Sacred Scandal

I don’t care very much about Anthony Weiner’s, um, wiener. But the “flame-stream” media can’t seem to get enough of it. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, count your blessings.) What a tragedy that a congressman can get far more media attention with his genitals than he ever could with his passionate work to end poverty, provide access to health care, and rein in the military-industrial complex.

I am so tired of media flare-ups over the sex lives of our politicians. Sure, those lives are riddled with stupidity, but have you peered over the fence into your neighbor’s life lately? Tracked your teenager’s texting trail? Watched nearly any Hollywood movie? Read any issue of People magazine? American culture is simultaneously enthralled and repulsed by sex, and that surely contributes to the unending appetite for scandalous news.

In a bloated world of 24/7 instant media, there’s no better way to secure market share than fanning the flames of outrage; and sex scandals are the best fuel for the fire. But where’s all the outrage over the scandal of a dissolving social safety net, or the scandal of wasted lives in an endless war on terror, or the scandal of treating women’s bodies as pawns in a game of political brinkmanship, or the scandal of decimating the environment on which all of us depend for life itself?

That’s just a short list of the scandals that everyone, but certainly Christians ought to find outrageous. Sadly, the only time most people read the words “scandal” and “church” in the same sentence is when they’re reading about the latest case of clergy sex abuse.

If flame-stream media want religious scandal, let’s give them Pentecost, which many Christians will celebrate tomorrow, June 12. I mean something more than a neat and tidy liturgy done decently and in order (though there’s nothing wrong with that).

In the biblical account of Pentecost, previously fearful disciples of the risen Jesus are dramatically empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach good news to a whole bunch of diverse people who may not have known they needed to hear it. The disciples were so outrageous about this that some observers thought they were drunk (Acts 2:13).

The courage to be outrageous came from the Spirit, who rested on the disciples’ heads like tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). And these fired-up disciples did more than preach. They rearranged their households, disrupted local economies, challenged both religious and civil authorities, and shattered social and cultural taboos. Read all twenty-eight chapters of Acts – it’s not a story of respectable, law-abiding, church-going folk. Propelled by the Spirit’s queer energy, they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

That’s what I call a queerly Pentecostal agenda, which is still fueling world-changing work. The project currently underway for the blessing of same-gender relationships in the Episcopal Church is one example. So is the Fellowship, a multi-denominational network of congregations and clergy devoted to the radical inclusivity of the Gospel, linking amazing worship with transformative social ministries. The Bay Area Coalition of Welcoming Congregations is yet another. But that queerly energizing Spirit also shows up in less “churchy” locales too — among the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco, for instance, or in theatrical performance artists like Peterson Toscano.

Those are just a few among many examples – and all of them are certainly more newsworthy than a lusty congressman.

If flame-stream media won’t cover the sacred scandal of Pentecost, then it’s up to us. Let’s make sure the queerly Pentecostal agenda goes viral. Facebook it, tweet it, blog it. And if you’re going to church tomorrow, wear something red, not just to commemorate an event of the past. Wear red as a sign of your commitment to turn the world upside down today.

Peculiar Pentecost: An Agenda

The tide is turning. Can you feel it? Newscasters and sports figures alike are “coming out.” Marriage and/or civil unions are taking root in more and more jurisdictions (the latest polling numbers now show a majority of Americans supporting marriage for same-sex couples). The Presbyterians will welcome openly gay and lesbian clergy. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed and the U.S. Justice Department won’t defend the “Defense of Marriage Act” in court.

That’s pretty heady stuff. The prize, it would seem, really is within reach.

But I’m not popping the champagne cork just yet. Sure, backlash is a real possibility. But I worry more that the sights are set too low. Legislative and judicial victories rarely change hearts and minds, for example. And changing an ordination policy doesn’t automatically change congregations. And what kind of change do we want, really?

A similar dynamic seems to have seized the first disciples of Jesus. On the brink of the risen Jesus’ ascension, they ask him whether that profound moment of resurrection signaled at long last the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6).

The disciples’ question is not quite so random as it might appear. The “kingdom” they had in mind was the only benchmark they had ever known for the good life. Surely in that moment, when even crucifixion can’t thwart God’s mission in the world, it’s time for the “happily ever after” moment and roll the credits. I mean, really, after death is conquered, what’s left?

Quite a lot, apparently.

Here’s the peculiar part: the resurrection of Jesus was not the end of the story, not by far. According to Acts, those disciples still had an amazing adventure stretching before them. The Spirit they received on Pentecost empowered them to take up the Jesus-revolution where Jesus had left off – and take it even farther.

A short list from Acts offers a glimpse of what that looked like: overturning economic systems that keep the poor in poverty (4:34-35); resisting institutional authorities jealous of their own power (5:17-26); dissolving social and class boundaries (8:25-40); and reshaping cultural and religious standards of propriety (10:9-30). In what is perhaps the best shorthand description of what a peculiar faith can do, Acts declares that those early Christians turned the “world upside down” (17:6).

That’s pretty heady stuff, too – and that work isn’t finished yet either, not by far.

Prior to that Spirit-led adventure, the disciples seemed stuck in a first century version of the “gay agenda.” Since the 1980s, that agenda could be summed up with a single phrase: “demanding a place at the table.” I’ve worked hard on that agenda myself. Yet I’m haunted by that “Holy Ghost” who seems much more bent on overturning tables than adding a few more chairs.

The Feast of Pentecost (June 12 this year) offers a great opportunity for an agenda set by that peculiar Pentecost. Maybe “vision” is better than “agenda” – a vision where not everyone looks the same or acts alike or buys into the institutional systems that are, actually, killing us.

A Pentecostal agenda begins with some peculiar if not impertinent questions: Why are health care and tax benefits attached to marriage at all? When will more of us resist the forces of global capitalism that seek to turn everyone into a market niche so we can buy still more stuff while the planet slowly dies? Why are there so few LGBT-identified people at immigration reform rallies and labor union meetings? Now that openly gay and lesbian people can serve in the armed forces, when will we start dismantling the military-industrial complex that compels so many low-income people to enlist because they have no other job prospects?

Even that short list of peculiar questions makes the so-called gay agenda seem rather tame.

Those first disciples asked the risen Jesus the wrong question (as I’m sure I would have, too). Wrong, because the resurrection doesn’t “restore” anything; but it does make everything new – or rather, that’s the promise. And the promise starts to take root when we hear Jesus say this to his disciples: ”You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8).

Well, power to do what, exactly? That’s the question Pentecost ought to pose to every Christian community. Not every community will answer it in exactly the same way and the peculiar visions that emerge will need the insights from all the others. Those first-century disciples quickly discovered something similar, and something else as well: that peculiar Pentecost turned the world upside down.Thank God.

Apocalypse Now or Later?

Harold Camping and his fervent followers in Oakland, California believe that the world will end this Saturday, May 21. (Read about the prediction here.) It’s rather easy to ridicule such beliefs and dismiss this group as just bizarre. But have you read any church history lately?  The whole history of Christianity, from the very beginning, brims over with peculiarities, with one bizarre moment after another.

And what about the Bible? Are those ancient texts really less strange than Camping’s sermons? This Sunday, many Christians will hear a portion of John’s Gospel from the Easter lectionary, including this promise from Jesus: “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (14:3). To me, that sounds only just a little less peculiar than what Harold Camping is preaching. (Read my take on the queerness of the Bible here.)

Given the trendy enthusiasm for atheism these days, some would insist that just believing in God at all is really peculiar if not downright queer.

So I’m not troubled by the oddity of Camping’s predictions. If you’re not odd in some fashion, then you’re really not Christian. I do worry, however, about those among his multiracial, multi-generational community who have forked over their life savings to bankroll the multi-million dollar media campaign that has brought all of this to our attention.  For the sake of argument, let’s say the world does not come to an end on Saturday. Well, who’s going to manage all those really angry, newly-poor people?

But there’s something else I worry about even more: the severe division of humanity between those who will escape the catastrophe and those who are left behind. That’s the core of Camping’s message and why we see his billboards along Bay Area highways.

Philosopher of religion Edith Wyschogrod identified the root of this problem as the “great sorting myths” of Western culture. She means those grand narratives that divide the saved from the damned, or the sheep from the goats (Mt. 25:32-33). Those myths, Wyschogrod argues, have inspired some of the most distressing moments in Western history, fiercely punctuated by Nazi Germany’s concentration camps and gas chambers.

To be sure, one can read the Bible as supporting those sorting myths, just as Harold Camping is doing right now. But there are just as many, if not more ways to read the Bible quite differently.

In that same portion of John’s Gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus declares that in God’s house there are many mansions (14:2). Don’t skip over the queerness of that image too quickly. (Think of Dr. Who’s phone booth that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.) That Gospel image ought to stretch our credulity far enough to imagine that there really is enough divine grace to go around for everyone and not just a select few.

(For you theology geeks out there: I do subscribe to the “doctrine of election,” but it’s Karl Barth’s version – everyone belongs to the elect. And if that isn’t queer, I don’t know what is.)

I find it helpful to recall that the original meaning of the word “apocalypse” does not demand some kind of doomsday catastrophe. That Greek word just means “revelation” or “unveiling.” In that sense, what we read in John’s Gospel is thoroughly apocalyptic: the unveiling of God’s wildly generous hospitality that will make room for everyone, no exceptions.

Queerly enough, I consider myself an “apocalyptic Christian.” Worlds actually do come to an end, and quite regularly – the world of one’s personal relationships, the world of professional work, the world of economic stability, the world of thriving ecosystems. All of these “worlds” and many more do on occasion come to an end.

The question all those world-ending moments pose is not how to find the “escape hatch” where we can scramble out with our friends and loved ones and let everyone else go to hell. The question is rather how to live in and through world-ending moments with others, and to do so with faith, with hope, and most especially with love (1 Cor. 13:13).

I pray for Brother Harold and his community, just like I pray for all of us. In this Easter season, may we find the faith and the hope to live into that love that is stronger than our many divisions and disagreements; stronger than any world-ending moment; stronger than death itself.

What’s So Peculiar about Christianity?

Christianity itself is really quite peculiar, and always has been, though not always in the same way in every time and place.

The peculiar character of Christian faith never occurred to me in the Evangelical, nearly fundamentalist subculture of my childhood. And it didn’t occur to me when I came out as a gay man, either. The wonderfully peculiar and transforming character of Christian faith has been unfolding in my thinking and living over the last 20 years or so.

To be sure, most Christians today in the North Atlantic rarely think about their faith as “peculiar.” Most of the time, Christianity just blends in with the wider culture and occasionally surfaces among political candidates as a kind of litmus test for elections. This seems rather far removed from the personally transforming, world-altering character of the Gospel that shaped the first few centuries of Christianity and which can still inspire renewal and transformation today.

I never really thought about it that way growing up in the American Midwest. Even though I heard and read the gospel story many times over my life, I can’t quite imagine why I missed just how peculiar it is.

Just to recall, the story of Jesus  that inspired the gospel writers was a story about a Jewish prophet living in a conquered, backwater province of the Roman Empire; about an unmarried, itinerant teacher in a society constructed on marriage and family relations; about the scandalous practice of sharing meals and daily life with the ritually unclean and socially misfit; about a humiliating, public execution at the hands of an occupying army; and reports from hysterical women who seemed to be talking about grave robbers and an empty tomb.

Now, really, that’s a pretty strange, odd and, well, very peculiar story.  It’s out-of-the-ordinary, culturally unwarranted, socially unreasonable, religiously radical, philosophically suspect, and politically dangerous. And precisely for all of those reasons, the gospel writers insisted that this story is “good news.”

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about human sexuality in that account. Given some of the academic work I do at the intersections of sexuality and religion, one might expect to read a bit more about that here. But I believe the Christian Gospel is already quite peculiar all on its own without any help from all the debates around sexuality and gender with which so many churches live today. To be sure, those debates can help highlight some important issues and questions, but they only scratch the surface of the Gospel’s potential for renewal and transformation.

Given the ongoing legacy of the “wedding” between Christianity and western cultural values, I would say we need to retrieve that peculiar Gospel energy to address the social and political mess we find ourselves in today regarding race, ethnicity, economics, class, and a planetary environment on the brink of collapse.

The biblical writer who wrote the first letter of Peter was on to something by referring to Christians as “peculiar.” The whole biblical book of Acts provides story after story of the wonderfully transforming energy of the Gospel. As Luke (presumably) described it in Acts, those early Christians “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

I’m convinced that the Christian Gospel still carries that potential today — to turn the world upside down with a peculiar faith, that inspires hope, and transforms the world with love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

A Strange Book — Thank God!

I mean, of course, the Bible. I don’t mean that the Bible is “strange” in the way that should make anyone avoid it. To the contrary, the peculiar character of the Bible itself is one of the reasons that keep me firmly planted in Christian traditions. Let me explain.

I am not a biblical scholar; I’m a theologian. But I do read the Bible and I do read what others have written about the Bible, both historically and today. I used to do all that reading as a way to defend myself against arguments from atheists or skeptics or those who believed that gay people should be condemned.

I no longer read the Bible that way, that is, with a defensive posture. What I have come to appreciate over the last 15 or 20 years of doing theological work is that defensive postures are dead-ends and soul-killers. Or as a colleague of mine used to say: You can’t do Christian theology from a place a fear; the only way to do Christian theology is by being open to the possibility of joy.

By doing that myself, I have come to realize just how wonderfully peculiar the Bible is and how peculiar Christian history is. I mean by “peculiar” that it carries transforming insights, world-altering perspectives, and thankfully disorienting “good news.” Or as Flanney O’Connor was once reported to have said, “You shall know the truth and it will make you odd.”

There are so many examples I could offer, but here’s just one place to begin: the ongoing exhortation by the so-called “religious right” in the U.S. to return to so-called “biblical family values.” Let’s notice what some of those “values” were:

Abraham’s use of his slave, Hagar, to sire a child, and his subsequent banishment of her and the child to the wilderness (Genesis 21:14) would be considered unspeakably callous by today’s standards. Yet according to the family values of his day, Abraham was acting completely within his rights. When Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, the Bible describes it not simply as an act of brotherly betrayal but as a necessary part of God’s will for God’s people (Genesis 27). Even more severe is Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter to fulfill the terms of a hastily made vow (Judges 11:29-40) or Onan being put to death for refusing to impregnate his late brother’s wife (Genesis 38:9).

That’s just a short list of the kind of biblical family values that we certainly don’t want our children to adopt today.

Not every biblical family relationship is quite that dysfunctional. But strangely enough, when biblical figures act virtuously, they often do so outside the bounds of what even ancient Mediterranean cultures considered the “traditional family.” The story of Ruth and Naomi is an account of same-sex devotion often read, ironically, during heterosexual marriage ceremonies (Ruth 1:16). David and Jonathan’s relationship is presented with a tenderness lacking in most biblical marriages: David admits that his love for his friend “surpassed the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). Those are just two stories in which the biblical writers themselves were subverting their own cultural standards.

The gospel writers did much the same thing. Set aside for the moment how they appear to present Jesus as unmarried and childless – that alone was a culturally and religiously subversive position in his own society. Even more significant is how the gospel writers chose to portray his teaching. According to Luke, Jesus turned to a large crowd that was traveling with him along a road and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, [and] brothers and sisters…cannot be my disciple” (14:26). According to both Matthew and Luke, to a man who wished to be his disciple but wanted first to attend to his father’s funeral Jesus said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead”(Mt. 8:22, Lk 9:60). According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, when told that his mother and brothers wanted to see him Jesus pointed to his disciples and said “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:48, Mk 3:33, Lk 8:21).

To put it mildly, Jesus does not appear to care much for marriage and biological families. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest Christian communities took that posture to heart, displaced the biological family with the “faith family” and created their own micro-economic system. Rather than establishing individual household units, Luke writes, those first Christians did not claim “ownership of any private possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). Paul seems likewise to have been shaped by this radical, first-century reassessment of what family means. Paul worried that marriage was a distraction from the more important work of Christian ministry (1 Cor. 7:32-39). In his view, marriage was, at best, a last-ditch solution for those who could not otherwise control their lust (1 Cor. 7:9).

I’m not suggesting that the Bible is so out of touch with today’s world that we can’t read it anymore. To the contrary, my point is just this: precisely because even biblical writers seemed committed to subverting their own cultural standards for the sake of divinely good news, we can find the hope, the energy, the inspiration, and the divine cheer-leading to do the same thing today.

We could do that, not just about the highly-charged notion of “family,” but about all sorts of questions and issues we face today — concerning economics, race and ethnicity, caring for the environment, transforming despairing loneliness into communal hope and affection — and so much more!

I’m eager to continue reading the Bible with others, in community, who seek ways to transform our world with a peculiar faith, an inspiring hope, and a transforming love (1 Corinthians 13:13). I believe the wide world is not just ready but eager and desperate for Christian communities to do precisely that. And it can begin, oddly enough, by reading the Bible together.

The Bible is truly a peculiar book – thank God!