Bible, Justice, Sermon

i can’t do this without you: a sermon on james 5:13-20

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 27th at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC.

Prayer: O God who continually loves us, I am grateful. I am grateful that no matter how we’re feeling, you stay the same. I am grateful at your faithfulness even when we’re not faithful. May your spirit linger in this place and may our hearts hunger after your Word. In Christ’s name, Amen.

Over the years I’ve been part of several denominations, but the one service I attended faithfully until I moved to Philadelphia was a Wednesday Evening Prayer Service. It was a combination of testimonials, hymns, prayers, and something like craigslist. Once I needed a stove, mine was beyond repair, and I didn’t have the money to buy a new one. After I raised my concern, an older couple said they had an extra one in their garage that worked just fine. Other times folks who needed to go to doctor’s appointments would ask those in the service for a ride and rides were offered. That service embodies today’s passage from James.

In the final verses of James’ letter, he spells out what community looks like. He writes, “Are any among you suffering?” “Are any cheerful?” “Are any among you sick?” He implicitly assumes that the answer to these questions is yes. James knows members of communities do not act, feel, or even think in unison.

Because James knows this, after each question he offers a way one can act during the service. For those who are suffering hardships, pray. For those cheerful, sing a song. For those sick, and here James doesn’t give a short response, James writes that they should be anointed with oil and prayed over by the elders of the church. My interaction with these verses was present from birth until my preteens. I attended a church that had an anointing oil odor. And I, at least once a month, was anointed with oil, whether I was sick or not. Now I’m pretty sure this is not what James meant by anointing with oil.

So let’s segue into a quick history lesson into the world of ancient Israel and Judah. Anointing with oil was mainly meant for authority figures. Some prophets were anointed and most kings were. It set them apart. Even the word Messiah and the Greek translation of the word Christ means Anointed One. One of my favorite anointing stories in the Hebrew Bible is when Elisha in 2 Kings 9 gave instructions to a younger prophet to anoint Jehu, who was a macho warrior. Elisha told him to find Jehu in this group of military people, separate him from the group, tell him that he’s going to be king over Israel, anoint him, and then run like hell.

Translating the Hebrew Bible idea of anointing as mainly for kings and prophets, this becomes very peculiar in James’ community. In essence, he’s saying it’s those who are ill in the community that should be treated with the dignity of dignitaries . It’s the ones who are losing their eyesight who should be queens and kings. It’s those who pray for their scabs, their diseases, and their depressions who are royalty among us. Except that’s not how sick people are treated. We hear more stories about people like Martin Shkriel who raised an AIDS and cancer drug from $13 a pill to $750, a 5000% increase.

Yet, in James’ community, healthcare was not based on who could afford it. It was based on who was present. It didn’t matter if you were wealthy, penniless, or somewhere in between. Those who were sick were treated with dignity, respect, and honor.

Through the rest of these verses, we hear a parallel notion about those who wander from the truth. The community is called to bring them back. To bring them back to where they can be themselves: happy, suffering, or sick.

Related, there is this strange little story in Galatians 2 where Paul calls out Peter. The story goes, Paul and Peter are eating together in Antioch with Gentiles believers. When some Messianic Jews from Jerusalem arrive instead of Peter continuing to eat with Gentiles, he eats exclusively with the Messianic Jews. Using the words of James, Peter wandered from the truth of the gospel and Paul called him out and brought him back.

What I’m trying to get at is this: Everyone belongs. Everyone belongs. No matter what. Yet, it’s not that simple.

Belonging to a community requires that we are honest with one another. We are upfront with how we’re feeling. Are any among us joyful? Are any among us indifferent? Are any among us struggling to find your voice?

And in this honesty, we become vulnerable. Sharing with the community our mistakes, our struggles, and our dreams. Are any among us regretting your past? Are any among us afraid of our future? Are any among us not ready to move on?

On the front of the bulletin, there’s a quote by Lilla Watson “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This, my friends, is community.
This, my siblings, is what James and Jesus are calling us to.
This, my friends, is the gospel.

May we open ourselves in being honest, truthful, and treat one another, especially those society deems the outcast, with love and dignity. Amen.

Later in the service, the congregation participated in prayer stations.

Prayer Stations

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Bible, Faith, Liberation Theology

jean 3:!6 an exitjesus

I had Jean 3:!6* memorized before I entered second grade. 20 years later, I still hold it dear, but in a much different way. Early in my faith, I thought praying Jean 3:!6 was the first and most important step in salvation. I would pray this verse nearly every Sunday. It was paradoxically comforting and stirred up fear within me (like was this right verse? or was I saying it in the correct word order?).

For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Child, so that everyone who has faith in the Child may not perish but may have life eternal.

/Of course, this translation is my more inclusive translation. Until I was a teen, I only read the King James Version./

I’ve been annoyed lately by the blatant eisegesis done to this verse. Last week, a pastor said Jean 3:!6 was the whole Gospel: God loved the world and sent his son to be sacrificed for it. Also, I heard another pastor say that Jean 3:!6 is the most important verse for the cross. Yet, JEAN 3:!6 NEVER MENTIONS THE CROSS AS A WAY TO SALVATION! But because Christians have read it as such for many years, the cross has become the stick in our own eye (Matt. 7:1-5).

Jean 3:!6, when applying exitjesus**, seems to render the incarnation as the most important scene in the history of salvation. It is not Christ hanging on the cross in agony, saying few words, and bleeding profusely. It is a God who incarnated in the world to teach, heal, exorcise, pray, and set the captives free. Let’s not shove Jesus on the cross, just because his message is too difficult. And churches need to stop placing cross where it is not. It’s a disservice to the Bible and to congregations!

love one another

“Love One Another” by Laura James

*Writing and thinking Jean 3:!6 instead of John 3:16 helped me to set aside some of my own theological baggage and see it anew.

** I’ve heard more than one pastor say exegesis (the process of digging into a text) is exitjesus (destroying anything christological or theological about a text). I’m not trying to do that here though. 🙂 It’s also just ridiculous to think learning more about the Bible strips it of theology.

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#BlackLivesMatter, Philosophy, Scripture

adventure time as a postmodern book of judges

If you haven’t watched Adventure Time, you’re missing out on a delightful, fun,  philosophical, and always zany cartoon. Finn and Jake, a young blonde boy and a mustard colored stretching dog, maintain the roles as the heroes in the Land of Ooo. They battle against creatures and kingdoms that harm. And uniquely, there are many kingdoms: Flame, Ice, Candy, Lumpy Space, and the list just gets stranger. Yet, Jake and Finn do not inhabit any of these kingdoms.

Finn and Jake

The connection to the biblical book of Judges did not seem obvious to me at first. It was an episode from the current season titled “Walnuts & Rain” that tipped me off. Finn and Jake fall into separate holes somewhere in a forest. At the bottom of the hole, Finn finds himself in the Kingdom of Huge. King Huge eats constantly, fed by the Food Boys. Finn asks politely to leave, but the King has the Food Boys bind him. Finn breaks free with some trickery of his own, but was caught by the King. In the nick of time, Jake falls into the same space. With Finn in the King’s giant hands, he asks Jake, “What are you going to do about it?” He said this unassuming of Jake’s stretching abilities. Jakes makes a fist and stretches it across the King’s face. Finally, Jake and Finn make their way out of the hole and travel back to the Tree House.

Finn’s hole adventure parallels the story of Judge Ehud (Judges 3:12-30). In the story, Ehud makes his way to pay tribute (taxes imposed by another empire) to King Eglon of Moab. The writer notes that Ehud is left-handed. He hides a knife on the opposite side, his right leg. (I guess this was not a place where the Ancient TSA patted). He gives the tribute to King Eglon, who also is a huge man, and then asks if he might speak with him privately. In the room alone, Ehud stabs the King, his guts fall out, and Ehud exits through the bathroom into the sewer.

Ehud

In this medieval painting, Ehud’s garb resembles Finn’s. Coincidence? I think not.

Captivity, plan-making, and King-hurting are present in both stories. While Ehud as a judge identifies and fights for the Hebrews, Jake and Finn represent wandering judges, not bound by place. As well, in the Book of Judges, God raises up Ehud. Finn and Jake have a calling, but no caller. Even Grob Gob Glob Grod, who Ooo deems as a deity, does not call creatures to a purpose. When Finn and Jake embark on their adventures and face disruptors, harmers, and just plain evil (The Lich), they perform justice without a telos other than making sure others are unharmed.

Jake and Finn are postmodern characters because they know no boundaries, walls, or patriotism. They are, in a way, part of every kingdom. Sure, they are called upon by Princess Bubblegum of the Candy Kingdom. And Ice King tries to pry himself into their lives, but it’s not as if they are private contractors for the Candy Kingdom. They are outsiders fighting for a just world. 

 

P.S. I believe the biblical tradition of judges continues with such people as Vandana Shiva, Cheryl Clarke, Cornel West, Naim Ateek, the leaderful movement of #BlackLivesMatter, Evo Morales, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Bill Wylie-Kellermann. 

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Christainity

pentecostalism and weak pneumatology

I presented this paper at the Fordham Theological Graduate Conference on May 2, 2015. It was fun to write and think through my family’s tradition. Enjoy!

John Caputo called one Sunday afternoon and said that he wanted to meet me that night at an Assemblies of God church for a revival. I agreed and arrived at the church extra early so I could save a seat for him. Of course, he arrived as the service started and sat in the pew behind me. The organ wailed, some prayers prayed, and tongues commenced. At this point, Caputo leans forward and in a hushed voice says, “It spooks.” Intrigued by this curious phrase, I wait for some explanation, but instead he sits back. A little later in the service, there’s time for testimonies. A mother stood from her pew and shared her thankfulness for the congregation. They had provided her family with meals and kind words, after her daughter died tragically. Caputo hands me a ripped out bible page with the words, “It spooks.” As the sermon started, Caputo got up and left. After the service, he met me in the graveled parking lot outside. He didn’t say a word and so we stood there, people watching. We observed hugs exchanged, hands held, and dinner plans made. I turn around and he’s gone. But on my dirty car window, he had etched “It spooks.” I leave slightly confused and go back to my apartment to think on these things. (for those wondering, this is a fictional story.)

The following presentation is inspired by John Caputo’s recent essay, It Spooks, which uses the language of haunting and spooking to speak of God’s Spirit. I take up the language of spooking throughout this paper because it is a fine conduit between Pentecostalism and weak theology.

Pentecostalism and weak theology represent different poles on the spectrum of theology and practice. On the one pole, Pentecostalism in the US exemplifies the very essence of conservatism, anti-intellectualism, and exclusivism. Culturally characterized as snake-handlers and tongues speakers, they emphasize God’s Spirit as healer, gift-giver, and sustainer of the universe. Far on the other pole, waves weak theology. This was popularized in John Caputo’s book, The Weakness of God, where he writes, “I do not take the name of God to pick out an entity, … but an event, an advent, a future and a promise, a call and a claim, a hope and an aspiration.” (123-124). Weak theology, an arm of postmodern theology, explains that the name of God is found in the event, but is not the event itself. It rejects, or at least, holds loosely, any kind of religious doctrine, recognizing that certainty got us into this mess, and it certainly can’t help what we’re in today. Thus, any attempt to put into discussion Pentecostalism and weak theology, one must carefully not envelope either side into the other. In this paper, I want to demonstrate that Pentecostalism has the tools for revolution, i.e. anti-hierarchical and direct democracy. And here the spirit spooks and the function of this spooking is to suspend binaries of race, class, sex, and gender. But to help sharpen these revolutionary tools, I propose that weak theology encourages novelty in the Pentecostalism Project.

Pentecostalism, from its genesis, found non-cerebral ways to experience the holy specter. Avery Gordon theorizes haunting in her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. She writes, “Being haunted draws us affectively, something against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition.”[1] In other words, haunting opens new faculties of knowledge, away from the cerebral-only understandings of life. Many Pentecostal and Charismatic worship services are haunted in this way. They are spaces in which one’s theological knowledge is deferred because of the overwhelming experiences of the wholly ghastly. For instance, every Sunday morning of my youth, my great-grandmother would speak in tongues during worship. The holy ghost landed on this woman, who was born and raised in a country trailer park. She had no formal education beyond middle school and this hallowed haunter swept into her during the service without any qualms. She was haunted.

To gain some context, let’s start at the beginning of the Pentecostal Movement. Two ministers helped establish American Pentecostalism. First was the founder of the Bethel Bible College in Topeka, KS and was one of the first preachers to teach about speaking-in-tongues. He was a Southern white man named Charles Parham. He was pastor of the service in January 1901, where speaking in tongues was first inaugurated. A few years later, a young black man, the son of two slaves and blind in one eye, came to hear Parham speak about this phenomenon. He was William J. Seymour. Yet because of the Jim Crow reality, Seymour was not able to sit in the same room as Parham, so he sat outside the door and listened. After spending a few days there, Seymour took up the cause of Pentecostalism and started to preach about it. And he would eventually lead the Azusa Street Revival from 1906-1909.

From the very beginning, Seymour believed that the geist of eternity did not commend social or racial divisions. GastĂłn Espinosa, a Pentecostal Latino theologian wrote that the Azusa Revival “grew precisely because it was a transgressive social space wherein racial-ethnic minorities, women, the working class, and others could cross some of the deeply inscribed unbiblical racial-ethnic, class, gender, and national borders and boundaries of the day.”[2] This revival transcended time and place, growing in number and color.

In those three years, Charles Parham visited the Azusa Street Revival a few times. The last time he attended, he wrote an editorial piece condemning the Revival for its African-American spirituality wrapped up in Pentecostalism. He wrote, “Frequently a white woman, perhaps of wealth and culture, could be seen thrown back in the arms of a big buck [blank] and held tightly as she shook in freak imitation of Pentecost.”[3] Parham’s original vision of Pentecostalism was segregated. Blacks, browns, and whites should not attend the same services. The Azusa Street Revival spooked him and after the editorial, Seymour never publicly wrote of or acknowledged Parham again.

Transitioning to the biblical text, this holy ghost can be found haunting the pages of Christianity’s sacred script declaring an egalitarian religious participation. Paul included a well-known ancient metaphor of the body in 1st Corinthians 12:12-31, which is highly functional: if one is an ear they should do their best to listen well and if one is a foot they should respect their position and walk or run the best they are able. Yet, Paul equalizing this seemingly hierarchical metaphor declares, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (12:24-25). As a result, the holy ghost’s gifts are for the common good, whether it is wisdom, knowledge, healing, miraculous powers, speaking in tongues, or the interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:8-10). And these gifts, which are received from the holy ghost are an extension of God’s grace. Thus, what one receives from the holy haunter is for the building up of faith communities and not for personal gain.

This political cartoon takes the interpretative lens of the passage from 1st Corinthians as hierarchical. William Seymour is pictured as the foot inside the church with seemingly all white men, which was certainly not the case historically. Standing outside is Charles Parham with an oversized head and a book of the apostolic faith, which apparently Seymour was not following. This political cartoon is trying to, as Mason in the film Snowpiercer says to those lower class persons in the caboose of the train, “When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Moving forward, the holy specter disrupts oppression through haunting. Once again, Avery Gordon lays out a beautifully theological statement:

The ghost is not other or alterity as such, ever. It is pregnant with unfulfilled possibility, with the something to be done that the wavering present is demanding. This something to be done is not a return to the past but a reckoning with its repression in the present, a reckoning with what which we have lost, but never had.[4]

Ghosts, and specifically the holy specter, haunts not so that one becomes fearful of it, but so that it can waver one’s present state of comfort. For Parham, the state of his racism, his sympathy for the KKK, and his pro-Jim Crow attitude shook when he encountered the revival. Potentially, when the ghoulish spirit enters faith communities today, it could shake them of their apathy for the poor, their neglect of the systems of injustice including racism, sexism, transphobia, and so many more I could name. Hence the holy specter does not side with the powerful, but haunts them until they share with those without.

Yet, where might the haunting happen? William Seymour provides for us a response. He wrote an article in 1908, titled “Questions Answered” featured in the magazine Apostolic Faith. One of the questions asked was, “Is it necessary for a person to leave their home duties in order to wait at some place for the Holy Ghost?” He responded, “No; you can wait right in the kitchen or in the parlor or in the barn. Some have received the baptism of the Spirit in their barns, some in the kitchen, some at family worship, some on their porch, some about their business.”[5] The holy ghost can spook anyone at anytime, no where is safe. For the holy ghost is not a kindly Casper the Friendly Ghost, who got along with everyone without any problems. No, this holy specter haunts the world for the common good disrupting the lives of the comfortable and well-off. The holy specter haunts: that one can love better, share fuller, and listen more deeply to the needs of others.

Pentecostalism was one of the first Christian denominations, especially the Azusa Street Revival, to demonstrate equality among all persons regardless of race, class, or gender. Yet, has forgotten its tradition and become crystallized in conservative ideology and rhetoric. Weak theology, seen throughout this paper as constructing new possibilities in pneumatological discourse, haunts one towards justice. Once again, Avery Gordon, our spookologist, writes, “haunting, unlike trauma by contrast, is distinctive for producing a something-to-be-done.”[6] As we heard Caputo in the opening story creepily say and spell out, “It spooks.” Pentecostalism has rendered these words, in some way, for more than a hundred years, but sometimes need to be reminded again and again.

[1] Avery F. Gordon and Janice Radway, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 8.

[2] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 101.

[3] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 99.

[4] Avery F. Gordon and Janice Radway, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 183.

[5] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 194.

[6] Avery F. Gordon, “Who”s there?’: some answers to questions about Ghostly Matters., website, October 26, 2007, http://www.averygordon.net/writing-haunting/whos-there/.

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Beliefs, Christainity, Scripture, Sermon

the baptism of jesus and a tree tornado: a sermon

Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV)
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Psalms 29:1-11 (NRSV)
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of God’s name;
worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to God’s people!
May the Lord bless God’s people with peace.

Everyday we hear many voices. We hear intercom announcements from the MTA telling us that we need to hold onto our personal belongings because there is always someone willing to take them. Or that we need to be on the lookout for suspicious looking people and packages and if we see something that we need to say something. We hear weather reports that inform us in what to wear that day. And we hear and see advertisements telling us that we are inadequate in our dress and that we should buy this piece of clothing to be with the in crowd. And on top of that, we have our own internal voices that compete. Arguing with ourselves with where we should go, what we should watch, what we should order to eat, or if we should call this person because the last time we talked with them they had me so upset, but right now we know that they are struggling with some big.

Needless to say we are bombarded with voices.

In our text today, we hear three voices. The first is the narrator, the Gospel writer. The other two voices are John the Baptizer and God.

The narrator sets the scene. We are in the wilderness, near the Jordan River. We hear this man making proclamations, but he’s clothed, not like us. He’s wearing camel’s hair with a leather belt. This man is John the baptizer. He’s performing a baptism of repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It should be understood as the changing of one’s heart and mind. Or as one commentator puts it, “to be transformed and turned around; to have your heart made over; to now be playing a new tune, returned.”

And with the rest of the people from the Judean countryside and all of the people of Jerusalem, we confess our sins and are baptized in that Jordan River.

Then John, with excess honey dripping from his beard, shouts out for all to hear, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The wild man has spoken.

Out of the crowd comes Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee and he too is baptized by the locust-eater. But he doesn’t say a word. He could have declared then and there that he was the one who John was just talking about. He could’ve pointed to himself or raised his hand showing to the crowd that it was him who John was not worthy enough to untie his sandal. But he doesn’t.

When Jesus was coming up from the water, the heavens tore apart and like a dove the Spirit descends on him. And a voice came from heaven declares, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When this baptism narrative sits next to our Psalm reading, they seem to have a similar landscape. Both reference the wilderness. In the Psalm, God’s voice is powerful, strong, and can break the cedars of Lebanon. God shakes the wilderness, even the wilderness of Kadesh. God causes the oaks to whirl and leaves the forest bare.

With some biblical imagination, I wonder if this is what God’s voice sounded like. As the heavens were being torn open, the cedars were being uprooted creating a tree tornado around the crowd. God’s proclamation about Jesus would’ve been impossible to miss.

tree tornado

But with the many voices that we hear on a regular basis, sometimes it’s easy to be distracted from God’s voice. It’s not an everyday occurrence that the heavens tear open or God’s voice becomes audible for all to hear. Thankfully, we have services like this one to quiet the voices inside ourselves and to listen deeply for God’s voice. But quieting those internal voices takes practice and discipline.

Let me finish with this, God tells Jesus that he is beloved and that God is pleased with him. There’s not much context for it. It comes out of blue, since in Mark’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ first scene. He hasn’t done much. In this way, God is proclaiming, unlike the advertisers, that Jesus is adequate. I believe God comforts us those same words too:
we are God’s children,
we are beloved,
and God is well pleased with us, just as we are.

(This was originally preached at Riverside Church, NYC at the Morning Light Service)

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Christainity, Philosophy, Politics

poets against the status quo

Perhaps––who knows––He tires of looking down.
Those eyes are never lifted. Never straight.
Perhaps sometimes He tires of being great
In solitude. Without a hand to hold.

– the last stanza of “The Preacher: Ruminates Behind the Sermon” by Gwendolyn Brooks

In Plato’s Republic, poets were only welcome if they wrote praises to the gods. No verses of a new world with creatures found in children’s dreams. Or of new thoughts on ordinary objects. Poems had one purpose: to keep the citizens on the straight and narrow. Many other totalitarian governments have used similar tactics, including North Korea with their songs and poems directed toward their dictator. Restraining creativity has been one of the biggest jobs of the Empire or State. Other than holding citizens in debt, or demanding that they conform to Empire ideology, they keep us under constraints of the mundane.

The creative spirit does at times spring up like a flower in the concrete. I have seen this happen at protests, on yarnbombed trees in cities, and at an occasional potluck. Sadly, creativity in churches overall has dwindled to nil, if it was ever there. The words of Scripture too have been domesticated. Forcing it to be read as a devotional book. Scripture has potential for liberation, love, creativity, and transformation. Yet, for the last 200 years the interpretive keys unlock only the literal or extremely basic historical understanding.

Let me present another possible view of Deuteronomy:

During the reign of Josiah, the priests find one of Moses’ book stored away (wink wink). They bring it before the king, and he tells the people that they are going to live by it. That’s not even the interesting part. (The majority of the Torah was not written until the Exile and after.) Fast forward to the high point of the historical critical era, early 1800’s. Scholars, specifically W.M.L de Wette, discover that Deuteronomy resembles  an Assyrian vassal treaty. These treaties were placed in sacred sites of tribute paying countries.

In ancient Judah, after 722 BCE and before 600 BCE, when one would walk into the Temple in Jerusalem, one would see the Assyrian treaty describing in theo-political terms what Assyria and its king wanted from your country. This would include taxes, tributes, and other Empire building measures. Directly beside it, in rebel-like fashion was the book of Deuteronomy, telling Judah what God wanted from them! The decision was easy for the people entering the Temple whose law they were going to abide. Thus, one can come to the conclusion, as I have, that Deuteronomy is a theo-politcal book, written in honor of Moses and against the Assyrian Empire. God is the one who freed them from slavery under the hand of the Egyptians. The very opposite of the Assyrian king who enslaves them with taxes and tributes. For this reason, its Ten Commandments describe God as Liberator.

When I first found this information out in my historiography class of Ancient Judah and Israel, I raised my hand to ask how long after was this view forgotten. In other words, when did this book become something other than resistance literature and into something sacred and revered? After one generation, my professor responded! Wow! This resistance text was domesticated in a matter of forty years.

It’s the poets and the prophets who have the greatest memory. They remember the history of suffering and dream of liberation. They hope when all hope is lost. They are on the front lines fighting for a new world, where justice will reign, and people will be treated dignity. Where schools will have enough funding, and homelessness no longer exists. We need them more than ever and they are us! We must be the dreamers, schemers, poets, and prophets. King, X, Romero, Daly, Williams left us with gigantic shoes to fill.

Resistance literature doesn’t write itself, nor depending on others to march in Washington for us. Embodying love is not an easy task, but if we slow down, it could end in one generation.

MLK first step

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Beliefs, Christainity, LGBTQI+

radical theology and the lgbtqi+ commmunity (part one): the multivocal scripture

This will be one in a series of posts on LGBTQI+, theology, and Scripture. The rest of the series will be posted this week.

Two minutes before I boarded the train the other morning to come back to Philadelphia, I was posed the question, “Do you think that the Bible is against homosexuality?” The question seemed not only inquisitive, but also had a hint of innocence. When one lives in an area for their entire life, and some notions are always answered the same way, and the national dialogue (Chick-fil-a’s stance becoming publicized) on a particular issue is brought up, how can one not, but to answer the same way? Yet, the questioner was looking for a different answer, maybe not a answer of hope, but from a different perspective. I started to answer in the way I usually answer, by starting with Leviticus and explaining it historical-critical fashion. I did not get to finish the conversation, so I wanted to write the rest of it down since I have not done anything on LGBTQI+ community.

Growing up I was taught the importance of reading Scripture. I memorized many bible verses through Awana and youth groups. Wholeheartedly, I agree that Christians, and others who are interested, should read the Bible as a personal spiritual practice. Yet as I have become older and hopefully more wiser, I believe that context should be included with text. (As my Critical Theory professor taught, “contexts accompany texts at all times.”) For example, in eighth grade I memorized a section of Isaiah 53, commonly known as the suffering servant, and for the longest time, I thought that this was speaking of Jesus as prophecy. Now, might I add that many of the early followers of Jesus as well, using their Christian imagination, thought the same thing. Yet, since I have had the chance to contextually analyze Isaiah, which is one of my favorite books from the Hebrew Bible, I have come to appreciate it more with having a knowledge of its historical context, socio-economics, and political situation. For scholars like Walter Breuggeman, who insist that Scripture can have double meanings, which is also an early development in the Christian tradition. This too was adopted, of course, from its own context, and it was called sensus plenar. This suggests that even if there is a plain meaning to a text, since it was written by God, there must be more to it. There seems to be nothing wrong with this kind of interpreting and if rightly used can have great theological benefits. Anyway, back to Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53:4-9)

These verses read as a good theo-narrative for the Gospels. It gives meaning to the Gospel narratives, since most of it is mostly narrative does not necessarily bring about a meaning for the atonement. For example. when Mark’s Jesus died on a cross, he cried out, and gave up his spirit. Barely anyone was there to comfort him. Jesus dies a sad prophet, without hope; therefore, the only kind of atonement theory that one could come up with is the one that Jesus earlier in Mark says “That I will be a ransom for many.” This, of course, was the earliest atonement theories, and that many of the early church mothers and fathers adopted this idea about Jesus’ death.

Yet, in the original context of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), the suffering servant is a metaphor for Judah who suffered through the Exile. They were the ones who were tortured and as it seems in these verses, idolized for doing so. These verses also speak to a kind of hope, although they were in the belly of the beast, Babylon. Isaiah declares God’s imagination to them, in the chapters previous and after, of a new society in which God’s Law is followed and all are called back into the land of Judah. With the help of context, Isaiah 53, proclaims more and is not as literalistic as it may seem, and gives me hope that with the use of Christian imagination, Scripture can come alive and have more than just a plain sense of the word.

Leviticus, the third book in the Torah, is a book that Christians do not usually read or follow for that matter, unless it concerns an issue that they feel should be followed. When I hear anyone quote the book of Leviticus, I wonder how much of it that they had actually read and second how important they find this book to be in the context of their lives. It may be the Word of God, but it seems more like a pack of bullets ready to be aimed at whatever “unethical” group Christians are against at the time.

Most biblical scholars affirm that the book of Leviticus should be the books of Leviticus. It has a few different authors, although they all would have been priests in one way . The section in which “man shall not lie with man” comes from a section called the Holiness Code. This section was written during the Babylonian Exile, between 597 (first deportation) and 538 (mostly all the Exiles returned to Judah). Scholars believe this is so because many of laws written here are new concerns that the Judeans were not concerned with until the Exile. The Exiles must have seen an overabundance of men having sex with men and women with women and certainly orgies. To defend against these types of behaviors the priests thought that if one was going to follow the Law without a Temple, the place where God reigned, then even sexual behavior must be conducted in a particular way. Yet, some of the Jews were cast as Eunuchs, and this was done for the purpose for the male to be pimped out to other people. This was a humiliating position, and probably callused many of them to God. The Holiness Code’s purpose was originally to keep people pure unlike the Babylonians. Thus, God did not seem too concerned with who is having sex with who until then.

Yet, since Scripture was written by several different authors, there are always different ways to . When the prophet Isaiah declared who should come back into the land, he called out in Isaiah 58 to the Eunuchs and Foreigners to join with Judah. The other side of this conversation must have been, “Those Eunuchs who are having sex with tons of people should not come back into the land! They are not holy like us heterosexuals, who have pure Jewish blood children.” As Derrida has taught, the Law does not equal Justice and the prophet Isaiah was allowing all to come back into Judah. Anyone who wanted to follow God would be allowed to come back. This is a reversal of the Leviticus’ law. God desires all to come back. This was also the literary purpose of Jonah and Ruth. People were probably questioning whether its good to have these foreigners in the land, and Jonah and Ruth respond in their own particular way. Jonah shows that foreigners can repent and turn to God, while even Jonah doesn’t. Ruth shows how a foreigner can give up everything and follow God.

Sexuality in Scripture is fluid as well. It matters which book you are reading depends on the kind of answer that you will receive. Personally, I am a big fan of the prophets rather than anything else in Scripture. The prophets call out in political and social situations, demanding justice. For the sake of homosexuality, it is justice that God wants them as well as everyone to be apart of the kin-dom, and for the sake of the law comes the “hierarchy of being.” For God there is no order, we are all called good. For human structures, hierarchy abounds and concerns itself with the particulars of some people over others.

Stayed tuned more posts are coming!

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