post

Hearing a Dog, Seeing a Human: Crossing a Border with Jesus

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped…”

I kept returning to those words from Isaiah (35:6) as I prepared to preach on a set of challenging biblical texts this week.

Reflecting on that prophetic promise, it occurred to me that there are some things we actually do not want to hear very clearly or that we wish he had never seen at all.

It has been troubling, to say the least, to hear overt forms of racism in this country the last eighteen months, both on our city streets and at the highest levels of government. Even more distressing in some respects is to see with greater clarity how those eruptions of ire tap into a long tradition of racial bias, a corrosive thread running throughout American history.

white_nationalist_charlottesville

White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, 2017

A hair-raising account of this appeared just recently in the New York Times. There I learned about Charles Henry Pearson, an Australian academic of the late nineteenth century, who warned that white men would soon be thrust aside by black and yellow races. He urged a concerted effort to defend particular parts of the world against such encroachments so that the “higher races” can live and increase freely, for the sake of their “higher civilization.”

I was dismayed to learn that Theodore Roosevelt was rather fond of Pearson’s work, and was actually in communication with Pearson, assuring him of the “great effect” Pearson’s defense of the white race was having on “all our men here in Washington.”

Dismayed and then disgusted by the reminder of Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to preserve “white civilization and its domination of the planet,” a posture that led W. E. B. DuBois, in those early decades of the twentieth century, to describe the emergence of what he called “the new religion of whiteness.”

I read that piece from the Times while thinking about the passage many Christians heard this week from the letter of James (2:1-17). Quite frankly, I’ve been never been a fan of that biblical letter, and I often agree with Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer who apparently wanted to rip James out of the Bible entirely. But I read James differently this past week, perhaps like I’ve never read him before.

As you may know, those who have trouble with the Letter of James usually complain about not finding any grace in it. That was Luther’s objection, or what’s called “works righteousness,” the idea that we can earn our salvation through good works. But I don’t think James had anything like that in mind.

To the contrary, James is not the one denying divine grace in this letter; it’s those he writes about, the ones who treat the rich and powerful as if they are better than the poor and weak—they are the ones who deny grace. Those who play favorites, make distinctions, show partiality—they are the ones who fail to live their faith. Your faith might as well be dead, James writes, if you don’t treat everyone as equally graced by God, equally loved.

James pushed me this week to ponder favoritism itself, its corrosive, even violent effects, and how it manifests in the notion of “higher races.”

Why do human beings do this? Not all of us make such gross distinctions, of course, at least not publicly, but many do and it would seem many more are increasingly willing to do so openly. But why? Why classify and categorize and make such harmful distinctions?

At least one among many possible reasons occurs to me: we don’t really believe in grace.

Deep down many are convinced—because most of us were taught—that love and affection, even dignity and self-worth must be earned, and earned, and earned yet again.

For some, the fear of not measuring up can make the idea of a superior race seem quite attractive indeed—especially if you yourself could belong to that superior race, just by being born.

I am not proposing a singular origin for racism, nor a simple cause-and-effect mechanism for the complexities of white supremacy. I am, however, urging Christians to consider these cultural dynamics in the context of our faith. Just as James, I believe, would urge us to do.

In a world that is constantly forming us in the fear of unworthiness, shaping us with the anxiety over inferiority, dividing us—often violently—between the chosen and the damned, we need continually to be re-formed by love, nourished by a feast of divine grace.

Perhaps Mark’s Jesus can help (Mk 7:24-37). I mean, the Jesus who called a foreign woman a “dog.”

Let me quickly note that I, personally, do not consider it an insult to be compared with a canine. Given the types of human behavior we see displayed daily in the news, I would be quite happy to be thought of as dog-like.

That said, the current occupant of the White House has made clear on Twitter that “dog” is definitely not a compliment, especially when applied to women of color. The same could and should be noted about this nameless Syrophoenician woman in Mark who begs Jesus to heal her likewise nameless daughter, a woman who is compared to a dog begging for scraps of food.

Note the details with which Mark describes this scene. It takes place in the region near Tyre, a city well north of Jerusalem, farther north than the Galilee, definitely not a purely Jewish city, but one with deep Hellenistic influences. “Phoenician” names that region more particularly, and the “Syro-” marks the even larger region of Syria.

Mark is evoking a long history of land being carved up by various empires and kings, a history marked with border disputes, conquest, animosity, and violence.

syrophoenician_womanAnd then—as if this were not obvious—Mark notes that this Syrophoenician woman was a “Gentile,” or a better translation might be simply “Greek.” Not Jewish, in other words.

Sounds to me like a postmodern hybridized identity forged in the crucible of an occupying imperial force residing on contested borders with all sorts of socio-political intrigue and religious anxiety. This ancient text could have been ripped from the pages of the New York Times!

Even more so if we add a bit of economic class to this mix. Typical portrayals of this woman resemble a peasant, or someone at least lower in socio-economic status than Jesus. One biblical commentator, however, has argued against that usual grain of interpretation, suggesting instead that this unnamed woman could have been of significant means.

The combination of the proximity to Tyre and her Syrophoenician ancestry recalls the story of Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah in the first book of Kings. There we read about Jezebel, a Phoenician princess condemned to be eaten by dogs—which puts a rather unsavory spin on those scraps falling from the master’s table.

In short, Jesus and this woman occupied vastly different spheres, worlds apart, and this difference was laden with value. Mark makes this clear by tossing in that reference to dogs—the difference between Jesus and this woman is as vast as that between species.

We can recognize these dynamics quite easily by looking to the U.S. border with Mexico, where children of asylum seekers are housed in cages.

Perhaps the point is made best by noting that this woman doesn’t even have a name; she’s a geopolitical marker, an ethnic designation, a gendered manifestation of religious rivalry.

Borders convert human beings into categories—silenced and invisible.

Even Jesus needed some time to hear this woman clearly, to hear and see the human behind the border.

But he did hear her, eventually, and her daughter was healed.

It’s not just accidental, a bit of random chronology that leads Mark to place another story of healing right after this story of a nameless, foreign woman. Whatever divides us, fragments us, keeps us from hearing the grace of God—all of this wounds us, individually and collectively. And we, just like the man Jesus encountered, need healing.

Blinded by ancient prejudice, unable to hear beyond the walls of hatred, the voices of oppression muted by socio-political forces hell-bent on dividing us—we need to hear again, and then again, and still more the good news of the Gospel: God’s grace extends to all, no birth certificate or passport or green card or bank account or pedigree required.

Christian worship matters in a world carved up with borders, a world of nameless humans seeking to be heard and seen, a world where dogs become ciphers for human disdain and derogatory rhetoric.

friendship_park_communion1

Eucharist at the California border with Mexico.

Christian worship matters in such a world when we gather around the Eucharistic table, and for a deceptively simple reason:

When we eat well, we see and hear better.

When we gather at the Table of divine grace, we see ourselves and each other better.

When we feast on grace and love, we see ourselves and each other better, though this can be difficult, especially when we hear the voices of our own racial bias and see our own complicity with forms of discrimination.

And that’s exactly the point of grace and love—to notice all those hateful borders that divide us, and then work together to tear them down.

And that’s the work, James would say, that makes our faith lively.

post

The Nation State of Idolatry

“You are a city set upon a hill.”

Many American Christians heard that from Matthew’s Jesus two weeks ago, as they sat in church (Mt. 5:14). That image of a shining city on a hill has populated the speeches of American politicians for a long time and it stretches all the way back to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony.

I freely confess to loving that bright, sparkling image of America – I love it, that is, when I agree with the policies of the political party in power.shining_city

And that’s the dolorous blow to Gospel witness that Christians must resist on this Presidents’ Day and every day. Christians have always faced a grave risk, ever since the fourth century when the Emperor Constantine apparently embraced Christian faith. American Christians seem especially vulnerable to the danger – I mean the risk of conflating triumphant nationalism with the Kingdom of God and mistaking patriotism for faithfulness to the Gospel.

America first?

No, that’s called idolatry.

I do believe Christians should be involved in the political process because we are Christians; I do believe faith communities have a stake in public policies because of our faith; and I do believe that this country’s guiding principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all express something vital about the Gospel; America might even come close to being “great” if we actually put those principles into effective practice.

And yet, I remain haunted – as every Jew, Christian, and Muslim ought to be – by the specter of idolatry lurking around every patriotic corner. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Migrations of the Holy, presents a compelling case for why the modern nation-state generally (and not just the American version in particular) functions as a religion and is treated by many as a savior. It’s totalizing effects and demands for unqualified loyalty more than fit the bill for an idol.

bible_us_flag

“The church must be wary of nostalgia for Constantinianism,” Cavanaugh writes. “A Christian should feel politically homeless in the current context, and should not regard the dreary choice between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, as the sum total of our political witness.” He further encourages a range of church practices to help resist the “colonization of the Christian imagination by a nation-state that wants to subordinate all other attachments to itself” (p. 5).

Practices, that is, to help us avoid falling so easily, carelessly, and deeply into idolatry.

My friend and colleague Tripp Hudgins recently posted on Facebook what he called a “lament” for this Presidents’ Day and offered a searing reminder of what our peculiar faith as Christians demands from us in relation to empires, regimes, realms, and yes, nation-states.

Tripp affirms the need and necessity for Christians to stand against “Empire” in all its guises, including the democratic vestments this country currently wears. He cautions us, though, against supposing that resistance means a peaceful transfer of power or a bloodless revolution. More pointedly, “the truth about resistance and where it has historically…led Christians is to martyrdom.”

That path swerves decidedly away, as Tripp notes, from what many American Christians would consider laudable “revolution.” Too many understand heroic duty as the overthrow of tyranny with violence and far too few in the vulnerable witness of an Oscar Romero.

Tripp concludes with a reality check, the kind that can dispel my own romanticism about living as a Christian martyr and what such a witness actually entails. “Though Empires all share the same ending,” he writes, “they do not give up their power and position without taking the innocent down with them. And the Christian standing in solidarity with the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, and the innocent will find their end in the martyrdom of solidarity.”

I cannot love this country as I once did in my enthusiastically patriotic childhood. But I can love the land, and its people, and even some of its presidents when they inspire us to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I can love even the enemy, as Tripp says, “who cannot help but break your heart. Such love is the most profound Christian expression of solidarity with all creation.”

Wherever such love and solidarity are found, it seems to me, the shining city has once again been set upon a hill.

post

Keep on Dancing

I know some churches where lots of dancing happens on Sunday mornings.

I know some gay dance clubs where lots of praying happens on Saturday nights.

Turntables

For many years, I failed to notice the deep intertwining of these spaces, the blurring of the categorical lines and boxes that supposedly mark the difference between “sacred” and “secular.”

I grew up in a religious tradition that treated dancing with a great deal of suspicion and attended a college where social dancing of any kind was forbidden. Even after setting aside that religious perspective, I mostly overlooked the glittering sparks of divinity flying off the sweaty bodies of gay dancers and the spiritual glow of otherwise dingy warehouse clubs where we all felt safe, safe enough to be ourselves.

No, more than that: I learned how to be myself in those clubs. I learned friendship and devotion, comradery and betrayal, ecstasy and grief. I kept my sanity on those dance floors in times of anguish and with friends and lovers who likely saved my life more than once. I understood far better what Christian liturgy meant on Sunday morning – and why I should bother going – by dancing with all those other queers on Saturday night.

For years I enjoyed dancing in gay clubs for more reasons than I appreciated at the time. The light of that appreciation dawned brighter one night some years ago on a dance floor in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I wrote about that night in my book, Peculiar Faith, and how odd and transformative it was on that particular night and in that particular place to feel completely at home in my body with all those other bodies. With few exceptions, we weren’t dancing as couples that night but all together, each of us dancing with all the others. It was one of the few times in my whole life when I felt, without any doubt, that I truly belonged somewhere.

I felt the Gospel, in other words. I felt the Gospel residing securely and cozily in my very own body.

I don’t mean that gay dance clubs are perfect slices of Eden. They aren’t, and neither are churches. But I did at least touch and taste that night what I have come to believe is the very hope of Christian faith: to be completely at home in our own bodies without any shame, completely at home among other bodies without any guilt, and completely at home with God without any fear – all at the same time.

Experiencing “home” with that kind of depth is sadly quite rare and perhaps becoming rarer still in a world of so much fragmentation and isolation and violence. Oddly enough, I am convinced that the peculiar faith of Christians can rise to meet these yearnings for home; more oddly still, most churches could use some help in that work from gay dance clubs.

From eighteenth-century English “molly houses” to twentieth-century nightclubs, LGBTQ people have persistently carved out spaces of safe haven, gathering with others often at the risk of physical harm. Far more than venues for drinking alcohol and finding sexual liaisons—though that happened too—these spaces of homeward longing catalyzed shared reflection, strategizing, and deep bonds of affection. All of this redrew the cultural and political map of Europe and the United States.

Someone else just recently noted these things about queer spaces as well – the President of the United States. Responding to the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Barack Obama noted that gay bars stand for more than dancing; they provide places of “solidarity and empowerment.”

That sounds like Church, or what church could and ought to be. Consider what a friend of mine reported hearing from a speaker at the vigil held in Oakland, California, the night of the shooting. “When they kill black people, they kill them in church; when they kill gay people, they kill them in the clubs.” A voice in the crowd then responded, “sanctuary is sanctuary.”

The purpose of terrorism, whether foreign or domestic, is to terrify us and divide us. Queer people have known this for a long time – and still we gather. The earliest Christians knew this too; and still they gathered to celebrate the mysteries of faith, often under threat of imperial persecution.

This is scary stuff – the very stuff of terrorism. Yet as a wise colleague of mine once said years ago, “You cannot do Christian theology from a place of fear,” he said. “The only way to do Christian theology is by being open to the possibility of joy.”

A second-century Christian said mostly the same thing by declaring that “those who do not dance do not know what is coming to pass.”

In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, there are many steps we must take to heal and to guard against still more violence. Whatever else we do, though, let us make sure to dance – and hold hands, and share hugs, and kiss each other.

Dancing is not a luxury and it is not frivolous. Dancing is the bodily necessity of joy and the rhythm of courage. And still more: While LGBT people dance for a host of reasons, a thread of commonality weaves all of it together. In a world of oppressive social structures, unwelcoming religious institutions, and constant threats of violence, we dance for hope.

This – in addition to having lots of fun – is why I find dancing with other LGBT people so compelling. We do live in a world of rampant bigotry, physical insecurity, and risks to personal safety; and still we dance, and at times with joy shaking loose from our bodies and gratitude lighting up our faces.

I dance and I see the luminous presence of God.

No shame.
No guilt.
No fear.

Keep on dancing.

gay_dance_club2

 

post

Christmas in Torture Nation

Can violence and torture ever save us?

That’s a rather rude question for this Advent and Christmas season. Perhaps ruder still: Is violence just an inevitable consequence of living in the U.S.A.?WaterBoarding

Actually, these are exactly the questions to ask in relation to Christmas, a season to celebrate the birth of one born into a context of imperial violence and who would die from state-sponsored torture.

This seems a particularly timely topic today given how many (mostly white people) were surprised by the grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York and who were nearly as surprised by the recent Senate committee report on CIA-run torture programs.

I admit: I found all of this shocking and I was among those who were, at least at first, surprised by all of it. But it didn’t take long for me to remember why I shouldn’t be.

And yet there’s more: As I began editing this blog post, two NYPD officers were shot and killed as they sat in their patrol car; how quickly some linked their deaths to the protests over the deaths of unarmed black men (notice the headline from this NY Daily Post story). And still more: a human rights group in Germany has now initiated a process to file war crime charges against Bush administration officials for their role in torturing terrorism detainees after 9/11.

Are all of these just random, poorly timed (it’s the holidays!) moments of tragic violence? Or are we, in the U.S., at last ready to consider the diabolical thread that connects them?

Merriamlynching-Webster defines “torture” as “anguish of body or mind; the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure.”

That definition renders American history in quite disturbing textures:

  • Institutional slavery was nothing if not organized, state-sponsored torture, which lasted for nearly two-and-a-half centuries on this continent.
  • Jim Crow segregation, routine lynchings, and countless instances of bodily degradation of African Americans surely qualify as terrorism if not socially sanctioned torture.
  • “Homosexuals” (mostly gay men) were routinely hospitalized in the first half of the 20th century, many of them subjected to electro-shock therapy (yes, it’s as bad as it sounds) and sometimes forcibly separated from families and exiled from their communities; I would call that torture.
  • LGBT people still today, every year, take their own lives because of the constant religious haranguing about being “abominations” and “Satan-spawn” and “defective”; it’s the religious version of water-boarding, but stretching over years rather than minutes, and it’s torturous.
  • Nearly every U.S. governmental engagement with Native American tribes on this continent has involved forced relocations, genocidal military attacks, destruction of sacred sites, disruption of tribal life, decimation of cultural customs and languages, and the near-constant ideological humiliation of whole peoples who are apparently “uncivilized”; I couldn’t come up with a better centuries-long plan of torture if I tried.trail_tears

That’s just a short list of the torture we know about, and it’s knit into the very fabric of American history and culture.

The most recent instances of American violence are not just anomalies, or brief blips on our national radar screen that shall soon disappear. They are symptoms of a much more insidious disease. American society turns instinctively to violence and even torture to solve our problems.

Contemporary theologian Kelly Brown Douglas in her book, What’s Faith Got to Do with It?, argues for noticing just one of the root causes of this social pathology: Christianity itself. She notes, for example, the close alignment between a particular view of atonement and the justification of violence against all those deemed “other.”

She means, in brief, that if the torture and suffering of Christ is the means of salvation, then it’s a very short leap indeed to find nearly any other kind of torture salvific, or the (tragic) means to a greater good. “While the cross in and of itself may not precipitate deadly terror,” she writes, “the cross invested with power does” (p. 69). And indeed, it at least contributed to how Christians could gather – as Christians – to lynch African Americans in 20th century America. Pioneering theologian of liberation James Cone has argued the same thing in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Sound absurd? Or maybe just a quaint, if tragic, token of America’s past? Consider the recent polling data indicating that more than half of U.S. Christians believe U.S.-sponsored torture is justifiable. And get this: more than half of self-identified atheists insist that torture is never justifiable.

Note that data well: religious theists are on board with torture and atheists aren’t. How is this possible?

Kelly Brown Douglas would likely ask, but why are you surprised?

No, violence and torture can never save us; they are the very things from which we need to be saved. First-century residents of Israel/Palestine could have and likely did say the same thing in the midst of imperial occupation, violence, and frequent torture. (The cross on which Jesus was crucified was not, after all, unique. Crucifixion was one of the favored means of torture in the Roman Empire to keep occupied peoples docile and passive.)

nativity_star_donkeyLuke begins his account of the nativity by making that context plain, which we dare not forget today: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” (2:1). Nothing about Jesus, not even the place of his birth, is free from the touch of imperial power and everything implied by that power.

If Christian preachers this week in the U.S. don’t address American imperialism in some fashion, as well as the violence and torture on which it has always relied, it will be more than a missed opportunity.

It won’t be the Gospel.

post

Paul’s Wake: Coming Out as Christian on the Aegean Sea

By “wake” I mean the scant traces a boat leaves behind as it cuts through the water. I have no idea whether the Apostle Paul was afforded the other kind of wake, the one before a funeral. Both seem rather apt images for my upcoming Greek adventure.

I’ll soon be sailing the Aegean Sea on a fifty-foot sailboat with seven other gay men. Paul himself sailed this sea (at least nearby) on his missionary journeys, even though (of course) his ship’s wake disappeared quickly many centuries ago.

Paul’s theological wake remains, however, and in more ways than anyone can calculate. That wake is carved indelibly on the sea of Christian faith and spiritual practice. I’m actually a great admirer of Paul, even though I argue with him frequently.Paul the apostle

I’m going on this trip to relax but I can’t go without pausing to reflect theologically on the locale – especially since Paul’s writings have too often caused serious harm. Paul would be appalled by that damaging wake.

Paul exhibited extraordinary courage, erudition, and even deep pastoral care. Some of my most cherished biblical texts come from Paul: the declaration that “faith, hope, and love” are the hallmarks of Christian life, the greatest being love (1 Cor. 13:13); the insistence that in Christ there is no longer “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Gal. 3:28); his timely image these days of the whole creation “groaning” as it waits for salvation (Rom. 8:22); and of course his game-changing crescendo that absolutely nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). And that’s a short list.

Sadly, the only Pauline text most LGBT people know instead is the one from his letter to the Romans. There he describes same-sex sexual activity as “para phusin” (1:26-27), or what biblical translators typically render as “unnatural.”

To honor all those who have suffered harm because of this one biblical text (and some have taken their own lives), I hereby dub my upcoming Aegean excursion “The Unnatural Tour.”unnatural_tour_big_map

I call it that not in spite of Paul but to respect his pioneering insights in that world-changing letter (countless people have had course-changing moments by reading that letter to the Romans, including Augustine in the fourth century, Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, and Karl Barth in the twentieth century, to name just a few).

Consider Paul’s astonishing declaration later in that letter where he describes God’s grace with the same peculiar phrase – para phusin (11:24)  Paul uses that phrase only twice in the writings we have from him and both in this letter to the Romans. The first refers to sexual practices; the second, to divine grace. But how to translate it? Against nature? Contrary to nature? Above nature? Or just “unnatural”? Whatever it means, Paul seemed perfectly fine with using it to describe both sex and grace.

So I embark on an adventure in Paul’s wake, the one that disappeared long ago and the one that remains. I go on “The Unnatural Tour” with some anxiety as well. Will my gay sailing companions (whom I have not yet met) find it odd, disturbing, or annoying to be sailing with a theologian? Will I even tell them that they are?

Sad but true, it’s often more difficult to come out as Christian among LGBT people than it is to come out as L, G, B, or T among Christians – at least the kind of Christian one bumps into here on the Left Coast of California.

To live with more anxiety about revealing one’s Christian faith than revealing one’s sexuality actually feels like a relief for those of us who grew up in mortal terror of coming out sexually. But that relief comes with profound sadness and not a little anger. To set the joys of bodily intimacy against the good news of the Gospel distorts both, and far too frequently in tragic ways.

So I set sail with a bunch of gay men, not as a missionary but with honesty. I hope they will discover two things: 1) priests and theologians really can have fun; and 2) the source of their bodily yearnings for intimacy is in fact God, who made them for bodily joy. (By exhibiting the former, I hope the latter becomes obvious.)

map_linesI’m also relishing this: When the gay cruise ends, I will wash up (via ferry) on the shores of the island of Patmos. There, reportedly, the seer known as “John” was exiled and wrote what became the last biblical book of the Christian Testament.

As an eschatology geek, Patmos might be the highlight of my trip, even though it comes at the end (appropriately). I’ll visit the legendary cave on that island where pilgrims mark the spot of John’s visions. I’ll also be staying at the hotel on that island (complete with a spa!) where the restaurant is called “Apocalypsis.”

I’m sure that everyone working there has heard every joke imaginable about their “apocalyptic meals.” But just in case they haven’t heard the campy versions from a gay priest, I’ll make sure they do.

I’ll be my campy theological self on Patmos and on that boat with gay men because it just might prompt a Gospel moment – a moment appropriately and wonderfully encountered in Paul’s wake.

post

American Idols: God-Talk, Part 1

There are some things for which we do not give awards but which Americans tend to idolize nonetheless. Today I’m thinking especially of individual liberty in relation to the supposed constitutional right to have weapons, as well as the murkier right to private property. (Gird your loins for this take on such Constitutional matters.)

We’re not likely to hear a conversation about liberty as a form of idolatry in our courts of law, but it’s high time to have that conversation in our churches. Is it really okay for humans to do whatever they want? Do we really want to codify that idea? Is there nothing that Christian faith and theology can offer to these questions?

As promised, this is the first of a three-part blog series on theological ideas and why they matter. And they matter not least for the people who were killed or injured in Aurora, Colorado today and for the many species that are, even now as I write this, going extinct on this planet.

St. Augustine of Hippo (North Africa)

I begin with this fourth-century quote from St. Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.”

I take Augustine to be urging two things at once: to adopt a profound humility in our theological reasoning and to avoid idolatry at all costs. (Whether he himself managed to do this is beside the point.)

Individual liberty (a modern, western, Enlightenment concept) might seem a bit out of place in a cautionary tale about humility and idols. But I believe liberty might well stand as a cypher for western modernity’s presenting sin: putting the human in the place of God. This has been happening slowly but surely for about three centuries now, at least.

The many benefits of the Enlightenment’s stress on individual autonomy and human rights notwithstanding, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” come with a significant theological and, I would argue, social cost. Concerning the former: forgetting that Christian theological traditions have never understood freedom to be synonymous with the absence of constraint (spiritual freedom is always for the sake of doing something in particular not anything at all). Concerning the latter: elevating individual freedom over the common good (individual thriving is never an end in itself but something to contribute to the greater good). I believe both are illustrations of Augustine’s cautionary note about humility and idolatry.

Consider first the unrelenting, grotesquely well-funded, and usually vitriolic rhetoric of the National Rifle Association. For them, apparently, any gun-control legislation whatsoever is a pernicious infringement on the right to “keep and bear arms” guaranteed by the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We are facing yet again another moment when U.S. citizens ponder the role of guns in our common life. I think it’s important to note that violent crime has actually been decreasing steadily in the U.S. over the last few years, but mass killings have seen an increase. I’m not so sure that tighter gun control laws would have prevented what happened in Aurora today. But I don’t think that’s the point.

I think the point is the stress on individual liberty, that the individual reigns supreme in all matters of social and economic policy. I believe that is a form of idolatry, of replacing God with the human. Christians should say so, regardless of the policy implications.

Consider, second, that every single oil well, gas drilling operation, and fracking enterprise relies on a murky notion of the right to private property. (In those cases, property owned by corporations, but apparently the U.S. Supreme Court believes corporations to be individuals. But don’t single out the Supremes on this. I’m always amazed that the U.N. General Assembly’s “Declaration of Universal Human Rights” in 1948 included “private property” as one of those rights, in Article 17).

Here individual liberty comes home to roost in some vexing ways. Can you do anything you please with the property you own? No, but the constraints are wildly loose, and just try arguing any constraints at all in some parts of the U.S. and be prepared to talk to a shotgun (see the first consideration above).

The very notion that human beings have a “right” to “own” property and do with it mostly as they please flies in the face of a very traditional Jewish and Christian concept: stewardship. I’m well aware of the critiques of the biblical notion of stewardship over creation derived from Genesis. That said, are the problems with the concept of stewardship more difficult to deal with than the free-range property rights of corporations and, yes, individuals?

“Stewardship” means that what one stewards is not one’s own property. It is entrusted to that person or community for the one who does “own” it — or in this case, the One who created it. Sadly, most Christians seem to talk about stewardship only in relation to fundraising, and the planet is in peril because of it.

I return often to a wonderful 2009 book by a sociologist, James William Gibson: A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. I believe his thesis can be reduced to this: environmental change won’t happen unless and until we cultivate a re-enchantment with nature. And we are faced with severe obstacles in that task on nearly every front, not least is the modern western view of “nature” as simply a “grid of private property” (page 72). Just imagine flying over the U.S. from San Francisco to New York. What would you see out the window of that plane? Mostly property lines – state, corporate, and individual. Where is the Creator of all this?

There are of course many other forms of American idolatry – the flag, the institution of marriage, free-market capitalism, home ownership, and the Super Bowl, to name just a few. And of course, theology itself can easily become an idol, and Augustine was particularly keen to guard against that.

I’ll make suggestions in response to all that in the next two blog posts in this series, including how we might think about creedal statements in Christian history and also how the “erotic” is indispensable to “traditional” and “classic” Christianity. So stay tuned.

For now, as a beginning, I’ll offer this: Extolling the virtues of individual liberty belongs on a slippery slope toward idolatry, to replacing God with the individual human. I think that’s where any discussion of theological ideas – liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional, radical, or reactionary – needs to begin. Are we trying to deal with an encounter with the living God, the Creator of all, or an idol?

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps our Muslim sisters and brothers say it best:

“There is no God but God (lā ʾilāha ʾillà l-Lāh).”

That claim could, quite literally and practically and thankfully, change the world.