Friday, August 3, 2007

Sheriffs, fences and booze

A few days ago, a Christian friend of mine stopped me and in whispered tones informed me that she had seen me going into a liquor store.

"Okay," I replied. "And?"

"Well, you know that we're not supposed to drink," she said. "It's against the Bible. I'm concerned about your faith, if you're drinking, and God says we should rebuke our fellow Christians in love."

I looked at her oddly for a moment. She and I clearly had very different positions on this matter, and I didn't want a fight with someone who genuinely thought she was doing me a favor. "I'll pray about it," I finally said, and that was the end of it.

Well, in subsequent days, I've thought a bit about this one. The leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention years ago adopted an official stance of total abstinence from alcohol. Part of the contract that students at Southern Baptist Seminaries sign forbids them to drink, and if they're caught with alcohol in their proximity, they can be expelled from the Seminary. Likewise, state Convention staff are forbidden to drink on pain of potentially losing their jobs. Many states in the Bible belt have created blue laws to prevent people from buying alcohol at all on Saturday nights or Sundays, so that the good Christians will not be tempted.

The interesting thing about this hullabaloo is that the Bible never forbids drinking. It says not to drink in excess, but 'in excess' is a far cry from 'not at all'. We know that Jesus and the disciples drank wine with every meal. Everyone did at the time, because often the water was unsafe. So alcohol itself can't be inherently sinful. Why the huge emphasis on abstinence, then?

The answer, strangely enough, can be found in the traditions of the Jewish faith. Judaism, unlike Christianity, tends to take the laws of the Old Testament very seriously indeed, particularly the commandment to keep God's commandments. In order to help Jews do this, the councils that interpret Torah law have, over the centuries, established other laws. These supplementary laws (a good example is 'don't complete a circuit on the Sabbath') are designed to be a 'fence' around the original Torah laws. They are in fact more strict than the Torah laws, because Torah scholars figured that they were a good way to keep people from inadvertently breaking one of God's precious commandments.

Christians, on the other hand, tend to play fast and loose with God's laws. We try and stick to the Ten Commandments, but we ignore large chunks of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers wholesale. Protestantism in particular has never developed an official 'fence' position, but that's what we see happening when Christians believe that all alcohol is forbidden. It's an unofficial 'fence' around a set of teachings that for some reason someone found important. The Convention's draconian policies place Convention leadership in the position of sheriff, riding the fences and looking for lawbreakers.

The problem with fences is twofold: a) how do we know that we're fencing off the right doctrines, and b) how do we deal with the matter of sheriffs? The first prong of this line of thinking leads to some funny conclusions. We have total abstinence from alcohol to fence the doctrine of 'drink in moderation', forbidden use of birth control to fence the doctrine 'be fruitful and multiply', and in many churches, a discouraging attitude towards dancing to fence the doctrine of mental purity. Why are these important doctrines, though? When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied,

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands." [Matt22:37-40]

The truth is, we Protestants don't really have fences for the two greatest commandments. We often spout them about, but rarely think enough about what they mean in practice to establish effective fences to make sure that we're loving properly. Christians often talk about the power of love unbound, but in this case I think that we need to bind it, to build our fences around God's commands and make sure that we're loving always. Christ places these two commands over all the Law and Prophets, which means above little issues like alcohol or birth control. It's long past time the Christian church had a serious conversation about love, and about the practical ways that we can make sure we're always loving as we have been commanded.

The second prong of my thoughts about fences concerns enforcement: should we be sheriffs for the fences that we build? Often, I think that's not our responsibility. The Bible tells us to support each other in faith, but I'm not yet convinced that that necessarily means policing the sort of fences that the Southern Baptist Convention has built. Rather, I think that supporting someone in faith means encouraging them to put effort into their attempt to walk with God. It means engaging them more deeply in theology, asking the difficult questions about God and faith, then sitting and listening while they work out their answers. It means loving, unconditionally. Things like playing sheriff for minor fences pale in comparison to those duties, and Christians, myself certainly included, don't pay nearly enough attention to the big duties that God gives us as it is.

In short, I think that right now Christianity needs fewer sheriffs, and more scholars. We need to refocus onto what God says is crucial, and trust that the other things will fall in line when the big priorities are right. We need to be less concerned over the appearances of someone's faith, and more concerned over their understanding. I was walking into the liquor store to buy wine for a recipe of coq au vin, but my neighbor was more concerned with the appearance of violating a non-existent command than with my actual intent for my actions. My neighbor has never asked me about issues of faith, like what I think about whether love obligates us to protect someone. The need for change goes both ways, though. I judged her as shallow for her concern about my actions, but I, in turn, have never asked her about doctrine, like what she thinks about Paul's writings on women. Maybe it's time for both of us to become less judgmental sheriffs, and better Christians.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Soren and I chat about Bushonomics

A Philosophy of Religion class I once took (yes, my degree is in philosophy, which is why you'll see so much of it on these pages) had us reading Kierkegaard, and the professor remarked in jest that "Reading Kierkegaard is a hazard to your faith, you'll either head off towards the straits of fundamentalism or veer left toward liberalization, but any way you go you'll doubt for a while first. " I certainly didn't need to veer at all to become a liberal, but Kierkegaard nonetheless became one of my favorite thinkers, mostly because he's so often eminently reasonable when discussing the Church, and few philosophers achieve that (fond though I am of Descartes, he was wrong about God).

The following quotes Kierkegaard, translated out of the Danish, of course. I know it's long, but it's worth bearing with the passage, because it's prescient of what we see the Republicans doing in our economic policy today, and I'll talk later about how it speaks to their motivations:

Christ was not making a historical observation when he declared: The gospel is preached to the poor. The accent is on the gospel, that the gospel is for the poor. Here the word “poor” does not simply mean poverty but all who suffer, are unfortunate, wretched, wronged, oppressed, crippled, lame, leprous, demonic. The gospel is preached to them, that is, the gospel is for them. The gospel is good news for them. What good news? Not: money, health, status, and so on — no, this is not Christianity.

No, for the poor the gospel is the good news because to be unfortunate in this world (in such a way that one is abandoned by human sympathy, and the worldly zest for life even cruelly tries to make one’s misfortune into guilt) is a sign of God’s nearness. So it was originally; this is the gospel in the New Testament. It is preached for the poor, and it is preached by the poor who, if they in other respects were not suffering, would eventually suffer by proclaiming the gospel; since suffering is inseparable from following Christ, from telling the truth.

But soon there came a change. When preaching the gospel became a livelihood, even a lush livelihood, then the gospel became good news for the rich and for the mighty. For how else was the preacher to acquire and secure rank and dignity unless Christianity secured the best for all? Christianity thus ceased to be glad tidings for those who suffer, a message of hope that transfigures suffering into joy, but a guarantee for the enjoyment of life intensified and secured by by the hope of eternity.

The gospel no longer benefits the poor essentially. In fact, Christianity has now even become a downright injustice to those who suffer (although we are not always conscious of this, and certainly unwilling to admit to it). Today the gospel is preached to the rich, the powerful, who have discovered it to be advantageous. We are right back again to the very state original Christianity wanted to oppose. The rich and powerful not only get to keep everything, but their success becomes the mark of their piety, the sign of their relationship to God. And this prompts the old atrocity again — namely, the idea that the unfortunate, the poor are to blame for their condition; that it is because they are not pious enough, are not true Christians, that they are poor, whereas the rich have not only pleasure but piety as well. This is supposed to be Christianity. Compare it with the New Testament, and you will see that this is as far from that as possible.

It helps, at this juncture, to observe that in the Hebrew, the word 'poor' does not mean 'making very little money, but nonetheless living a sustainable existence'. It means something more extreme, something akin to our 'destitute'. It means living on the very brink of starvation, in a condition where the person literally has no resources. Every time Jesus says "Blessed are the poor", he doesn't mean the people with small houses who can't afford more than one used car, he means the people under bridges and in sewers.

That said, what is Soren saying to us about our current economic situation? Well, one might flippantly quip that Bush is attempting to help America by getting as many people into that 'blessed' condition as possible, but I think that's disrespect to the text by not considering its points carefully enough. Soren starts out by observing that Christ was making a historical observation, one which is no longer true. For two millenia, the gospel has not been preached by the poor for the poor, but by the rich and educated for everyone else. The Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination in the world today, is also the wealthiest organization in the world today.

The interesting thing about Christianity is that in Christ's time, it had no political power, and it could not be foreseen to gain political power. The apostles had no way of knowing that one day their words would guide nations, because they were preaching to an audience that was the least nation-guiding bunch available: the people with no money and no power.

Let's combine this fact with one other: there are very cogent arguments from across the denominational and theological spectrum that Christ was voluntarily limited in his power. There is good evidence in the gospels that Christ gave up the 'omnis' of God (omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience) in order to become fully human. A number of theologians have claimed that the validity of Christ's sacrifice rests on this interpretation of Christ's power: he was the son of God, he was one part of a tripartite Deity, but he did not have the full power of God.

Take those two facts together: Christ was preaching to the poorest of the poor, in a time when they could not have been humanly foreseen to gain political power; and Christ was God in a voluntarily limited form and did not have the full omniscience of God. The implication of those two facts combined is that the Gospels were never meant to govern a nation. They were never intended as prescriptions for political power or how to use it. There is a reason that the gospels are so intensely focused on personal faith, and on how God can impact individuals: they were never meant for the kind of bureaucracy and power plays that now permeate organized religion. Bush tries to run a country based on the teachings of a book that was intended as a moral guide to life person by person, not collectively.

What does this change in purpose accomplish? Soren lays it out: the poor get blamed again for their condition, and they gain no aid from the faith that was established in their name. Looks like a description of Bush-economics to me. Tax-breaks that favor the wealthy, cuts to welfare programs, an insistence on private health care (which the poor cannot afford), etc are all evidence of an attitude that if you are poor, it is your fault. You are not saving enough, not working hard enough, not blessed enough by God to deserve the benefits of being American (the 'or of being Christian' is implied but not explicit). When you divorce the purpose of scripture from the teachings of scripture, what you gain is not a wider application of the Word, it's a perversion of everything that was said in the first place.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Bible on money, as translated by Dubya

There can be little question that Bush's presidency has been one of the most overtly 'Christian' in history. Dubya's first act as President was to cut off funding to any family planning program that didn't teach abstinence. It may be tempting to dismiss the indicators as Rovian meddling, but the evidence is there in deed and rhetoric: Bush himself is a True Believer. But, we ask ourselves, if Bush's politics are based in a theology for which the only commandment more important than 'love others' is 'love God', how can he do the things he has done? Foreign wars aside, even Bush's domestic agenda has been less along the theme of 'give of thyself unto others' and more like 'be given unto'.

The answer is that there are conservative fiscal policies hidden in the Bible! I'm not joking, Jesus says some fairly inexplicable things sometimes. Foremost among them is a certain parable, and it may be the least preached parable in the Bible, that depicts a financial manager defrauding his boss - and getting praised for it. It's like Enron for the B.C. era. Here's the scripture, sourced from Luke 16. It's most often called 'The Parable of the Devious Manager':

1And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.

2And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.

3Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.

4I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.

5So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?

6And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.

7Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.

8And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

9What I say to you is this: make friends for yourselves through your use of worldly goods, so that when they fail you, a lasting reception will be yours.

To recap: A man mishandles the company assets, so he's going to be fired. In retribution, he defrauds the company out of large portions of their assets by forgiving debts left and right. Instead of outrage, he gets congratulated! Reading sermons on the passage reveals a startling confusion among pastors as to how to approach this one. Most don't address its fundamental flaw: that it rewards dishonesty. They say things about using money to make spiritual friends, or about how all money is God's anyway. It's one of those scriptures that not many people talk about.

If the point is supposed to be that you cannot serve both God and money, I'm not sure that it's entirely clear. To me, it looks like a defense of corporate malfeasance. It's proof that Ken Lay was a God-fearing man. Bush seems to have taken the point to heart: he has frequently rewarded praise and favors to the... devious. Not just in financial matters: here for instance is justification for unwavering faith in Gonzalez, and for commuting the sentence in the Libby case. Bush is a God-fearing man, all right. Scant comfort.