Saturday, December 28, 2013

Faith, Trust, and "Miracle on 34th Street"

"Miracle on 34th Street," as most Americans know, is a Christmas classic movie from 1947 about a department-store Santa who claims to be the real thing.  I watched it again this year on Christmas night, after all the presents were opened, Christmas dinner eaten and the dishes washed.

As often happens with the best movies, something jumped out at me in this viewing that I hadn't seen before.  "Miracle on 34th Street," with its story of a disillusioned single mother who learns to trust again, and her pragmatic little girl who discovers the joys of imagination, illustrates beautifully the nature of faith.

I have felt for a long time that when it comes to faith, both Christians and non-Christians* often seem to miss the point.  This blog post on Counter Apologist, which asserts that "faith is belief without good evidence" encapsulates the usual atheistic understanding of faith:
My main contention is that defining faith as "belief without good evidence" is not only defensible in the religious context, but it's actually implied that this is what is meant in the Christian bible, at least in some cases. . . The primary piece of scripture that an atheist appeals to which defines faith as "belief without evidence" is Hebrews 11:1 - "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
Christians, of course, generally deny that this verse is talking about "belief without evidence."  Their problem with understanding faith is a different one.  As I discussed a few months ago in my post Saved by Being Right: Christianity and Dogmatism, Christians often approach faith as belief in the "right" doctrines -- those that constitute foundational, orthodox Christianity.  The ancient Athanasian Creed illustrates this approach when it says:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. . . He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity . . . This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
Though I do hold to the Athanasian Creed, I believe it is to be read as a definitive statement of orthodox doctrine and not as a definition of faith, as faith.  (And I think even the writers of this Creed would have acknowledged, when pressed, that the thief on the cross in Luke 23 was saved without believing, or even understanding, any of these things.)  Despite what Counter Apologist says above about the Bible itself defining faith in terms of belief, faith is actually shown throughout the Bible to be trust in Christ, trust in God, and it is on this trust that belief is based. 

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian puts it pretty well when he quotes the Holman Bible Dictionary:
Faith in the Greek is pistis, trust. The Holman Bible Dictionary’s entry on faith (as found in Accordance 10.2) indicates that “throughout the Scriptures faith is the trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions.”
In other words, when Hebrews 11:1 says "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see," this isn't a complete definition of faith, but a continuation of the understanding of faith as trust set forth in Hebrews 10:22-23:
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. [Emphasis added.]
Faith, then, is not simply belief in certain assertions, but the assurance that those assertions can be believed, based on trust in the faithfulness of the one making the assertions.  This is why the word "faith" also applies to human interactions.  "Have faith in me," a father says to his child, or a leader to her people, or a wife or husband to their spouse. "Have faith in me, and I'll make good.  Have faith in me, and I'll keep my promise."

So what does "Miracle on 34th Street" have to do with all this?

"Miracle on 34th Street" opens with a round, jolly, white-bearded old man correcting a department-store window decorator on his rendition of Santa's reindeer.  The old man speaks in the full confidence of apparent first-hand knowledge.  His words and actions throughout the rest of the movie consistently show that he firmly believes himself to be "the one and only Santa Claus."  The mother and daughter in the movie, caught between their own pragmatic disbelief that Santa could possibly be a real person, and their face-to-face encounters with the sheer believeability of this man as Santa, eventually embrace his Claus-ness.

It isn't that they believe without good evidence.  If they are willing to see and accept it, there is good evidence that this man is who he claims to be.  He says and does a number of things which are much more consistent with his being the real Santa than with him being simply a delusional old mental patient.  But if they do believe, they must do so against their own common sense, against the prevailing mindset of adult society that Santa simply cannot be real.  The evidence is never overwhelming, to where anyone is forced to accept him as Santa.  Rather than conclusive proof, the standard of the evidence amounts to a "rational warrant."  My respected scholarly friend Metacrock describes rational warrant as follows:
Rational warrant is any logical argument that warrants a belief, or a sense of placing confidence in a proposition. Being "rational" means there are logical reasons to support it, being a "warrant" means it's a reason to believe something. . . So the aspect of an argument that logically demonstrates a reason to believe something is a warrant. Rationally warranted belief is confidence placed in a proposition (the belief) that is well placed as demonstrated by the warrant. . . This means one [does not] need to demonstrate beyond all doubt. . . but in demonstrating the rational warrant for belief one has shown that good logical reasons allow for belief.
"Rational warrant" is the difference between belief and knowledge.  No one speaks of "believing" in things that are incontrovertible fact.  No one says, "I believe chickens lay eggs" or "I believe snow is cold."  Neither the audience nor the characters in the story are able to say, "I know Santa is real and this man is he."  They can only believe-- or disbelieve.  But we are still talking about belief, not faith.  The characters have a rational warrant for belief, but they also have the contradictory force of their own pragmatism and common sense.  How do they move, then, from doubt to conviction?

Their conviction comes from faith.  Faith in this old man who calls himself Kris Kringle, who says he is Santa Claus.  It makes no sense to them, but there is something deeply trustworthy about Mr. Kringle, and as time goes on and they get to know him better and better, they find it more and more difficult to believe that he is lying or delusional.  The child finds her world opening up as she accepts Kris's teaching in how to be imaginative and open to new possibilities.  The mother finds it within herself to hope again in ideals which she had thought permanently driven out of herself by past disappointment and betrayal.  And the mother's new boyfriend finds it worth risking his career to defend Kris Kringle's sanity to a disbelieving tribunal.  In the end they all tell Kris, in one way or another, "I have faith in you."

It is at the point of triumph that the little girl's newfound faith is tested.  It appears that Santa has not managed to get her the difficult Christmas gift she had asked for.  Now, against all apparent evidence otherwise, she whispers to herself, "I believe, I believe." Is this, then, faith showing its true colors after all?  When push comes to shove, is faith really just "belief without good evidence?"

C. S. Lewis's essay "On Obstinacy in Belief," published in The World's Last Night and Other Essays, addresses this issue.

To believe that God . . . exists is to believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. . . You are no longer faced with an argument that demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence.  A faint analogy would be this.  It is one thing to ask in vacuo whether So-and-So will join us tonight, and another to discuss this when So-and-So's honour is pledged to come and some great matter depends on his coming.  In the first case it would be merely reasonable, as the clock ticked on and on, to expect him less and less.  In the second, a continued expectation far into the night would be due to our friend's character if we had found him reliable before.  Which of us would not feel slightly ashamed if, one moment after we  had given him up, he arrived with a full explanation of his delay?  We should feel that we ought to have known him better.
Once she had come to know Kris Kringle, little Susan felt that it was due to her friend Mr. Kringle's character to continue to believe that he would send her the Christmas present she asked for.  It should not be considered (as Lewis puts it) "sheer insanity" that her belief was "no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence."  This is because her belief was based in faith, or trust in the person of Kris Kringle-- not upon a set of propositions about him, but in the man himself.

Soren Kierkegaard, who coined the term "leap of faith," did not see it as a leap into an evidentiary abyss, or into a set of doctrines.  He said:
[A]ll the individuals who are saved will receive the specific weight of religion, its essence at first hand, from God himself. Then it will be said: 'behold, all is in readiness, see how the cruelty of abstraction makes the true form of worldliness only too evident, the abyss of eternity opens before you, the sharp scythe of the leveller makes it possible for every one individually to leap over the blade--and behold, it is God who waits. Leap, then, into the arms of God'.
Faith is a leap, yes-- but it is a leap of trust.  It is like a child on the edge of a swimming pool responding when her mother, in the water with arms outstretched, calls "Jump!"  God is not like that mother in having a voice we can hear or arms we can see, but countless Christians through the ages, like Lewis, like Kierkegaard, have understood faith in terms of trust in Someone they have directly and personally encountered.

Faith isn't rocket science.  It doesn't have to be.  It's more like a child meeting Santa Claus.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a story is worth a thousand pictures.

Thanks, writers of "Miracle on 34th Street."

*Disclaimer:  I recognize that the viewpoint of this blog post is limited to the question of faith as it is set forth in Western Christianity and the secular response to the same, and doesn't take into account the viewpoints of non-Christian religions.  This should not be construed as intentional disregard of such viewpoints, but rather as simply a recognition of the limitations of my own education, understanding and perspective in dealing with this topic.  Readers of other faiths are welcome to give input on their own definitions of faith in the comments.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Christmas Break

Once again this year I'm taking a break from blogging until after the presents are unwrapped and Christmas dinner eaten.  To get all of that ready and still post here would be more than I'm humanly capable of!  So I'll say Merry Christmas to my Christian readers and Season's Greetings to everyone else-- and since I've found that Susan Cooper evokes the holiday mood better than just about anyone else I've ever read, I'll leave you with some paragraphs from The Dark is Rising:
For this was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and to all the world.  This was a brightness, a shining festival . . . Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down. . . They pounded up to their respective bedrooms and came down with packages to be added to the growing pile beneath the tree. Will had been trying hard not to look at this magical heap ever since they came in from carol-singing, but it was sorely difficult. . . . 
And it was the same as it always was, as he lay curled up happily in his snug wrappings, promising himself that he would stay awake, until, until. . . Until he woke, in the dim morning room with a glimmer of light creeping round the dark square of the curtained window, and saw and heard nothing for an enchanted expectant space. . . And it was Christmas Day.

I believe the church did well, so long ago, when it set this great festival of Christ's birth at this most significant time of year, when the time of darkness has at last ceased lengthening and begun shortening again with each passing day, and the light has begun to grow.  For He is the light of the world, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not-- happy holy days!  I'll be back for the New Year.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Reading The Dark Is Rising as an Adult Christian

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, stone;
Five shall return, and one go alone.

- Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising, 1973
I first read The Dark is Rising (a children's book series written by Susan Cooper, and also the title of one of the books in that series) when I was 12 or 13.  I can't remember exactly how old I was.  What I can remember is how completely I was enthralled; it was one of those books that I lost myself in, so completely within that world that I forgot who and where I was and simply lived in the book, emerging for a gasp of real-world air and a snack every now and then, or when my parents annoyingly required something mundane of me, like setting the table or going to sleep.  The Dark Is Rising series is about a young English boy named Will who finds he has a special destiny related to the myths and legends of ancient Britain, about three other children named Simon, Jane and Barney who help him, and about a mysterious old man named Merriman who guides the plot towards its ultimate end.

When I was 15 I became a Christian.  I described that experience earlier in this blog-- but one thing that happened as I became more involved in the church and more enmeshed in evangelical Christian counter-culture was that I learned to be wary and suspicious of all forms of literature, music and art that were not overtly Christian.  I remember pulling my copy of The Dark Is Rising off a bookshelf at my parents' house when I was temporarily home from college, and shuddering at a scene where the forces of evil ("the Dark") attack during a Christmas service at the village Anglican church:

Farmer Dawson said very quietly but clearly from the group beside the door, "No, Rector." 
The rector seemed not to hearing him.  His eyes were wide, staring out at the snow. . . He managed to half-raise one arm and point behind him: ". . . vestry. . ." he gasped out. ". . . book, on table. . . exorcise. . . " 
"Poor brave fellow," said John Smith in the Old Speech.  "This battle is not for his fighting."
And then the Old Ones, the more-than-human beings whose destiny it is to war for the Light, place the rector in an oblivious trance and then fight off the forces of the Dark and restore peace.  The rector and his Christianity are neither friends nor enemies; they are simply irrelevant.  Later Will explains to the rector that
"Everything that matters is outside Time.  And comes from there and can go there. . the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or today or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. . . . And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for.  And the opposite, too."
The college-age me got rid of the entire set of books and decided never to read them again.

But I always remembered the effect this series had had on me when I was younger.  The sheer beauty of the settings and descriptions, the honesty and loyalty of the characters, the poetic justice and fulfillment of the exciting conclusion to each segment.  Still, good Christians didn't read neo-pagan books, and there seemed little doubt that The Dark Is Rising was neo-pagan.

This year, though, in the spirit of "testing everything and holding fast to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21), I decided to pick up the books again.  I know the context of that 1 Thessalonians passage is about "not despising prophetic utterances" and "staying away from every form of evil," but I think the principle can be applied to many things.  I don't actually know, now, whether Susan Cooper is neo-pagan or not; she is reticent about her beliefs on her website and in her interviews.  But she does say in The Camelot Project interview that in The Dark is Rising series
I had to move away from [too close a parallel to King Arthur] because it seems to me that the Arthurian legend is parallel to the Christian story of the leader who dies for our salvation. Whereas what my books were trying to say is that nobody else can save us. We have to save ourselves.
Still, is there really nothing such an author can say to me, nothing in her books worth reading?   Especially if the author is a critically acclaimed, award-winning writer, for obvious reasons? 

I can no longer accept such a simplistic view of reality.

The thing is that, both now and when I was a child, I could recognize that these books are not a "form of evil" to be avoided per 1 Thess. 5:21.  There is the homely goodness of a scene like this:
On Christmas night, Will always slept with [his brother] James. The twin beds were still in James's room from the time before Will had moved [upstairs]. . . There was something about Christmas Eve, they felt, that demanded company; one needed somebody to whisper to, during the warm beautiful dream-taut moments between hanging the empty stocking at the end of the bed, and dropping into the cosy oblivion that would flower into the marvel of Christmas morning.
Or the ethereal grace of this:
The mare wheeled towards him, snuffling a greeting, and in the same enchanted, music-haunted moment as before, Will was up on the white horse of the Light, sitting in front of Merriman.  The ship tilted and swung, fully afloat now, and the white horse wheeled out of its way to stand nearby. . . So the mysterious king lay in dignity still, among his weapons and gleaming tribute, and Will had a glimpse of the mask-like white face as the great ship moved away downstream. . . watching the light glimmer on the golden stag of the prow.
And there is the uncompromising commitment to preserving the dignity and freedom of the ordinary individual in the face of dark forces that seek to control and enslave-- a theme arising out of Cooper's childhood in beleaguered England in the midst of the Second World War.  There is a quiet celebration of the love of family and the friendship of dogs, of the small English village and the rocky Cornish coastlands.  And finally, there is the humor mixed into the magic like salt into soup:
"Too much punch," said James, as his tall brother stretched gaping [yawning] in an armchair.
"Get lost," said Robin amiably.
"Who'd like a mince pie?" said Mrs. Stanton, coming in with a vast tray of cocoa mugs.
"James has had six already," said Mary in prim disapproval. "At the Manor."
"Now it's eight," said James, with a mince pie in each hand. "Yah.". . .
"Ho-ho-ho," said Will sepulchrally from the floor.  "Good little children never fight at Christmas." And since Mary was irresistably close to him, he grabbed her by the ankle. She collapsed on top of him, howling cheerfully.
"Mind the fire," said Mrs. Stanton, from years of habit.
It turns out that my Christianity is not as fragile as the church once led me to believe.  I'm not going to leave the faith because I read a book by an author who doesn't share it.  And my disagreement with some of her premises need not negate my enjoyment of, and even edification from, the joys of life and love and the beauties of courage and hope which she depicts so well.

The Protestant doctrine of common grace says that God's mercies are over all the world and that God's gifts and talents are spread generously among all people.  There is nothing to fear from a manifestation of that grace in any person, whether they agree with my theology or not.  The world is wider-- and God is bigger!-- than the narrow conceptions I had in the youth of my faith.

So I'm happy to once again call myself a fan of Susan Cooper and The Dark is Rising.  To have come full circle back to the pleasure I had as a child in a really good story.

And to find the footprints of Christ there, as I may find them anywhere.

I really don't think Ms. Cooper would mind.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Forgotten Women in Church History: Jerena Lee (1783-1860?)

Jerena Lee was the first female African-American preacher and evangelist in the United States.  Born in New Jersey in 1783 to free but poor black parents, she traveled in her lifetime over 2300 miles and preached nearly 200 sermons to gatherings of men and women, blacks and whites.  Everywhere she went the power of her preaching overcame the considerable prejudices of her era against both her sex and her race.

Most people today have never heard of her.

Though not a slave, Jerena Lee was separated from her parents at the tender age of seven, becoming a live-in maid for a white family.  She didn't see her own family again until she was 21.  In her early 20s she was converted to Christianity through the preaching of Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  When she was 28 she married a black preacher, Joseph Lee, who died only a few years later, leaving her to raise two small children on her own.

According to the pamphlet form of her autobiography, which is available online, Ms. Lee experienced a "call to preach the gospel" several years after she had become a Christian, but before her marriage.  She described it like this:
[O]n a certain time, an impressive silence fell upon me, and I stood as if some one was about to speak to me, yet I had no such thought in my heart. - But to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, which said to me, "Go preach the Gospel!" I immediately replied aloud, "No one will believe me." Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say - "Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and you will turn your enemies to become your freinds." [sic] 
At first I supposed that Satan had spoken to me, for I had read that he could transform himself into an angel of light for the purpose of deception. Immediately I went into a secret place, and called upon the Lord to know if he had called me to preach, and whether I was deceived or not; when there appeared to my view the form and figure of a pulpit, with a Bible lying thereon, the back of which was presented to me as plainly as if it had been a literal fact.
When Ms. Lee told her pastor, Richard Allen, that she felt called to preach, he responded that "our Discipline knew nothing at all about it-- it did not call for women preachers."  Jerena Lee felt a certain relief, but she also "found that a love of souls had in a measure departed from me; that holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered."

Nevertheless, Lee submitted to Rev. Allen and did not try again to preach.  Instead she married, birthed two children, and was widowed.  Eight years after her initial call, she was in church listening to the minister (Rev. Allen, by then a bishop, was also present) when the call came again:
But as [the minister] proceeded to explain [give the sermon], he seemed to have lost the spirit; when in the same instant, I sprang, as by altogether supernatural impulse, to my feet, when I was aided from above to give an exhortation on the very text which my brother Williams had taken. 
I told them I was like Jonah; for it had been then nearly eight years since the Lord had called me to preach his gospel to the fallen sons and daughters of Adam's race, but that I had lingered like him, and delayed to go at the bidding of the Lord, and warn those who are as deeply guilty as were the people of Nineveh. 
During the exhortation, God made manifest his power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labour according to my ability, and the grace given unto me, in the vineyard of the good husbandman. 
I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that he now as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present. These remarks greatly strengthened me, so that my fears of having given an offence, and made myself liable as an offender, subsided, giving place to a sweet serenity, a holy joy of a peculiar kind, untasted in my bosom until then.
Leaving her children in the care of her mother and other family members, Ms. Lee began to travel and preach, even going into slaveholding states, where many slaves walked miles to hear her and then walked all night afterwards to return to their plantations before being missed.  Consulting no man and guided only through prayer and the invitations she received, she preached her way across the United States and Canada. Prejudice and resistance to her preaching was overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit over and over again throughout Jerena Lee's preaching career.  Here is one representative example:
L. W., a respectable brother from Chillicothe, had never heard a woman preach, and was much opposed to it. An appointment was given me, and when I went into the desk and commenced reading the hymn to commence the worship, he looked at me a while, then got up and went out and stood until I had nearly got through the hymn, and then he came in, when I asked him to pray for us but he refused. I prayed myself, after which I took my text, and felt much liberty in speaking in the spirit indeed. And after meeting he came and shook hands with me in the spirit of a Christian, and next day he came and confessed to me his prejudices had been so great, so much like his father, that he could not unite with me, but now he believed that God, was no respecter of persons, and that a woman as well as a man, when called of God, had a right to preach. He afterwards became a licensed preacher, and we parted in peace.
Lee's autobiography also details her arguments justifying her calling:
O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach? seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as for the man. 
If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one? as those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach, would seem to make it appear. 
Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity - hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? for she preached the resurrection of the crucified son of God. . .
If then, to preach the gospel, by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened: must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and accompany it too with power to the sinner's heart. As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard. If he has not, how could he consistently hear testimony in favor of my poor labors, in awakening and converting sinners?
Jerena Lee disappeared from public life at the age of 66, having ended her preaching career and completed and published her autobiography.  The date and place of her death are unknown.  But I can't help thinking of Acts 10:9-48, where Peter was shown in a vision that his understanding of God's work had been too limited, and that he must not call the Gentiles unclean or refuse to associate with them, for God's Spirit could fall on them as well as on Jews.  Peter had to let the evidence of the power of the Spirit overcome his understanding of the "biblical" way he thought things were supposed to work.  He couldn't deny that despite what looked like the "plain meaning" of the Scriptures that only Jews could be God's people, the Spirit of God had fallen on a bunch of uncircumcised Gentiles.

I remember a former pastor of mine once saying something similar after visiting China in the early 1990s. When he had seen the congregations and heard the preaching of several different young women (all of whom said they were called into ministry, and through whom many people's lives had been changed), my pastor said, "Who was I to argue with God?  I could no more deny the truth of their callings than I could deny the truth of my own."

In a time and place bent more strongly against her than is even conceivable today-- a time and place where black people were considered inferior, and black women even more so-- Jerena Lee walked in power from the Holy Spirit that could not be repudiated.  To Christians and non-Christians, leaders and laypeople, white and non-white, men and women, free people and slaves, she spoke with authority the call to repent, believe, and live a holy life. As she wrote:
[B]y the instrumentality of a poor coloured woman, the Lord poured forth his spirit among the people. Though, as I was told, there were lawyers, doctors, and magistrates present, to hear me speak. . . the Lord scattered fire among them of his own kindling. The Lord gave his hand-maiden power to speak for his great name, for he arrested the hearts of the people, and caused a shaking amongst the multitude, for God was in the midst.
The only way around it is to forget it ever happened.  And we've done a pretty good job of that.

But the time has come to remember Jerena Lee.

I'm not saying Ms. Lee was perfect.  I'm not saying she was right in every doctrine or that she never acted unspiritually.  But I am saying God chose her-- and He never lets imperfections bother Him when He chooses a man, so why should imperfections disqualify a woman?

But if the Bible is really "clear" that God forbids all women everywhere to ever teach or exercise authority over men, then when God chose Jerena Lee and sent her out on her own, without even a "male covering," He acted in contradiction of His own word.

Either that, or a "poor coloured woman" who loved God with all her heart, brought people to Christ by some unholy power.  But didn't Jesus have something serious to say to those who believed the same thing of Him?  Matthew 12:26-28.

What if God actually acted exactly in keeping with His own word?  "God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful." (1 Corinthians 1:27, NLT version)

Maybe what's really clear is that church hierarchies and the gatekeepers of doctrine sometimes think they're wise when they're not, and hold onto power when they shouldn't.  Maybe God can and does do things that just don't fit into restricting, limiting "biblical" boxes, and when we read the Bible that way, we're doing Him and ourselves a disservice.

Let's let the witness of Jerena Lee speak to us once again.  The gifts and callings of God are for all.



Pamphlet version of Lee's Religious Experience and Journal, published online

University of Minnesota's Voices from the Gaps

PBS's Africans in America Resource Bank

PBS's God in America

Susan Ditmire's History of Cape May County, New Jersey

Daughters of the Church by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, pp. 259-60.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Why I'm a Jesus Feminist

Jesus Feminist is the title of a new book by Christian writer, blogger and editor Sarah Bessey.  She is holding a synchroblog this week for people who, despite or perhaps because of their fears about using this potentially controversial name, still want to say "I'm a Jesus Feminist."

I'm a Jesus Feminist.

Because this quote from Sarah Bessey's book is nothing more nor less than what I have been saying on this blog for the last two years. (I'm sure her book says a lot more, though, and I really want to read it!)

Because neither Jesus nor feminism should be defined according to how they are represented by vocal extremes.

Because my Savior came to proclaim liberty to the captives.  Because feminism, when not defined by extremes, proclaims the simple truth that women and men are equal in humanity, equal in dignity, equal in worth.

Equal, Jesus feminism adds, in Imago Dei, the image of God.  Equal in the pouring out of God's Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17).  For the sake of the gospel of Christ, who said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10), a woman must be free.

became a Christian at the age of 15.  But I think I've always been a feminist.

In 1963 when I was born, men were still firmly in charge of everything.  I remember my mother trying hard to make everything just right for when my father came home.  She'd have his cocktail and slippers waiting, and dinner on the stove.  I grew up understanding housework as a woman's job, and earning money as a man's job.  I knew that because I was a girl, I would not be drafted if the Vietnam War or some other conflict was still raging when I came age-- and that my parents were profoundly grateful for that.   And I knew my father had the ultimate say at our house, though my mother usually got her way anyway.

Yet I also knew to the depths of my soul that I was as good as any boy.  I was smart.  Schoolwork came easy for me.  I knew I was a person, as valuable as any other person, male or female.  And despite the non-verbal messages they were giving me, my parents also told me that if I worked hard and developed my skills and talents, I could be anything I wanted.  No one ever said, "That is, if you were a boy. . . "

Until I became a Christian.

Not right away.  Not when I was still a "baby believer," figuring out what it meant to have been born again. But soon.

"You are a woman of God," the church told me.  "Learn to be a submissive wife to the husband you'll have someday.  Learn to be a homemaker and mother like the Proverbs 31 woman.  You can speak in church, and even be a leader, but only a leader of other women.  Embrace your calling, and don't sin by wanting something other than you were created to be."

Created to be led.  Created to be restricted.  Created to be subordinate.

Equal, but somehow less.

And I learned to embrace this because I thought it was the only way to be a Christian. I took comfort in the idea that Jesus submitted to the Father's authority even though He was equal to the Father.  That my subordination was by choice, something an equal could choose to do, which meant I remained an equal making a decision, not an inferior accepting the inevitable.

Even though subordination was presented as the only choice, if I really wanted to follow Christ and obey God.   Even though the leader-follower relationship between me and the man I married in 1988 often felt forced, even hypocritical, as if we were giving lip service to a hierarchy we somehow couldn't seem to actually bring off.

Even though there didn't really seem to be anything about the women I knew that made them less suited to be elders or pastors.

I lived with this cognitive dissonance for years and years.  And then in February 2008 a scholarly blogger friend of mine who called himself Metacrock introduced me to his friends at the Egalitarian Christian Alliance and their Equality Central Forum.

Only five years ago.   And yet it changed so many things.

It felt like walking from a darkened room into sunlight.

I found out that there was a different way to read the Bible, that spent more time exploring its historical and cultural context.  A way that focused on finding, as far as possible, the original author's intended communication, as it would have been understood by the original readers.  A way that stepped back from individual bits of text to view the grand sweep of the whole story of God's revelation to humanity.  A way that looked at the new creation and the kingdom of God as things both now and not yet-- culminations of the gospel which will one day finally end all injustice and inequity.

And it didn't seem to be about subordinating or limiting or restricting people, but about setting us all free.  Men and women alike, free of restricting roles (you must be the conqueror, you the nurturer; you must always be the leader, you always the follower) to become fully themselves, whoever and whatever they were created to be.  And this idea, this radical release from categories and their fetters, seemed to anticipate the fullness of God's kingdom and the new creation that is and is to come: "Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not male and female."  Galatians 3:28.  Maybe we really could all be "one in Christ Jesus."   Maybe we really could stop viewing one another according to the flesh. (2 Corinthians 5:16).  Maybe instead of one leading and one following, a man and a woman could go where God sent them together, by mutual agreement, hand in hand.

And maybe this has always been meant to start here in this world, with Jesus and the way He treated people-- especially women-- as the first fruits.  Maybe that's why He chose women to announce His resurrection.  Maybe that's why He said, "The greatest among you shall be the servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."  Matthew 23:11-12.

In the end I embraced Jesus feminism because it was the only thing that made sense to me.  The way out of cognitive dissonance into a new phase of relationship with Him, dizzy with thankfulness and new-found freedom.  The way to rediscover what I had always, deep-down, been sure of.

Being female does not mean I am less.  That I'm "equal-but."  That I'm in the Imago Dei, but somehow not quite as much as if I were male.

No.  I was created in His image (Genesis 1:27) and recreated in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).  It is God's good pleasure to give me the kingdom (Luke 12:32) which we all enter in the same way-- as little children, without privilege or status greater than anyone else.

I'm still as good as any boy.  I wasn't born to be restricted and subordinated and led. And my sisters and I must be free.

For the Bible-- and my Jesus-- tell me so.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Christian Cliches: "Lean Not on Your Own Understanding"

When I was part of Maranatha Campus Ministries back in the 1980s, "Lean not on your own understanding" was a cliche they were particularly fond of.  I remember when they were teaching us that Genesis 1:28, where God told the first male and female to "have dominion. . . over every living thing that moves on the earth," was a divine mandate meaning that today Christians are to "have dominion" in society and government, to "take over" for Jesus and make Christian principles and morality the "law of the land."  I remember shaking my head in puzzlement.  That passage doesn't say anything about human beings ruling over other human beings.  According to that passage, there weren't any other human beings back then to have dominion over! I thought.  But when I tried to express some of this to others in the group, their response was, "Lean not on your own understanding."  We were to believe what the Bible said (by which they actually meant what the leaders interpreted the Bible as saying) without question.  We were to think as we were told to think. To do otherwise was not "trusting in the Lord."  It was "leaning on our own understanding."

Another way this cliche is sometimes used is to elevate ideology over practicality; to keep people clinging to a particular "conviction" about how the Christian life is best lived, even if life itself is increasingly showing that the ideological system just doesn't work.  Vyckie Garrison, a former Quiverfull movement member, wrote about this a while back in an open letter where she commiserated with a fellow member who had tragically lost a child during a home birth:
Although we both knew full well that a big part of what makes for better outcomes in natural childbirth is when fully-informed pregnant moms are in control ~ they are listening to their bodies and trusting their instincts ~ as Christian quiverfull women, we also learned to distrust our feelings and we daily practiced dying our own selves, surrendering control, leaving the decision-making to those in rightful authority. . . Looking back, I can clearly see now how verses such as “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart, lean not on your own understanding”. . . set us up as women to doubt our own perceptions ~ to dismiss our fears as irrational or as the devil sowing seeds of distrust. Our deeply beloved belief system denied us an important safety net ~ that of our own feelings. When our bodies and our minds screamed out, “Something is wrong!” our faith calmed us down. . . .
Both of these meanings of "lean not on your own understanding" are spiritually abusive, cliched versions of scripture that divorce the meaning from its context, both biblical and historical. I don't think either of these things is what "lean not on your own understanding" is really about.

The words actually come from Proverbs 3:5-6:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
This verse is part of a long set of instructions and counsel given by a father and/or mother to a son (see Proverbs 1:8).  Verses 7 and 8 of Proverbs 3 together form a poetic parallel-- a form of Hebrew writing in which two sentences say the same thing in slightly different ways:
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear [revere] the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.
"Do not be wise in your own eyes," then, is basically a restatement of "Lean not on your own understanding."  The word "understanding" there is the Hebrew biynah, which refers to the grasp of knowledge. To put it in today's vernacular, what is being said is, "Don't think you have all the answers."

The problem is this.  When "Trust in the Lord with all your heart" comes to actually mean "Trust in what you think the Bible is saying without considering any other interpretation," or "Trust in the doctrines taught by the leaders of your particular movement without question" -- this is the exact opposite of the Proverb's intention.  If we really stop believing we have all the answers, this should make us more willing to question what we think or have been taught to believe. It should make us more open to the evidence and realities around us.  It should increase our sensitivity to such things as gut feelings, which are a different thing than "understanding" and which may very well come from God.

Also, the Proverb says "with all your heart."  What we mean by "heart" and what it meant in Bible times are two different things.  We think "heart" is only about feelings and instincts; we use the word "mind" when we mean our thoughts and reasoning processes.  "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding" thus is easily misinterpreted as advice to focus on our feelings towards God and to leave our reasoning out of it.  But the word translated "heart" is the Hebrew word leb, which refers to the whole inmost self: feelings, thoughts, conscience, memories, inclinations, decisions.  If our whole innermost selves are relying on God rather than on our own understanding-- whether it's our own grasp of knowledge or that of a church leader or an ideological group-- then we can listen to new input and our own reactions, learn facts and knowledge we may not have been aware of, and lean on the Holy Spirit to help us sift through it all.

I believe Paul was expressing the essential meaning of Proverbs 3:5-6 when he said, "Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God." (1 Corinthians 8:1-2.)   This part of Paul's letter is about how "knowledge" about food sacrificed to idols can be destructive to others-- as any form of knowledge can when it becomes elevated into an ideology that trumps actual human needs.

"Lean not on your own understanding" was never meant to support any such ideology. It was never meant to support trusting in our own grasp of knowledge-- even our knowledge of the Bible-- over trusting in the Lord Himself.

Our faith isn't supposed to be in formulas, or in how if we push the right buttons according to our ideologies, everything will be rosy.  It's when we treat faith like that that we're actually leaning on our own understanding.  Not when we're healthily questioning, listening and learning.

So let's stop acting like we have all the answers.  That way we can grow in our understanding rather than leaning on it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Turning 50

Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now.

    - Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

I turned 50 today.

When I was 10, 20, 30 and even 40, it never really occurred to me that this was going to happen.  Fifty has always been something impossibly remote, something that happened to other people.

Not that I mind, really, waking up and understanding that it has, in fact, happened to me.  Turning 50 isn't like what I thought it would be.  

For one thing, once you're here, it doesn't really seem old anymore.  Not even as old as I felt at 44, when it first seriously entered my mind that I wasn't going to live forever. At 44 I found that my life was more than half over, and what had I accomplished?  What had happened to all the idealized hopes and dreams of 18?  Of 25? Was this all I could expect out of life-- to finish my years in middle-class ordinariness and obscurity?  And then, to actually, really die? 

It seemed kind of tragic at 44.

Now it seems almost comforting.  

I think the main thing about turning 50 is that sometime during the last five or six years, it stopped being about me.  What I accomplish as an individual just isn't what life is all about.  I feel now that I'm part of this whole thing that is God's world, still learning to seek first God's new-creation kingdom, but knowing that the bits that I contribute are just threads in a vast tapestry.  And the weaver is Christ, not me.

I still probably have quite a bit of time left, after all.  I'll finish raising my kids, and maybe someday (I hope!) I'll get some grandchildren to spoil.  I'll keep helping people with the paperwork to fix their legal problems.  I'll keep reading and blogging and learning and going to church, and watching the babies in the church nursery, and I'll keep going for walks in the woods and holding hands with my husband.  And I'll realize more and more as I travel from here how impermanent it all is.  And that will be ok.

I don't have to have all the answers anymore.  I don't even have to understand all the questions.

The book of Ecclesiastes makes more sense to me now than it used to.  For one thing, Gregory Mobley's book The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible helped me understand that the word translated "vanity" in that text does not actually mean "meaningless":
[Ecclesiastes] is not saying that everything is without form and void of meaning. Rather, there is meaning and substance, to everything there is a season and a time, but we see through a glass darkly. . . Our apprehension of . . . the Great Plan is ephemeral and elusive. . . We can experience these exuberances, fleeting puffs of insight about, and engagement with, the Real, but we can neither possess nor control them. . . . [Chapter 6]
Mobley translates Ecc. 3:11 like this:
The entire thing [God] has made beautiful according to its time. Furthermore, [God] has given the [ability to comprehend] chronology in their hearts. Yet humans cannot discover what God is enacting from beginning to end. [Ibid]
Turning 50, I have gained enough perspective to know that I lack perspective.  I have felt, and firmly believe, that there is a pattern to it all, but it's enough to know this.  I don't need to see the whole pattern or how my threads fit into it.  I only know that they do.

And because of this, nothing I do is actually in vain.  We are put on this earth to help one another, to live interlocking lives within the pattern, and whether the help I give is visible is not important. What is important is that there's no such thing as an insignificant life.  There's no person, whether they live for an hour or a hundred years, whose thread God doesn't see as part of an entire, beautiful weaving.

This isn't to discount the ugliness of ugliness.  This isn't about pretending that people don't do horrible things to one another, and it isn't saying that God wants these things or that they have anything to do with God's plan (see for instance Jeremiah 19:5).  But in spite of these things, God's plan endures.  In spite of these things, the tapestry-weaving continues until the whole thing is complete.

I used to feel I had to "do great things for God."  Now I understand that doing small things for God can also be great.  I used to think I had to "get a mighty vision."  Now it's enough to "see in a mirror, dimly" and to know only in part (1 Cor. 13:12).  

But I'm also glad that people who are 10, or 20, or 30, don't feel this way.  I'm glad they want to have big visions and high goals and grand adventures.  Because God does call some of us to stand out, to be instigators of whole new sections of the pattern, and if no one would step into those plans, where would the pattern be?

What it comes down to is that we all need each other.  We need one-year-olds and 10-year-olds and 30-year-olds and 80-year-olds.  We need big movers and little shakers.  We need all the perspectives from all the places, in all colors, in all different types of thread.

Because it's not about any one of us.  It's about all of us.  

And that's what I see at age 50.  I wonder what I'll see when I'm 70. . . . 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Saved by Being Right: Christianity and Dogmatism

In the Christian group I belonged to in college, we believed we had all the answers.

Other Christians might differ from us in doctrine, but we knew the truth, straight from the Bible. "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it," we would say.  We even knew why everyone didn't see things the same way we did.  They were deceived.  Or they were "in compromise" with sin and were trying to justify themselves.  Or they were "lukewarm" and just didn't want to "pay the price" to really "press forward in the things of God."

I remember the time I mentioned to an older church member that I wondered about young-earth creationism.  I asked her if maybe the earth wasn't six thousand years old.  Maybe God didn't intend the "days" of Genesis 1 to be viewed as 24-hour periods?

She became very upset.  "It was evening, and it was morning, one day," was what the Bible said.  How could I possibly be questioning that?  If we were going to start changing the meaning of Bible words, who knew where it could end?  If we started to believe the wrong things, what would happen to us?

I shut up.  But I couldn't help seeing what was behind her eyes as she put me back on the straight and narrow.


Oh, there was fear of the leadership, of course.  No one wanted the pastors to decide a demonic spirit of deception was upon any of us. They would take us into a private room where a group of the most trusted members would spend hours shouting at the demon to come out of us.  In the worst case scenario, we could be subjected to public rebuke in front of the whole congregation, or even be excommunicated.

But the fear went deeper than that.  It was in essence a fear of not believing properly-- a fear that we could find ourselves on a slippery slope towards actually falling away from Christ.

"It's very important what you believe," they told us. Whole sermons were preached on this.  We were saved by faith in Christ, and though we were supposed to enter a trusting personal relationship with Christ through that faith, what "faith" meant, ultimately, was believing the right things.  Hebrews 11:6 was constantly repeated to us:   "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him."

Belief is high priority in Christianity.  Even apart from the spiritually abusive, controlling segments, it's high priority.  One of the most famous things Jesus said was, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16, Emphasis added.)  And Paul said, "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9, Emphasis added.)

But there's a problem.  Belief, as most often understood in the modern Western world means "Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something" or "Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons." The word also has a third meaning, "The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another," but when we say, "I believe in God" or "I believe in the Resurrection of Christ," that third meaning isn't usually what we're talking about.

But Jesus and Paul spoke of belief primarily in that third sense.  Belief in something as an accepted truth was not nearly as important as trust and confidence-- not in a set of tenets, but in Christ, the Father God and the Holy Spirit.  Belief in doctrine was meant to spring out of that trust-- not the other way around.

If you ask most Christians straight out, they will usually say that they do believe it's trust in Christ that saves them.  And yet so many times, we live our lives as if the really important thing was what we mentally hold to be true-- or even simply that we hold the approved opinions.

And the problem with this, of course, is that if every thought and opinion must be the "right" one according to our religious group, we are in danger of being so right-thinking that we never actually think at all.

Theologian and Bible scholar Peter Enns, Ph.D. says:
The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions. . . that doctrine determines academic conclusions. 
Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one. It did not come to be in order to inspire academic exploration but to maintain certain theological distinctives by intellectual means. These intellectual means are circumscribed by Evangelical dogma. . . As an intellectual phenomenon, the Evangelical experiment is a defensive movement.
How many times have you talked to a Christian who asserts that your disagreement with him or her is in fact a moral failing?  That your problem is lack of faithfulness to God or disrespect for the Bible? For many of us, it doesn't seem possible that someone could carefully and prayerfully examine a Bible text and end up honestly seeing it differently than we (and our minister or pastor) see it. 

Christians can come to believe that God gave us minds not for the purpose of learning and exploring the world He gifted to us, or for growing in our understanding of God, God's ways, and ourselves-- but for holding onto to our beliefs and dogmas against all comers. 

"Dogmatism" is the logical fallacy of "[p]roposing that there simply cannot be any other possible way of making sense of and engaging with an issue but the one you represent." Dogmatism is "[t]he unwillingness to even consider the opponent’s argument. . . the assertion that one’s position is so correct that one should not even examine the evidence to the contrary."

Dogmatism in Christianity, I think, comes primarily from fear.  If we believe we are saved by faith, and we define faith primarily in terms of having the right set of beliefs, then anything that challenges those beliefs must be resisted as evil.  Our thinking becomes defensive rather than inquiring, didactic rather than exploratory, closed rather than open.  We see our role as the instructors and correctors of others, rather than as listeners and learners.  

We all want in our heart of hearts to be listened to and understood.  But dogmatism strips us of our ability to listen and understand.  We become fundamentally unable to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. 

In the end, all we have is spiritual pride.  

And the Bible actually warns us against this.  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:1-2, "Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God."  And Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 9:41, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains."

We aren't meant to believe we have all the answers, or to believe that's even possible.  We're meant to walk humbly with God, to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to (Romans 12:3).  We aren't supposed to be one another's mental police, but one another's servants. 

To my readers who are Christians:  if "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6)," we don't need to be afraid. We can be free to explore, to examine, to seek greater understanding in all things.  Having a difference of opinion is not a slippery slope to heresy. Questioning is not a slippery slope to apostasy.  

Questioning is a way of appreciating the complexity of the universe God placed us in.  And allowing others to think differently is a way of appreciating our own complexity as human beings. 

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 1 John 4:18.  It's time to let go of fear of not being right.

Because we're not saved by being right.  We're saved by trusting in Christ.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Racism, Colorblindness and Me

"Stop staring!  What's the matter with you?"

I was about six years old, living in a smallish town in Colorado.  One Sunday afternoon we went to a park in a nearby larger town.  An African-American family had also brought their children to the park, and they were playing on the children's play equipment.

My eyes were riveted.  I couldn't look away.

I had never seen black people in person before. Only on TV.

I don't remember now whether my mother hissed those words, or if I said them to myself.  "Be colorblind," she had always told me.  "We don't look at people according to their race.  We simply see people."

I must be a racist, I thought to myself.  I had only seen black people on TV before.  These people looked strange, exotic, different.  I couldn't stop seeing their race.

I felt miserable and ashamed.

It was, I think, sometime in 1969.  The Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and my parents-- white-skinned, white-collar people living in the Rocky Mountains in a house my dad built himself-- were against Jim Crow laws and very supportive of the protests happening in far-away cities.  But where we lived, there were no black people anywhere in sight.

Later, when I was in high school, there were a few African-American kids in my school.  They were immensely popular, considered "cool."  I was far down on the social scale.  They never noticed or spoke to me.

When we moved and I went to college at the University of Oregon, I finally had the opportunity to get to know some African-American students.  The strangeness finally fell away, and I relaxed and could be natural around my new friends.  Although the campus ministry I went to was coercive and controlling, it did have this strength-- it actively sought out people of all cultures, and it was probably the most integrated church in town.  I lived in a big sorority house with kids who were African-American, Chinese, Indonesian, Latino.  I began to see that the incident when I was six had been pretty much just a normal, childish response to a new thing.  I wasn't racist after all.  I had learned to be "colorblind."

And that's how I saw myself for about the next 25 years.

Nowadays I live in a smallish town in Oregon where there are very few people of color. The largest minority group here is Latino, but we don't see very many even of them.  Most black people in town are here because of the college.  When they graduate, they don't stay here.

I always thought it was because there weren't enough of the kinds of jobs they wanted.

But recently I decided it wasn't right for me, as a Christian egalitarian, to speak out only for women in the way I've been doing. Because simply by concentrating on the concerns of women like me, in the churches and communities I know, I am by default excluding women of color.

Because Christ calls me to speak out for the marginalized and disenfranchised, and not just for the group I belong to.

Because though I lack male privilege, I have white privilege and a host of other privileges.  So I need to listen to and learn from people unlike myself, and then speak out for them too.

Because a few years back I began to understand that being "colorblind" wasn't enough.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's 2003 book Racism Without Racists explains:
Color-blind racism. . . explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics. Whereas Jim Crow racism explained blacks' social standing as a result of their biological and moral inferiority. . . instead, whites rationalize minorities' contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks' imputed cultural limitations.  For instance, whites can attribute Latinos' high poverty rate to a relaxed work ethic. . .  
[C]ontemporary racial inequality is reproduced through "new racism" practices that are subtle, institutional, and apparently nonracial. . . And the beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards. . . Thus whites enunciate positions that safeguard their racial interests without sounding "racist." 
In other words, just because we aren't using racial epithets or promoting racial stereotypes, doesn't mean we're not, consciously or subconsciously, participating in subtler forms of a more modern racism.  As Bonilla-Silva states:
Relying on questions that were formed in the Jim Crow era to assess white's racial views today produces an artificial image of progress [and] . . . a rosy picture of race relations that misses what is going on on the ground.
This is why people like me, living in areas where we are privileged to never have to deal with racial issues directly (because of the lack of integration of our communities), can think racism is largely a past issue, rapidly becoming obsolete.  We would never, and we know of no one who would, use the n-word or deny housing to someone based on race.  So race just isn't an issue any more, or if it is, it's only down in those Southern states, right?

But isn't it time I asked myself why, after all these years, my city and most of my state remain so white?  According to this data, Oregon's population is 86.6% white-- 17th highest in the country.  And it is 37th in the nation for black population.

I decided to look a little bit into my state's history.  The Oregon History Project states that the Ku Klux Klan had a large presence here in the 1920s-- "one of the strongest state Klans in the country"-- largely because
[t]he Klan philosophy of “100 percent Americanism” rested primarily on three attributes: belief in a philosophy of white supremacy; adherence to Protestant or “American” Christianity; and the superiority of native-born Americans. Given Oregon’s long history of racial exclusion and the fact that almost 90 percent of the state’s population in the early 1920s was native-born, white, and protestant, Klan organizers had little trouble enrolling new members.
Wait-- Oregon is historically racially exclusionist?  Yes, very.  According to 7Stops online magazine, Oregon was intended by white settlers from the start to be a racially exclusive state:
Even in its earliest incarnations, the Oregon Territory did not legally allow slaves to be brought into the state. This law, though, had little to do with abolitionism; in fact, the first governor of the state of Oregon held a decidedly pro-slavery stance. Outlawing slavery was, in effect, just a way of keeping African-Americans out of the state. An article in the Oregonian on Portland’s lack of racial diversity quotes Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at Portland State University, as saying: “Conventional wisdom at the time was clear… If you don’t have more than one race, then you don’t have any racial problems.” For working class or poor whites living in Midwestern and southern states in the mid 1840s, free blacks represented a threat not only to their job security, but also their social standing, as “white trash” was often placed on a rung lower than “black” on the social ladder. . . .
Oregon enacted several laws in an attempt to curb the influx of free blacks. There were exclusion laws to keep any new “negroes and mullatos” from entering the territory, and a law called the “Lash Law” that mandated that every black in the territory be lashed every six months until they left. When Oregon adopted its constitution, one of the amendments was an exclusion law, making it the only free state in the union to include an exclusion law in its constitution. In the 1860s the laws were reduced, and African-Americans, Chinese and Hawaiian immigrants, and multiracial people were allowed to live in the state for a $5-a-year fee, although they were not allowed to own property. [Emphases added]
I don't think my children learned any of this in school.  I know for a fact that race relations was not part of the curriculum in Colorado schools when I was growing up.  But the fact remains that my current home state has a long-standing history of hostility to minorities, and this deep-seated historical attitude almost certainly contributes to the lack of welcome minorities, and particularly black people, undoubtedly still feel today. If you then add modern policies like urban renewal that favors white development at the expense of the very few traditionally black neighborhoods, it's no wonder that cities like Portland have actually seen their diversity decrease in recent years.

It's seeming more and more to me that unless I start actively engaging with this issue and listening to the voices of those who don't look like me, I'm part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I don't want to be racist or to contribute to racism.  But good intentions aren't enough, as detailed by the Christian racial reconciliation website By Their Strange Fruit: Christianity and Race in Today's Culture:
Our modern racial paradox is that our society is filled with profound differences based on race, yet few claim to even see race at all.

This is perhaps the most dangerous form of racism. Because we refuse to acknowledge its existence, we are helpless to combat it. Racism is allowed to run rampant because we deny the reality of its strength.
As a Christian who knows my own sinfulness and relies on the abundant, freely-given grace of God, I needn't be afraid to face my unaware and unwilling participation in the status quo of systemic, institutional racism-- or even the deep-rooted, unwitting biases I may have-- but instead to trust in Christ's hand in my own as He leads me further into the ways of His upside-down kingdom, where no one clings to power but instead lays it down for the good of others.   The first thing for me to do is learn to listen well as a person of privilege.

I commit myself now to do that.  White readers, will you join me?

Because being colorblind is not enough.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"One Who Is Forgiven Much, Loves Much" - Jesus and the "Sinful Woman"

This amazing story of how Jesus treated a social outcast appears in Luke 7:36-50:
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This story is sometimes conflated with the story of the woman (John's Gospel says it was Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, John 12:1-8) who broke an alabaster jar of perfume over Jesus' head just before He went to His death in Jerusalem.  But that story is set at the home of Simon the Leper, not Simon the Pharisee.  (Matthew. 26:6-13 and Mark. 14:3-9 also tell the Mary story but don't name her). "Simon" was an exceedingly common name in 1st-century Palestine, so the different modifiers would be used to identify different people.

Other differences:  Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, is never identified as a "sinful woman"  (i.e., a prostitute).   The perfume in Luke's story is never identified as being costly, as Mary's perfume was (its cost, not her reputation, was the source of the dispute in the Mary story). And Luke's story apparently takes place near the beginning of Jesus' ministry rather than near the end of His life.  Also, while the Mary story is explicitly set in Bethany (in Judea), this one appears to take place in Galilee, in a town called Nain. (Luke 7:11).  So I think it's pretty clear that this story in Luke is not about Mary and is unique to Luke's gospel.

However, the blurring together of gospel women is a well-established church practice, dating from the fourth century after Christ.  A article on Mary Magdalene (though it assumes-- erroneously in my opinion-- that there can have been only one woman in Jesus' life who anointed His head with perfume) details how Pope Gregory I (AD. 540-604) retold the stories in such a way that Mary Magdalene became the "sinful woman," effectively decommissioning her as a venerated, authoritative figure in the early church:
Cutting through the exegetes’ careful distinctions—the various Marys, the sinful women—that had made a bald combining of the figures difficult to sustain, Gregory, standing on his own authority, offered his decoding of the relevant Gospel texts. He established the context within which their meaning was measured from then on:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? 
There it was—the woman of the “alabaster jar” named by the pope himself as Mary of Magdala. . .  
Thus Mary of Magdala, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side, “became,” in Haskins’ summary, “the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex.”
Despite this, it seems clear from the texts that the "sinful woman" of Luke 7 is not Mary Magdalene, nor is she Mary of Bethany. She is a nameless woman, outcast from society, who has her own remarkable encounter with Jesus. That encounter is what I am going to examine today.

I'm indebted for much of this to Kenneth Bailey, Th.D., and his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, and David A. deSilva, Ph.D., and his book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture.

The first thing to be aware of when reading stories like this is the fact that Israel, like most of the rest of the first-century Roman world, was a patronage culture, as succinctly explained by Truth or Tradition:
Ancient biblical societies functioned on a patron-client basis. As such, there was great inequality between the “Haves” and the “Have-nots.” The inequality existed in substance (possessions) and power and influence. As a result, the client needed the resources that the patron could offer. The patron needed (or found useful) the loyalty and honor that the client could give him.
A prostitute in that society was very much a "Have-not."  Jesus, even though He was a wandering preacher dependent on others to provide for Him, functioned towards the people in the role of a patron-- one who freely gave others what they needed, and who was to be given honor and loyalty as a result.  God was considered the ultimate Patron, and the recipients of His power in forgiveness, healing, provision and favor were the beneficiaries.  According to deSilva's book linked above, Jesus acted as the mediator of God's favor for the benefit of the people:
Jesus' ability to confer benefits of such kind derives from his relationship with God, specifically as the mediator of favors that reside in the province of God's power. . . The response to Jesus during his earthly ministry bears the stamp of responses typical of beneficiaries to their benefactors. (p. 134)
Whenever Jesus healed people, when He miraculously fed large groups of them, and when He declared sins forgiven, He was acting in the role of mediator-patron of God's blessings. The actions of the "sinful woman" towards Jesus in Luke 7 typify a beneficiary's response to a patron.  She had clearly encountered Him prior to this incident, because she deliberately brings with her the flask of perfume in order to honor Jesus by anointing Him with it.  In that honor-shame culture, the public honoring of patrons was the chief means by which their beneficiaries could return thanks.

Who knows exactly what their first encounter was like?  Just a few chapters earlier, in Luke 5:29, Jesus is seen eating and drinking with a large group of "tax collectors and sinners."  This woman may have been among them.  Her prostitution was probably her only means of supporting herself-- she could have been an orphan, a widow with no sons, or a divorced wife (women could be divorced by their husbands for pretty much any reason, even for burning food).  Though our instinct is to hold the men who took advantage of her situation responsible for her shame, she would not have seen it that way.

Jesus must have been different than any man she was used to encountering.

He must have treated her as neither an object of scorn nor as an object of self-gratification, but as a human being, a "daughter of Abraham" worthy of consideration and even respect.  When He saw that she wanted forgiveness and redemption, He may even have offered her a way out of her despised life. Perhaps He told her she could travel with His group and be supported out of their means.  Perhaps He connected her with another person who could help her to some other means of self-support allowable for a woman.  In any event, her biblical story begins with her appearance in Simon the Pharisee's home, knowing that Jesus has already considered her sins forgiven, and ready to do her Benefactor honor.

The rudeness of Simon the Pharisee, then, stands in stark contrast.

Kenneth Bailey's book linked above explains the cultural meanings that would have been understood by the original audience, which we tend to miss:

1.  The Pharisees had probably decided to invite Jesus to one of their homes in order to correct and mold Him, as a young rabbi who badly needed their wisdom and advice. They had already communicated (as I stated earlier) that they didn't like Him doing such things as eating with "sinners." The point of this dinner party was to shame Jesus into better behavior.

2.  Just as there are certain courtesies guests in our own homes expect, guests in homes of that day would have expected certain courtesies by way of welcome:  a kiss of greeting, then water and olive oil to wash and anoint their hands and feet before reclining at the low table to eat.  Simon offered Jesus none of these.  It was the same as if we were to open the door to a guest and then (in front of the other guests) turn away without a word, leaving the door hanging open for them to let themselves in, then ignore them when they speak to us and go on chatting with the other guests, making no room or offer for them to sit anywhere, and passing the refreshment trays over their heads without offering them any.  Jesus was quite deliberately being insulted.

3.  Jesus' response to this rudeness is to immediately go and recline at the table, without waiting for any older guests to recline first.  This was a probably a way of saying, non-verbally, something along the lines of "This is petty, childish behavior, so I'm assuming I'm the most mature person here."

4.  As is still traditional at Middle-Eastern meals, the lowliest members of the community are allowed to enter the room while the guests are being fed.  They can thus be beneficiaries of the host's patronage in feeding them, which accrues to his honor as a benefactor.  The woman would have entered as one of these persons, and would have been sitting against the wall when Jesus came in. She sees the way He is now being mistreated, and she is so upset that she begins to weep-- not for herself, but for Him.

5.  Her original intention was probably to anoint His hands and head after He had been washed and before He reclined.  This would have been an appropriate way to honor Him.  She did not plan to wash His feet (she brought neither water nor a towel).  But since (having been denied the washing) Jesus immediately reclines, His head and hands are now out of reach.  The woman determines to make up for the rudeness Jesus has just suffered, by washing His feet herself with the only means available-- her tears. By then kissing His feet, she is also offering an act of devotion so extravagant as to be a form of worship.

6.  Having no towel, the woman lets down her hair to dry Jesus' feet, thus willingly entering into the shame and public humiliation Jesus has just experienced by uncovering her own hair in public.  This mimics the behavior of a bride on her wedding night, which is a declaration of the ultimate loyalty to this man.  She thus opens herself to yet another rejection-- from Christ.

7.  What the woman has done is a blatant, non-verbal rebuke towards Simon and the other Pharisees.  By performing the washing ritual expected of the host, and by doing public honor to a person Simon wished to shame, she has turned the shame and dishonor back on the host (which was not how a lowly community outcast, there to receive food, was supposed to act!) and also has opened herself to attack from Simon and his Pharisee friends.

How does Jesus respond?  According to Kenneth Bailey:
Jesus accepted the woman's extraordinary demonstration, and in that acceptance confirmed her judgment regarding who he was-- the divine presence of God among his people. . . But Simon either could not see or perhaps could not accept any of this.  So Jesus turned to him (and through him to the entire assembly). . . The phrase "I have something to say to you" is a classic Middle-Eastern idiom that introduces a blunt speech that the listener may not want to hear.
 Jesus then tells a short parable in which the woman is identified with a sinner whom God forgives much, and Simon with a sinner whom God forgives little.  He thus reminds Simon that he, too, is a sinner, and ends up equating Himself with God the forgiver.  But the most extraordinary thing that Jesus does is this:  He verbally attacks the host for the same rudeness the woman has non-verbally (and very bravely) confronted.  Prior to the woman's involvement, Jesus was quite willing to simply convey His displeasure non-verbally as well, by reclining out of turn.  But now, as Bailey puts it:
Jesus shifts the hostility of the assembled guests from the woman to himself. . . Never in my life, in any culture, anywhere in the world have I participated in a banquet where the guest attacked the quality of the hospitality! . . . Jesus attacks Simon in public in his own home.  He is not a fool and must have a very good reason for launching such a public attack. . . By aggressively defending the woman, Jesus endorses her willingness to get hurt for him. . . (pp. 256-257) 
Jesus at last speaks to the woman, reconfirming her forgiveness by saying, "Your sins have been forgiven."  A rabbi was strictly warned again and again not to talk to a woman in any public place, not even to his own wife.  Jesus violates that dictum as he speaks to the woman with his word of reassurance. . . Simon and his friends refuse to follow Jesus' lead and shift their focus from the sin of this woman to her response to grace.  Simon focused on the woman's mistakes.  Now the invited guests focus on Jesus' "mistakes." . . . For Jesus, true prophethood involved getting hurt for sinners by confronting their attackers.  As the story ends, Simon is under the glass and is challenged to accept offered forgiveness, respond with love and revise the default setting of his outlook on the world. (pp. 258-259)
This is a story of a very courageous, faith-filled woman, and Jesus' final words to her, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace," are a tremendous affirmation of her dignity and worth.  His championing of the woman even goes so far as to deflect to Himself the anger she has incurred.  It is in more ways than one that He suffers on our behalf.

I myself have never been a prostitute, but I know what it is to be rejected and shamed by a roomful of people.  This story has resonated deep in my heart since I first heard it as a young, socially awkward high school girl.  Jesus' willingness to come to the defense of a social outcast-- His determination to enter into solidarity with her through unacceptable social behavior of His own--- reveal His willingness to come to my defense and His lack of concern with the social norms that labeled me an outcast.   As the article goes on to say:
Jesus’ attitude toward women . . . was one of the things that set him apart from other teachers of the time. Not only was Jesus remembered as treating women with respect, as equals in his circle; not only did he refuse to reduce them to their sexuality; Jesus was expressly portrayed as a man who loved women, and whom women loved.
Singer-songwriter Don Franciso probably said it best, retelling this story in a way that still makes me choke up whenever I hear the song:

Her sins were red as scarlet
But now they're washed away
The love and faith she's shown
Is all the price she has to pay
For the depth of God's forgiveness
Is more than you can see
And in spite of what you think of her
She's beautiful to Me.

I hope that wherever there is rejection, I too can learn to follow my Savior in championing the rejected and bringing them acceptance like this.