactions and their words. When leaders are reactive, hasty, and intemperate in their responses to issues and events, they validate even more extreme and intemperate responses in their followers. James writes:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

The incendiary power of the hasty word is dramatically increased in the age of social media. We should all be aware of the power of our tongues and our fingers on keyboards to spark huge conflagrations of consuming outrage. If we cannot exercise basic mastery over our words or our reactivity, we should shut down our blogs and quarantine ourselves from others on social media. This is doubly the case if we are in positions of leadership or influence: we will be judged with much greater strictness. If we cannot exercise control over our emotional reactions, we can be the cause of immense harm to the body of Christ and will have much to answer for on that last day.

Some persons make a virtue of the supposed ‘honesty’ of emotional ‘rawness’ in their leading voices. Passion, often expressed in hyperbolic outrage, is seen as ‘real’, ‘authentic’, and ‘heartfelt’. Raw, untamed, and vented emotional reaction is superior to the supposed artificiality of the controlled, channelled, and temperate response. Such persons are playing with fire.

3. Fault lines in Evangelicalism

World Vision’s policy change was an attempt to straddle the gap between conservative and progressive Christians and maintain a ‘big tent’ ministry. They wanted people from all sides to continue to identify with the organization and its values, values that can be shared by Christians on all sides of current debates surrounding homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I have argued in the past that evangelicalism’s identity is largely rooted in the parachurch and its various sodalities. Without other overarching forms of denominational or institutional unity, evangelicalism finds much of its togetherness and shared identity in this area. On account of the importance of parachurch organizations for evangelicalism, evangelicals are very heavily invested in them and the unity and shared identity that they represent. Consequently, when an organization such as World Vision makes a policy change that jettisons their commitment to a core value of many evangelicals, they should expect very strong resistance and opposition. Organizations such as World Vision aren’t just functional means by which evangelicals help the needy but are symbolic of evangelicals’ shared identity.

The problem that evangelicalism now faces is that the fault lines between conservatives and progressives in its ranks have grown so wide—especially on issues such as same-sex marriage—that it is no longer so possible to represent both sides in a manner with which all will strongly identify. Organizations such as World Vision face the difficulty of producing policies that all parties will recognize as a representation of their core values despite deeply polarizing issues. This is almost impossible to do without one party or another feeling betrayed, that an unacceptable degree of compromise has taken place, or that the organization is no longer one with which they feel a deep identification.

All of this raises more general questions about the future of evangelicalism. I fear that the next few years will witness an increasingly acrimonious and protracted divorce between conservative and progressive evangelicals as the various parties bicker and squabble about the ownership of the dissolving union’s various institutional assets. If we were merely dealing with deep theological and ethical differences the problem would be bad enough. However, one only has to observe the reactivity, the antagonism and suspicion, the bitterness and absence of charity, the hurt and the lack of respect that exists between the sides of these debates to realize that the problems run much deeper.

4. Inability to Believe the Best

Reading through many of the posts and tweets written over the last few days, I have been repeatedly struck by an apparent inability or unwillingness of many to put charitable constructions upon the actions, words, and beliefs of those with whom they differ. As Derek Rishmawy observes, an overdependence upon a hermeneutic of suspicion is a dangerous thing. The hermeneutic of suspicion also stands in a very uneasy relationship with our Christian duty to believe the best of others when we can.

The use of vulnerable children as emotional leverage has been particularly unhealthy on both sides of this debate. I am not going to give any links here, but those who have followed this debate will be familiar with the suggestion among the critics of World Vision’s original decision that they were harming vulnerable children and the suggestion among its supporters that critics didn’t care about the vulnerable children. That such vicious and false accusations have been advanced among us should be a cause of deep shame.

5. Follow the Money?

A good example of the hermeneutic of suspicion in action has been the popular suggestion from both sides that, when World Vision made a decision of which they disapproved, the decision must have been driven by money. While such an interpretation of events should not simply be dismissed, it shouldn’t be the first interpretation to which we jump. I am not persuaded that either of World Vision’s decisions were driven purely or even primarily by financial concerns.

For instance, the cynical suggestion that World Vision’s reversal of its original decision was purely about the fear of losing money seems to assume that the relationship between a Christian charity and its supporters can be boiled down to dollars. The possibility that World Vision feels a sense of responsibility towards its supporters, supporters who made it the organization that it is today, isn’t really entertained. Sensing just how betrayed many of these supporters feel by this latest development, World Vision may have felt duty bound to reverse its decision, even apart from the financial hit that it would have taken. When you are acting in people’s name and in partnership with them, making such unilateral changes in core commitments can be an unchristian act of breaking faith with people who trust and support you. This doesn’t mean that such changes can’t be made, but they need to be made in the right way.

6. What is the Nature of Christian Charity?

A common argument among supporters of World Vision’s original decision is that, provided the poor are being helped, we should not really care that much about who the persons are who are doing it.

This argument represents a position on the proper character of charity, suggesting that charity is just about making material provision for those in need and that it can consequently be treated as secular action. This secular action can and will be motivated by core Christian values, but there is nothing intrinsically Christian about it. Governments can often treat Christian charity in such a manner: what makes charity Christian belongs chiefly to the realm of private motivations. However, the actual form of charity should ideally be secular and driven solely by material outcomes.

However, Christians do not typically believe that the works of mercy are essentially secular acts, but that the care and service of the poor is a crucial element of who we are as Christians, expressive of our identity in Christ, an act of worship and mission, and an essential ‘body function’ of the Church. Consequently, it is important to us to serve the poor through organizations that share, express, and are guided by core Christian commitments of faith and practice. Charity is not just about giving money to the needy, but bringing the presence of Christ to and being the presence of Christ in the places of pain in the world. The agencies through which we enact our charity are very important for this reason.

Christian charity is a matter of partnership in the gospel. Even if the money and resources provided to the recipient of charity are exactly the same, it matters a great deal whether that money is given through some secular NGO or through an organization that represents us as the body of Christ to those in need.

There is no reason why Christian charities can’t work alongside other charities of other religions or without religious commitments. A charity is not a church and a Christian charity may even benefit from employing non-Christians on occasions to perform specific roles, provided that their institutional agency is clearly a Christian one. However, employee policies that seek to uphold the Christian identity and agency of a charity are an important means by which identity is defined and maintained.

7. Why make such a big deal about homosexuality and same-sex marriage?

The stakes in the debates surrounding the legitimacy of homosexual relations and same-sex marriage are seldom truly appreciated. I’ve written more secular critiques of same-sex marriage on various occasions before, addressing the more general cultural debates. However, the explicitly Christian reasons for rejecting homosexual practice and same-sex marriage must be clearly grasped. These aren’t issues that can be treated as adiaphorous. There are a number of things at stake here.

The image of God is presented as male and female in Scripture, a fact which is reflected in marriage. Same-sex relations undermine this reality. They represent a distortion of and assault upon the image of God in mankind. As Romans 1 suggests, a distortion of the image of God is an act of idolatry, an act of false worship and false witness, and through such acts the human being is degraded. Within the symbolic world of Scripture, homosexual relations are a deep perversion, a crime against human nature, and an idolatrous act against God. This is why they are treated in such stark terms.

There is no reason why a perversion of human nature as created by God and an act of false and idolatrous image-bearing can’t be completely consensual. The Bible doesn’t subscribe to our modern prejudice that ethics more or less boil down to issues of consent and harm among human parties. Furthermore, the fact that many committed Christians hold to the legitimacy of same-sex relations and even practice them doesn’t mean that they can’t be that serious. It may mitigate the level of their guilt, but it does not diminish the seriousness of the sin. There were many pious Christians who were slave-owners in the American South, for instance. Their relationship to their slaves may have revealed many Christian virtues, which would be worthy of great praise if viewed in isolation. However, the fundamental relationship was founded upon an attack upon the image of God, one that many were incapable of seeing on account of a catastrophic moral blindness that afflicted the society more generally.

The notion that marrying mitigates the sin of homosexual relations, as World Vision’s changed policy might suggest, is also misguided. Same-sex marriage merely exalts acts that are presented by Scripture as idolatrous and places them on a par with the union that he created and blessed at the beginning. This parodying of marriage compounds the sin.

The Bible hardly says anything about homosexual acts, why should we make such a big deal about them? Homosexual acts and same-sex marriage strike at the heart of Christian sexual ethics, which have always been central in guiding and defining Christian practice. They also threaten our theological anthropology. Finally, contemporary arguments in favour of same-sex marriage and homosexual relations represent a crisis in our more general understanding of Scripture. For these reasons among others, we cannot budge, compromise, or split the difference on this issue.

8. Wasn’t World Vision just being neutral?

In its change in policy, World Vision was presenting this issue as adiaphorous. As Ian Paul writes:

But, as the old saying goes, not to decide is to decide. In deferring to the (conflicting) views of different denominations, Stearns is saying that this is a matter of adiaphora between churches. It is something on which we can agree to disagree. WV are perfectly entitled to say this, but I don’t think it is possible to present this as a lack of decision. It really is a decision on the status of the question—and that is the heart of the matter.

The difficulty with World Vision’s stance was that, to the extent that people hold a more traditional (and, I would argue, biblical) Christian position on homosexual relations similar to that outlined above, it will never be something that can be viewed as adiaphorous. To make such a change is to become a sort of organization with which conservative evangelicals can no longer so strongly identify.

If World Vision didn’t have such an employee policy in the first place, or if its employee policy didn’t place expectations regarding sexual behaviour upon its employees, this situation wouldn’t necessarily have arisen in the same manner. However, many of us might be less inclined to identify the organization that would result as a distinctively Christian one. This wouldn’t mean that we couldn’t support it, in much the same way as many of us—myself included—support various non-Christian charities, whose employee policies don’t give any significance to Christian ethical values.

Over to you. What are your thoughts?

Posted in Controversies, Ethics, On the web, Sex and Sexuality, The Blogosphere, Theological | 75 Comments