Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

I thought it worthwhile to begin with this extended quote, representative of the book as a whole, and the most powerfully distilled argument I’ve yet come across while reading. One of Howard Thurman’s seminary professors told him not to waste his time with any book he could read faster than twenty pages in an hour. This one falls into that category for me. My comments follow, so as not to disrupt the momentum Martin builds.

Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox), pp. 49-50 of the paperback:

My goal is not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts but to highlight the ideological contexts in which such discussions have taken place. My goal is to dispute appeals to “what the Bible says” as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments. It really is time to cut the Gordian knot of fundamentalism. And do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to “what the Bible says” without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism, whether it comes from a right-wing Southern Baptist or a moderate Presbyterian. We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility. Furthermore, we will not find the answers merely by becoming better historians or exegetes. The test for whether an interpretation is Christian or not does not hang on whether it is historically accurate or exegetically nuanced. The touchstone is not the historically reconstructed meaning in the past, nor is it the fancifully imagined, modernly constructed intentions of the Biblical writers. Nor can any responsible Christian–after the revolutionary change in Christian thought in the past twenty years, much less in the past three hundred–maintain that Christian interpretations are those conforming to Christian tradition. The traditions, all of them, have changed too much and are far too open to cynical manipulation to be taken as foundations for gauging the ethical value of a reading of Scripture.
 
The only recourse in our radical contingency is to accept our contingency and look for guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves. The best place to find criteria for talking about ethics and interpretation will be in Christian discourse itself, which includes Scripture and tradition but not in a “foundational” sense. Nor do I mean that Christian discourse can itself furnish a stable base on which to secure ethical positions; it is merely the context in which those positions are formed and discussed. Conscious of this precarious contingency, and looking for guiding lights within the discourse, I take my stand with a quotation from an impeccably traditioned witness, Augustine, who wrote, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and our neighbor does not understand it at all” (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40).
 
By this light, any interpretation of Scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable. There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of “heterosexual fulfillment” (a “nonbiblical” concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as “healing”?
 
The burden of proof in the last twenty years has shifted. There are too many of us who are not sick, or inverted, or perverted, or even “effeminate,” but who just have a knack for falling in love with people of our own sex. When we have been damaged, it has not been due to our homosexuality but to others’ and our own denial of it. The burden of proof now is not on us, to show that we are not sick, but rather on those who insist that we would be better off going back into the closet. What will “build the double love of God and neighbor”?
 
I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love. To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion either–as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love. But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modern historicism.
 
We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?

1) Martin’s aim is indeed “not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts.” Instead, Martin argues that the way the Church has turned to Scripture as foundational for its ethics is flawed, because (according to him) foundationalism is a flawed and naive way to read any text, including the Scriptures. He himself is a near-complete postmodern, and his guiding lights within postmodern critical theory are (at least at the halfway point of the book) Michel Foucault and reader-response theory. Very briefly, reader-response theory claims that the meaning of the text resides not in the text itself but in the reading community’s experience of the text. Foucauldian analysis names the power and politics at work in the formation of texts, communities, and the discourse within those communities, including the formation of churches, interpretive traditions, individual scholars, and Christian ethics.

2) “explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter”: While I agree that this is necessary, I’m not as convinced that this is a strong definition of fundamentalism. First, it collapses fundamentalism and foundationalism into one. But while Martin wants to sweep away the (for him) illusion of all foundations, among which Christian fundamentalism is one, the technical term “fundamentalism” when applied to Christianity usually includes groups whose theologies profess the limits and bent-, curved-, or broken-ness of human interpreters and interpretive communities. That is, there already is an explicit (although Martin would likely still argue not explicit enough) acknowledgement of the interpreter’s contingency. The other half–agency–does stand. Martin does a tremendous job outlining how Christians tend to deny their own agency in speaking of texts, not only when we say things like “the Bible says,” but in the publications of highly regarded Biblical scholars and theologians (of which Martin provides many examples) and when seminaries continue to teach preaching as “letting the text speak for itself” or “getting out of the way of the text.”

3) “We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility.” This is much more easily said than done. For instance, at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church that just took place in St. Louis, recognized speakers voiced claims (not just conservative claims) based on “what the Bible says” in the flat, non-nuanced way that Martin is talking about. This understanding of reading the Bible and forming theology and Christian ethics seems to be baked into the Christian cake at this point. What does it take to change a cultural understanding of Scripture which is (at least) as old as Protestantism? I’m hoping that Martin will eventually address this question.

4) The rest of Paragraph 1: Here you can see the full diagnosis of the problem of Biblical interpretation as Martin sees it. The text has no meaning apart from its readers, history is of very limited use in aiding our meaning making, and Christian traditions are compromised in their usefulness because they are corrupted by the lust for power, like every other human institution (and this is a Foucauldian analysis, even though others could make a similar argument based on the doctrine of sin). And so we are set for the opening sentence of Paragraph 2.

5) “our radical contingency”: Yes, we are finite people with finite resources for understanding and meaning making, and even what resources we have are suspect.

6) “guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves”: The problem is that this suddenly makes Christian ethics and Christianity itself very individualistic, and it makes me the individual who matters and judges. I have this little spot of sand on which I stand, there is only water on every side, and when I am gone, my little spot of beach will be washed away too. It’s very possible I misunderstand the claims of reader-response theory, but Martin’s particular reading seems to be a trajectory toward shattering every possibility of community or shared meaning, which places it at odds with every form of historical Christianity. (I don’t believe I’m misreading; rather, I wonder how communities can be larger than one if reader-response theory is applied to saturation.)

7) Paragraph three (“By this light”) is the one that cemented for me that this was the passage to share. The primary reason is that I think every person holding to a conservative position on human sexual and gender identity and expression should face some important realities. Second, I am interested in how a foundational claim has now emerged in the midst of an anti-foundational argument. There is a foundation, and it is something like “Do no harm,” eventually reframed in the next paragraph as “Love.”

8) “demonstrate, not just claim”: This is a tremendous challenge. Sin isn’t a violation against God’s arbitrary rules, but something which does actual harm to actual others. An important caveat: just because I cannot see the harm does not make it not sin. More important caveat: I can see that the church has harmed LGBTQIA people. There are some parts of the church that simply hate their queer siblings, and some of those Christians (and this doesn’t make anyone less culpable) have no sense of the motivations for their doctrine and ethics of human sexuality. And there are many other voices and have been voices since the early church who have lived into community, and who have lived complete and fulfilled lives without ever having a sexual partner. (One could attempt to argue that far fewer lesbian and gay teenagers despise themselves and pray for changed sexual identities, but the truth is that there are still more than plenty of Christian teenagers in that situation, and the reason that there are fewer has had much to do with changing views among Christian churches.)

9) “worship of ‘heterosexual fulfillment'” is very real, and, at least in US Protestantism, celibacy (whether or not it’s chosen or out of a sense of vocation or just because life unfolds in unplanned ways) is viewed as somehow weird. That is, heterosexual marriage is viewed as normal, and any other adult life is viewed as abnormal. (The New Testament and most of the global church throughout history have viewed things differently. There are places, communities, and voices which are currently helping us to change, albeit slowly.)

10) The concluding paragraphs and sentence demonstrate why this book continues to be helpful to my thinking, even as I have shown I disagree fundamentally (sic) with the author on some issues. Martin, a Biblical scholar, is convinced that Biblical debates are the mischosen battleground for forming Christian ethics, so that he comes at it slant rather than repeating unhelpful, entrenched positions. Put simply, he seems less stuck than most of us, and he helps me even when I read some of those more entrenched positions.

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Did Jesus Kiss Judas?

I guess I had always pictured Judas slinking up to Jesus with exaggerated warmth–“Rabbi!”–and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture has me wondering if I’m just being too Western again. Or too US American:

How magnificent is the endurance of evil by the Lord who even kissed his own traitor, and then spoke words even softer than a kiss! For he did not say, O you abominable one or traitor, is this what you do in return for great kindnesses? He simply says, “Judas,” using his first name. This is in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.

Dionysius of Alexandria, Quoted in The anCient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, p. 215

I likely would have dismissed this reading of Judas’ kiss as a two-way kiss out of hand, because some of the readings in these volumes are quite…imaginative. But on the next page of the same volume, Ephrem of Syria assumes the same kiss, writing, “Jesus kissed the mouth of him who, by means of it, gave the signal for death to those who apprehended him.”

The Anchor Bible Dictionary has a three page entry for “Kiss” (pp. 89-92 in Volume IV). It disappointingly does not say anything about whether any recent scholars think Jesus kissed Judas back, but it does say that “the holy kiss” (mentioned several times in the New Testament) was a unique practice of early Christians, without precedent in the Greco-Roman or Jewish world. Some scholars even claim that Jesus initiated the practice with his disciples, and the disciples kept up the practice in the early Christian communities. If this is true, as the ABD puts it, Judas’ kiss was “a sign which would convey one message to outsiders but would be the usual form of greeting and hence arouse no suspicions to the inside group” (91). Of course, the whole mob with torches, clubs, and short swords probably would raise suspicion.

But back to Dionysius of Alexandria. As with many of the writers quoted in the ACCoS (many of them relatively minor figures) I had to look him up. During Dionysius’ life, the Church suffered seasons of persecution, in which some Christians denied their faith verbally or in writing and some offered sacrifices to prove they were not Christians, so that they and their families would not be hurt or killed. Seasons of persecution were followed by seasons of tolerance, and as churches reconstituted themselves, Christian leaders were divided about what to do about those who had apostatized and now wanted to return.

Some, led by Novatian, argued that those who had denied Christ and offered sacrifices to idols could not return to receive the sacraments. Such idolatry and faithlessness, he argued, were unforgivable. Others–in what became the Orthodox position set against what eventually became known as the Novatian heresy–said that Christians could repent and be forgiven and restored. Dionysius of Alexandria was one of the great leaders of that Orthodox position, and I see it in his read of Jesus and Judas in the Garden.

Dionysius knew Judas-like folks. Dionysius likely knew people who had been killed due to treachery by other Christians. Even with that life experience he looked to Jesus in the Garden, and he could not imagine a Jesus who would refuse to kiss his disciple when his disciple came to kiss him. The Jesus Dionysius heard in the Gospels would not speak with the condemning voice of Novatian, but always “in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.”

I want to see, hear, and believe in a Jesus who would kiss Judas back.

(Related public service announcement: Scorsese’s stunning Silence, which deals with faith, apostasy, reconciliation, and grace upon grace upon grace, is streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Living Under What Authority

Particularly in the wake of the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference, I’m working to progress through that stack of books I’ve carried around in various lists and in the back of my head for at least a decade, those books on theologies of human sexuality, theological anthropology, and Biblical hermeneutics that would give me clarity for myself and language to speak to others. I started with Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, and because I am unable to read one book at a time, I also began N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Martin is an anti-foundationalist, while Wright is committed to historical criticism, albeit from a broadly evangelical perspective.

Starting with Martin gave me a particular lens for reading Wright. Martin is basically correct when he charges that Wright defends historical-critical questions so strongly that it’s difficult to know what the Church was doing with its Scriptures between the 2nd or 3rd century and the 18th or 19th century. That is, if the historical methods are the right methods, how was the church faithful in its reading of Scripture between the first couple generations–those who could draw on memory and personal testimony–and the post-Enlightenment creation of the historical-critical method?

It’s particularly disappointing that Wright neglects a real engagement with premodern readings, because Wright’s decision erases so much of historical theology, which is itself largely Biblical commentary, and which might give him some stronger foundations for his own method. (Luckily Christopher A. Hall’s Reading the Scriptures with the Church Fathers exists.) Wright likewise dismisses other more recent theological readings of Scripture, offering major figures–John Webster, Karl Barth, all of Radical Orthodoxy, almost all of postmodernism–only a sentence or three. There are plenty of important thinkers he never mentions at all. The only framework he works with is his own, which is framing the story of Scripture as a five act play: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, the Church. While I think Wright made this decision because he wanted to sharpen his focus on his own way forward, I still believe he should have engaged more deeply with others’ thoughts.

What still brings this up to a 4-5 star book after those critiques is that 1) Wright is writing as a pastor to the Church, and this pastoral emphasis shapes every page, and 2) Wright’s conversation about sources of authority in the church is offered through the lens of Richard Hooker and John Wesley.

As a United Methodist pastor turning to Wright while United Methodism appears to be flying toward schism, his writing about how these sources of authority interact is just terrific. He is especially helpful in speaking about how for Hooker and Wesley (and most of the Christian Tradition) reason is a particular kind of reason—not just the ability to think rationally, but reasoning within the Church, with its Scripture. Reason is thus a traditioned form of theological reasoning with the Scriptures. Experience, meanwhile, insists Wright, is no source of authority at all but rather the end of authority, if we take “experience” to mean that my individual experience determines my theology, rather than that experience is an important shaper and affirmer of our theology from other sources of primary authority.

In Wright’s own words (ellipses at the ends of paragraphs are mine, to shorten this lengthy excerpt, but italics are his, as is the bracketed Scripture reference):

For Wesley himself, scripture remained the primary authority; the “experience” upon which he insisted was the living experience of God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit, through which what the Bible said was proved true in the life of the believer. It is quite an illegitimate use of all this to see “experience” as a separate source of authority to be played off against scripture itself, though this move is now frequent, almost routine, in many theological circles (“Scripture says…tradition says…reason says…but experience says …and so that’s what we go with”)…

Actually, for a start, “scripture, tradition, and reason” were never the same kind of thing. The image of the stool with three [or four] matching legs is itself misleading. They are not so much like apples, pears, and oranges as like apples, elephants, and screwdrivers. As we have seen, a long line of theologians from Aquinas through Hooker to many writers today would insist that “tradition” is the legacy of what the church has said when reflecting on scripture, and “reason” is the rule of discourse by which such reflection is saved from random nonsense and integrated into a holistic view of God and the world. This too, however, can only be part of the story, and might imply a more solid and fixed form for “tradition” and “reason” than the story of the church warrants…

But there is a more profound problem to be addressed, indeed a logical problem. The “experience” of Christians, and of churches, is itself that over which and in the context of which the reading of scripture exercises its authority. It is precisely because “experience” is fluid and puzzling, and because all human beings including devout Christians are prey to serious and multilayered self deception, including in their traditions and their reasoning (as Jeremiah lamented, the heart is deceitful above all things [17: 9]), that “authority” is needed in the first place. That, too, is one of the main things we discover by “experience”! To speak of “experience” as an authority, then, is to admit that the word “authority” itself is being dismantled, unable now to function either as “court of appeal” in the old wooden sense or, in the more biblical sense, as “that through which God exercises Kingdom-establishing power.” That dismantling— the muzzling of the challenge of God to the idolatrous world— was one of the main (anti-Christian) aims of the Enlightenment, continued in a different mode within postmodernity. If “experience” is itself a source of authority, we can no longer be addressed by a word which comes from beyond ourselves. At this point, theology and Christian living cease to be rooted in God himself, and are rooted instead in our own selves; in other words, they become a form of idolatry in which we exchange the truth about God for a human-made lie. This, or something like it, is what we find with the popular modern varieties of Gnosticism, in which the highest religious good is self-discovery and then being “true” to the self thus discovered. But to elevate that imperative (now radically challenged by postmodernity, though this is not usually noticed in the relevant discussions) to the supreme status now claimed for it is to take a large step away from all known forms of orthodox Christianity…

The positive force of the appeal to “experience” is much better expressed in terms of the context within which we hear scripture. Experience, as the necessary subjective pole of all knowing, is the place where we stand as we hear God’s word, know his love, and understand his wisdom. It is vital that Christians should “experience” the power and love of God in their own lives. This is never simply a mechanical application of “God’s authority,” as though human beings were mere ciphers rather than image-bearers. And, precisely because of the problem of evil within us as well as within the world (the problem which the Enlightenment sought to belittle), we need to be addressed and challenged within that place, that subjectivity, not simply informed that we are all right as we are.

pp. 101-104, Kindle edition.

By the end of this book, it was not that I agreed with every particular of Wright’s argument, but that I knew Wright has provided a set of arguments that are worthy of our engagement. And I greatly appreciated being reminded that the voice of someone, even a bishop, of a different tradition could shed light on the issues affecting the United Methodist Church. Even with some level of breakup on the horizon for the United Methodist Church as we know it, it was an encouraging witness to the mysterious unity that forever marks Christ’s “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” Body.

Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part II

In his post-General Conference briefings, my own Bishop Frank Beard urged us to trust in the process–not merely the United Methodist process, but God’s process with us on this discipleship journey, however long and winding and painful it may be. For him that means that we prayed for years for the work of General Conference 2019, so the fact that we might not like its outcome is not a good enough reason to summarily dismiss its conclusions and legislation. To put words in his mouth, “Did we pray or not? Does God answer prayer or not?”

I don’t dismiss General Conference 2019’s work. This was our 2019 step on our journey with God as a global United Methodist Church. It was neither our first nor our last step on our journey with God, even if some of us decide to part ways with this particular institutional form of God’s one Church.

The reason I write this is because you might get the wrong idea from my last post on the relative importance of General Conferences, that I am flippant about the conclusions of church councils. I’m not. Rather, the Christian Tradition itself is what teaches me to receive the Tradition itself critically. That’s how all living traditions work, as wide rivers with many currents rather than tiny capillaries with single currents.

I have known people who claim to aim to be “first five hundred year Christians” (meaning, the stuff the Church agreed about for the first 500 years is what they will name as essential doctrine, and everything that cannot be connected to that is adiaphora). I was once ordained in a denomination which claimed the first seven ecumenical councils were its theological core, but I’ve only ever met one person who I believe actually knows those councils intimately. (She died several years ago and was Roman Catholic, not this other denomination, anyway.) Either of those frameworks seem nice, but what they really are are “fragments [we] have shored against [our] ruin,” our sense that things are falling apart, and we are the ones who must save the Church. Those two examples in particular are entirely modernist attempts to create something stable and lasting in an uncertain world, which is in the end the attempt to create a foundation other than Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11). (Alternate Old Testament reference: Genesis 11.)

I myself am temperamentally conservative. That is, I want to live a traditioned life. I am convinced that human beings over time have learned to live life well, to ask and to answer important questions well. I am convinced that to ignore those human voices of the past is the definition of foolishness. When I read a book about any topic at all, I want to go back and read the primary sources. When I listen to music, I want to plot where parts of a band’s or a composition’s sound comes from. And when I do theology I want to dig all the way to the tips of the roots. In fact, when doing theology, I am convinced that ignoring human beings and their thoughts and actions and lives over time is not just foolishness. This is truly for one part of the living, eternal body of Christ to say to another, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21).

Conservative in the sense in which I describe myself does not have to do with a particular political party, especially not a US political party. Traditioned in this sense also doesn’t mean I pretend that there is some single Tradition to be formed by. That’s utopia (sentimental nonsense literally meaning “nowhere”). For my greatest interest–the Church–I don’t believe there is some single faithful Methodist, or Protestant, or Western Christian, or universal Christian tradition. Instead I mean that I am always going to be suspicious when a “new” theology seems to have no roots, or makes no claim to roots, or claims to need no roots in the Christian past. The Tradition may be a massive river with many currents, but rivers still have banks.

All that is a long-winded way to say, yes, I believe church councils have proclaimed the Gospel, but I still believe they have erred. Yes, I believe General Conferences have both proclaimed the Gospel and have erred. Finally, no, I don’t dismiss their workings easily. The Tradition I value is what teaches me to question the Tradition and to know it is certainly not infallible.

That’s the real point: the life of faith–whether for global denominations or for the individual Christian–must be lived in uncertainty (“the conviction of things not seen,” says Hebrews 11:1), because faith lives in the world, and the world is uncertain. Faith which is certainty is not faith at all. God keeps speaking through people (councils, conferences), people sometimes faithfully proclaim and sometimes mangle the message we’ve been given, and the Church’s life and our individual lives are lived in that uncertainty and on that journey. We live in our uncertainty, because God is the only one who is certain. We live without the foundations we lust after, because Christ is our one foundation. Thank God that God’s grip on us is infinitely stronger than our ability to grasp God.

Or if you prefer less Kierkegaard and more Wesley in your tea, the church has not yet been perfected in grace, but it is on the way. Even if you find yourself among those United Methodists who believe that in St. Louis you witnessed the death of your beloved denomination, still you must know: best of all, God is with us.

Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part I

Perhaps like you, I’m trying to figure out what General Conference meant. One question for me is the question of how faithfully the Church is able to listen, to hear, and then to proclaim the voice of the God who speaks in our midst.

Every Council of the Church (or General Conference of the United Methodist Church) has been an attempt to hear the voice of God speaking among the people of God. The whole work of theology is not only words about God but a humble (and sometimes not-so-humble) attempt to speak to God’s people on behalf of God. Every sermon is attempting to do this same work. That is to say, today I’m certainly on-board with God still speaking. A whole lot of major life decisions rest on that conviction. A whole lot of every week of my life rests on that conviction.

I also have experienced the troubles of God speaking, or at least the troubles of the way God has chosen to speak. It’s Biblical. Moses meets with God on top of a mountain which God’s presence makes look like a volcano, and not only do the people not hear what God is saying up there, but they are so unconvinced that God might be speaking in the midst of all that fire, cloud, and noise, that they decide Moses is dead.

In the New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism, God says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It couldn’t be clearer! Unless you were an onlooker who heard no words, just thunder. Adding to these difficulties, in Christian communities I have experienced firsthand that sometimes people speak for God, and it is a way to short-circuit communal discernment. It’s a trump card, ending all possibility of conversation, whether or not the person had good intentions in sharing what they believe God has spoken.

Wesley and the rest of the early Methodists practiced “holy conferencing” in recognition that God speaks through people to other people, that our understanding of God is clarified and refined by relationship and conversation with one another. It’s a beautiful insight, but it doesn’t make things easier. Over time, “holy conferencing” became Annual Conference, General Conference, Jurisdictional Conference. Not only did a lot of the holy go, but a whole lot of the actual conferring with one another did too.

The 39 Articles of Religion in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer had a nifty Article XXI, which both the American Methodists, by Wesley’s own choice, and the Episcopal Church left behind:

“General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”

I don’t know enough about Wesley’s theology or internal deliberations to know why he removed Article XXI as he slimmed the 39 Articles down into the 24 Articles of his Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (1784). I at least know that revolutionary American Methodists and prospective Methodists didn’t want to be told anything about princes. I wish I knew if Wesley was so much of the Tradition that he couldn’t bear to question the teachings of the seven ecumenical councils (the seven meetings of the Church before East and West excommunicated each another), which this Article does.

In the wake of our General Council a week ago, I wonder what was lost with Article XXI. Practically, this article reminded us that when people get together to hear God, we don’t stop being people. Yes, God calls us to listen, to love, to be holy. But God knows we are going to miss the message sometimes. And still God chooses this way to speak.

Article XXI reminds us that the Creeds came from humans wrangling with what they believed God was speaking in their midst. I believe every word of the Nicene Creed, and I believe that God spoke to us and still speaks to us through the work of the church councils which crafted those words. We say it every week at some of our churches, but we have no clue about and give no thought to what arguments went into it, what punches were thrown, what swords were drawn, what relationships were broken by those arguments, and who gave up on the Church or its Lord altogether, because they could not take the way that Christians were warring with one another any longer.

If I’m not careful, I can find myself assuming that the Nicene Creed (and other dogmatic declarations of the Church over time) descended from Heaven on a cloud attended by an angelic choir. But the Son of God didn’t come to us except by becoming a human being. Scripture didn’t come to us except by human hands. Likewise our Councils and Creeds are products of divine and human cooperation.

To return to the language of Article XXI…If the men who made up the General Councils of the Church were not all governed by the Spirit and the Word of God, then General Conference delegates are not all governed by the Spirit and Word of God. If General Councils may err, then General Conferences may err too. If General Councils have erred, then General Conferences have erred in the past and will continue to err in the future.

The difficult part is not to admit that the process is human or to admit that we will sometimes get it wrong. The difficult part is to continue to Conference with one another when we know we will sometimes be wrong, sometimes deeply wrong, sometimes hurtfully wrong.

For me, that makes me hopeful, because it means General Conferences and their decisions are not our hope. It is not just wrong but idolatrous on our part to have ever made General Conference our hope. God is the only one who will ever remain faithful, no matter how faithful or unfaithful we are. That, after all, has always been the whole of the Gospel. God’s love has always been about God’s eternal choice to close the distance between us, to turn even the enemies of God into friends, by the Son’s free offer of his own death on the cross.

If we know that General Conference (or Annual Conference or Jurisdictional Conference or Charge Conference, for us conference-mad Methodists) is not our hope, then we can come together not seeking to control the proceedings, or one another, or God. Rather we come together most of all to learn of the love of the God which has been revealed in Jesus Christ, to experience the Spirit who keeps speaking to a people who are hard of hearing, hard of heart, and slow to respond.

And for those who come to this idealized end thinking that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for General Conference 2020 to be truly holy and truly a confer-ence, you’re right. But nothing is impossible for God.

[3/14/19 edit: There’s now a Part II.]

A Holy Lent After General Conference 2019

In three hours, General Conference ends. It appears to be the case that, just as I had said to anybody that directly asked two weeks ago, nothing will be passed, and everyone will go home to re-legislate it all again in 2020 in Minneapolis. What I had not anticipated was how much grief there would be even if nothing changed.

Psychologists call this “denial.”

What I had not anticipated was how much grief I myself would feel, even though I am entirely insulated from any outcome–progressive, traditional, or status quo–of General Conference as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual male who has already made it through the fiery gauntlet that United Methodists have welded together into an ordination process. Today I almost got in a car accident because I was just in my own thoughts about it all.

All this is preamble to say this: I have nothing at stake personally, and still I am distracted, anxious, and grieving. There are those for whom all this is entirely personal, and I can’t imagine what they’re going through. And I pray we each reach out to those others in our lives who are in that place. If there is ever a time for grieving, it is now. If there is ever a time for embracing, it is now. (Okay, yes, I may be currently leading a Bible study on Ecclesiastes.)

This Sunday, I’m preaching from Mark 10:32-45. The passage begins with Jesus and the disciples on the road to Jerusalem (and the Cross) once again, with Jesus out in front, on his own. The disciples are all hanging back, some out of amazement and some out of fear (and presumably some out of both amazement and fear). Jesus has had his face set on Jerusalem for a long time already, and now in verse 33 he gives the disciples a very specific prediction of exactly how it will happen.

As soon as Jesus finishes telling of his imminent arrest, trials, mocking, torture, crucifixion, and resurrection, this is when James and John decide they want to break away from the pack and draw near to him. Why? Because they want power in his kingdom. Their hearts skipped all the suffering and have jumped straight to the glory. They haven’t yet understood, even as he has told them and showed them and told them and showed them again and again the whole time they have known him, that the Kingdom he has come to bring good news about is upside down and sideways from the kingdoms of the world. It is not the same old kingdom now under new management

In verse 41, the disciples get mad at James and John for their requests, but their anger does not seem to be, “Haven’t you heard the good news of the Kingdom of Peace?” Instead, their anger is more, “No, that’s my seat!” Or at least that’s my assumption, because Jesus doesn’t direct his teaching to just James and John, but rather to the whole group. The rulers of the nations of the earth lord it over one another, and lords higher in the hierarchy lord it over lesser lords below. Jesus concludes: “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

If the first disciples didn’t hear Jesus the Son of God, when the literal sound waves from his human vocal chords vibrated the literal bones in their skulls, then we disciples are surely going to sometimes–even often–miss his voice. We’re even more certainly going to miss one another’s voices.

I am so grateful this year that Lent follows so close after General Conference. The discipline of Lent takes different forms. I know for myself that I need a time to be silent as ashes, silent as dust, silent so I can hear someone else’s voice who is currently hearing the call of God to give up silence for Lent.

Hope Begins in the Dark

I have been reading Fleming Rutledge’s forthcoming Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Sometimes she wraps a sermon around a refrain. For instance: “Advent begins in the dark.” This is another way of saying, “Hope begins in the dark.”

I have also been reading Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. (The book is a memoir of Khan-Cullors’ life, so I’m not clear totally clear how she and bandele co-wrote it.) Khan-Cullors is within a year or so of me in age. During the years I spent growing up in small-town central Illinois, Khan-Cullors was growing up in Van Nuys, California. She recounts a life lived in occupied territory in the United States, with the lines between the races drawn between Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks (the latter of which not coincidentally where the TV show black-ish is both filmed and set). Some of Fleming Rutledge’s sermons in her Advent collection are from that same period of time, and some of them reference apartheid in South Africa, as Khan-Cullors and bandele also do.

When They Call You a Terrorist is a memoir, but you don’t have to take Khan-Cullors word for how the “war on drugs” actually played out. There are plenty of historians and plenty of data to show us that police and the larger “justice” system inordinately targeted people of color, swelled prison populations, and were an essential part of the militarization of policing. (My past tense in the previous sentence doesn’t mean it’s over.) And for all that history we continue to have so much trouble with that other part of Khan-Cullors’ and bandele’s title: “Black Lives Matter.”

As I read their book, a phrase from Jesus keeps coming to mind. After Luke 20’s and Matthew 21’s recounting of this parable, Jesus speaks about himself, quoting Psalm 118:22-23 and naming himself as “the stone that the builders rejected [who] has become the chief cornerstone,” before adding, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” It’s a difficult word, a Jesus koan, but what it means is that all are broken by the Truth. All will be judged and found lacking. You might not always hear it from the Christians you know, but the New Testament says that Christians too (those who fall on the stone, Jesus) come under the judgment of God (1 Peter 4).

Jesus is “the Truth,” full stop. There are differences between “the Truth” and other truths. At the same time, the truth is stone wherever you find it. The reality in the world which requires “Black Lives Matter” to be said loudly and repeatedly and publicly in the United States is such a stone. Our current struggles and division are at least partially caused by how we engage that stone. All around people are deciding to fight that stone, and people are being crushed. But the other choice is not to side-step it. There are only two choices, and we who know the stone is true still must be broken. When They Call You a Terrorist is a call to fall on the truth and be broken. Healing begins in brokenness. Hope begins in the dark.