QCT 22: Holiness and Sexuality: a Law or a Blessing?

“There are many ways to perish, or to flourish.”

-Mary Oliver

photo (1) A brief backstory:

I grew up in the Deep South, and with my grandparents, played in the river made famous by the eponymous funk sound of Muscle Shoals.

A few miles from my childhood home, my friends and I would climb the freestanding monolith in Georgia, recalled in Dr. King’s speech–a rock once a sacred site for Native Americans, then a gathering place for the klan, and, by the time of my childhood, carved up with visages of confederate soldiers, brought to life nightly with a laser show and fireworks coordinated to the strains of the battle hymn of the republic.

I went to school in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, learning to drive my roommate’s stick-shift in strip-mall parking lots and on winding river roads.   And in these places, I learned to read the Bible and sing gospel songs.

My family was a part of the Assemblies of God –a denomination of churches that, on the whole, are fairly conversant with broader evangelicalism. However, we were in the southeast, and with the rotation of people through the various churches in each town, there’s a long history of influence from the Wesleyan Holiness strains of Pentecostalism which developed in the late 1800s from lower Appalachia to Florida, that filtered over into the churches of my youth.

Now, I didn’t go churches that forbade makeup and jewelry, but some of them had in decades past, and I knew folks who did worship in such places.

And no, we didn’t handle snakes–though I did get my undergrad at a university in the one denomination to ever officially endorse the practice (albeit, only for a short period). 

And yes, I have actually been in a snake handling service (but that’s another story).

So, one of the hot debates in a lot of these Pentecostal churches was whether or not sanctification happened with salvation, as a part of baptism in the Holy Spirit, or as a distinct third event. For the uninitiated, sanctification is a word that literally means to be set apart. Another way of thinking of it is, to be made holy.

There was even a sub-debate over whether or not sanctification was ongoing or complete (meaning once it happened you no longer sin). Thankfully, whether from intellectual honesty or the legacy of charlatan evangelists throughout the 70s and 80s, most folks had abandoned the notion of complete sanctification by the time I joined the conversation.


Why have I given this backstory? Because it’s the doorway through which I entered a conversation that gets thrown down most any time Christians of different stripes try to sit down at the same table.

What to do–if anything–with the thing called sin? Or, framed in the positive, what is holiness and why does it matter?


For those Christians who put weight on the usefulness of scripture for understanding what God is up to and what that has to do with us, this sin/holiness question is complex.

In philosophical terms, there’s the issue that’s known as the Euthyphro Dilemma–a Greek question that goes like this: is a thing virtuous/good because the gods say so or do the gods say so because they recognize the thing to be virtuous/good in its own right?

Early monotheists altered the question to a singular God. And I like to remember it through the lyrics from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella–“do I love you because you’re wonderful, or are you wonderful because I love you?”

What does this have to do with bickering Christians? Well, it comes down to what shapes our thinking as we read the Bible–that fantastic collection of fragments of ancient texts, spanning thousands of years and dozens of cultures, that we confess as essential to how we understand the narrative of God’s relationship to the world and humans in particular.

So, when we read these stories we see people interacting with God, and we see the category of something called sin (connected to evil) which is sometimes seen in opposition to righteousness/justice and sometimes seen in opposition to holiness/purity and sometimes seen in opposition to healthy relationship (with God, other people, and land & animals).

And when we read about sin, we can generally agree that it is portrayed as a bad thing. Where the Euthyphro Dilemma comes into play is in this question: are the ways of living proscribed in the Bible good because God says so or does God say so, because they are inherently good? The opposite question also applies–are things labeled sin bad because God says so, or are they inherently evil and God just points that out?

Why does this question matter? Well if something is good or bad because God says so, then God is preserved as God, the source of everything–but we run the risk of a capricious deity, and we have to always wonder if we are in favor or not. But if a particular thing has inherent goodness or evil and God is just pointing that out, then God is subject to a greater governing principle and thus, not God.

Pro tip: this is why they call it a dilemma.

And this is where Biblical theologians annoy the philosophers in the room by deferring to a literary answer. We look to the narrative and ask if the dilemma we’ve created seems to be the narrative point of the text or not.

That is to say, what claims does the story make about the character and actions of God in relationship to this whole good vs. evil — holiness/righteousness/relationship vs. sin thing anyway? What do God’s actions reveal about the nature of God’s character and relationship with humanity, and what does that tell us about how God might be interacting with us around good and evil?


Now, there are lots of people who believe that the Bible tells us precisely how to live; that it clearly and definitively spells out what is sin and what is holiness.

In order to live and navigate our contemporary world and whatever culture they live in, these folks have to make some judgments and abstractions–otherwise they would simply remain neutral about modern birth control, stock market regulations, race relations, masturbation, genetic engineering, water boarding, and about a bajillion other things the Bible doesn’t even come close to mentioning.

And even though the Bible was written in a variety of completely different cultures in vastly different time periods than our own, there’s enough narrative data along with a rich legacy of interpretation, that we can make inferences about the character of God and the general shape of what makes good or evil.

But, the real question is whether or not we are doing this work 1) consciously and honestly, 2) unconsciously, thinking we are just reading the Bible and doing what it says, or 3) we are following someone else (usually our churches, authors, pastors, and media personalities) who says that they know what is right or wrong on either the first or second basis.

No matter which of the three ways we are doing this work, we are doing it within our own particular languages, cultural systems of meaning making, personal biases, and communities. I guess it’s obvious that I distinctly favor at least attempting option 1 (being honest about how we are doing this) rather than insisting on “a plain view of the text,” which I see as tantamount to the Olympics of self-deception.


And right smack in the middle of this conversation is where the conversation about LGBTIQ sexualities lands in the church.

We’re talking about culturally defined categories and identity politics that involve relationships and sex acts. And we’re trying to navigate these contemporary issues using a play book of text ranging in age from 1800 to 6000ish years old.

And so, we have to be honest and say that no one “just reads what the Bible has to say on the matter.” photo (2) The fact is, there is no singular Bible to read.

We all read translations that are compilations of thousands of fragments selected by highly skilled humans on committees (selected by biased publishing houses) making decisions about which fragments to go with, and how to convey ideas behind words that they know have multiple possible meanings.

The word homosexual didn’t emerge in English until the last 200 years, and it didn’t show up in English Bibles as a means of translating a few different untranslatable concepts until even later. There are many books written about the few verses into which we read the word homosexual in some contemporary English Bibles. Anyone who wants to make a claim condemning to hell (or endangering lives and/or limiting the civil rights of) a few hundred million people on the basis of six-ten verses should probably do some research first.

What is clear is that these verses talk about sexual acts and relationships between humans who were considered the same gender in whatever cultural understanding surrounded those things in their ancient contexts. These relationships and actions, as they were understood in their own time were certainly at least as different from modern western ideas about LGBTIQ sexualities, as contemporary sexualities among people of same genders in various cultures around the world are understood today.

That said, I think that these few verses, along with long church histories prohibiting same-sex activities and relationships in many cultural expressions rightly justifies the need to seriously ask the question: what is good and what is evil when it comes to contemporary LGBTIQ sexualities?

Rather than running from the question my conservative Christian siblings ask, I am moving towards it with them. I actually want to intensify it by taking it back to the question of holiness–when it comes to any expression of human sexuality, what do the character and actions of God, revealed in the person of Jesus and written about in scripture, tell us about what is good and what is evil?

Rather than a heinous conflict tearing apart churches and families, I want a rigorous con-frontation–I want us to sit down and face with one another the deeper question, the question that pulls us back into the whole arc of the Biblical texts and points us back towards the person of God.



So, I come back to the narrative of holiness from my childhood.

I grew up in a context that communicated about holiness, largely in terms of sanctification–of being “called out” and “set apart” for God. What was less clear to me was the answer to the follow up question: set apart, to what end?

The doctrine of sanctification/holiness–of living free from sin–seemed to have two main goals–1) getting into heaven and out of hell and 2) holiness brings glory to God.

Under point one, God is captain of team holy and sin is kryptonite. God can’t stand sin because it makes God super mad, or sad, or jealous and God literally cannot keep himself from either annihilating us or punishing us for eternity for sinning.

This view can also lead to some of the creepiest atonement theology options out there. So in this one, God seems to be held hostage by sin, only capable of one option, destroying the ones he loves. Penal substitution theory steps in here to suggest that God does come up with the solution of killing Jesus so he doesn’t have to kill us, but most adherents say he still will kill us if we don’t practice holiness, because, darn it, sin is just so powerful that God can’t take it.

Okay, so you know what I think of that option–it’s resolved the Euthyphro dilemma by saying God is subject to a higher principle–thus not God.

Under point two, where holiness brings glory to God, the Euthyphro dilemma could go either way, but tends toward a capricious God who calls certain things good, tells us to do them, we do them, and God goes on a power trip.

Here’s the snag with both of these problematic understandings of holiness: they aren’t baseless. An argument can be made for each based on Biblical texts.

The question remains, what do these interpretations say about the character of God in relationship to humans and does it make coherent sense of the bigger arc of biblical narratives and particularly the gospel stories.


Another way of tacking into this wind would be to go back to those churches I talked about before. What’s going on there, that holiness could be defined in hairstyles and handling snakes?

Well these high-walled communities are defining who is in and who is out based on practices rooted in the biblical texts. Their definition of holiness is different in degrees but not in direction from the ones explored above.

Where glorifying God (and/or staying out of hell) is defined by pleasing God through appropriately holy behaviors, it matters very much which side of the line you stand on. If you do the right things (whether it’s on your own or the result of God’s work in your life) you are in. If you do the wrong things, you burn (or in more gracious theologies, God annihilates you, or, even better, God’s not happy with you, but shows grace anyway, because, ya know–Jesus).

As I’ve intoned before, this view holds God hostage to sin. God’s holiness is either like the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, furious over sin, or God is a cosmic bubble-boy who must be protected from the weakest of all contagions.

If holiness is defined by what it is not–defined merely in terms of being called out or set apart from something–it ontologically requires the presence of evil in the world. This doesn’t appear to hold up to the narratives we have.

The very first story mentioning sin in scripture is immediately followed by God coming to look for and commune with the people who sinned, with God providing a way for them to live and be cared for in the midst of the fallout of the consequences for their actions.

The creation narrative is a theological text making a claim about who God is in relationship to people who do things that aren’t good. The story tells so little about the nature of good and evil, but tells much about the character of God.

If holiness is rooted in the nature of God, what does it say about what is holy when God moves toward and provides for those who have done what is wrong?


image What follows is my attempt to show how I am trying to make sense of the question of sin/holiness in the narratives of Christian scriptures.

The Pentateuch invites us to follow the stories of a people that grow out of God’s covenant with Abraham–a covenant to constitute a tribe of people who would become a blessing to every people group on the planet.

It’s a narrative that begins right after the origin story of the flood and the Tower of Babel–a story that can be read as God cursing humans for avarice or as God responding to avarice by blessing humans with diversity of cultures to increase their differences and develop contexts for greater interdependence. And there are ways we can follow the arc of the Pentateuch and reimagine what holiness might look like, had the people taken God’s covenant with Abraham seriously.

The holiness codes and the sacrificial system of law come after the people refuse God’s invitation to meet with all of them on the mountain–instead sending Moses in their place. Their elaborate legal system for bringing about holiness reads like a sectarian response to the ten words offered by God on the mountain–ten words traditionally understood as being about loving God and loving neighbor.

Should we assume their theology was always sound, and trust their versions of history, claiming God ordained the massacre of children so that they could take their land? Or could we not also read that God was faithful to them in spite of their bloody ethnocentrism and genocide?

And shouldn’t we interpret the holiness codes through the reforms of the prophets who said God detested the sacrificial system and found it worthless–instead desiring hospitality for the poor, disenfranchised, and immigrants?

And, at last, what do we make of a God who comes to live with sinful humans? It certainly seems like Jesus can stand to be in our presence, not only without annihilating us, but with genuine love, kindness, friendship, and blessing.

Again, there seems to be something in the character of God, where God moves towards those on the wrong side of the Bible’s own holiness codes. This gets repeated at Pentecost when God’s Spirit begins the relentless movement of blessing towards all nations. Mirroring the blessing of confusion originating at Babel, there is a further blessing of every nation when the good news of Jesus–God with us–is heard in every particular language.

Of course, this move by God threw the early church into chaos about how the law applied to those outside the law; those hellions from Romans 1 with their categorical sexual immorality–the Gentiles.

So what does all this say about God’s holiness? Is holiness actually less about policing our borders and more about moving past our own boundaries to bless those not like us with love? What seems apparent is that God’s holiness, when played out in our lives, looks like the fruit of the Spirit–that laundry list of relational categories that lead to blessing others rather than separating ourselves from them.

God’s holiness appears to be transgressive, offending our definitions of holiness.

Instead of being a pure sample that must be preserved, holiness as blessing acts like yeast, inoculating everything it touches. Holiness makes holy; calls things that are not as though they were; steps into places where people need connection and offers fullness of relationship. Holiness is not proscribed by a code, it is recognized by it’s fruit.

In this accounting for the texts, we don’t resolve the Euthyphro Dilemma. Instead, we two step with it. We say that the stories we hold sacred tell us that, far from being capricious, God is relentless, moving towards those who do wrong, forgiving and making holy through a relationship of blessing.

So, what is holy is what is made holy by the faithfulness of God’s love for those who do wrong. Or, like one biblical writer said, God credits us with righteousness.

In some sense, we might imagine God getting fed up and saying, “I wish I knew how to quit you.” But apparently, God has a thing for all creation and moves towards us with love–offering holiness that makes holy in relationship.


So what does this tell us Christians who are tied up in knots over gay sex?

I think we need to pay attention to how we have been shaped by our culture. We call weapons peacemakers. We are more offended by being called racist than we are by our own racism. We use politeness to deliver discrimination. We blame victims for the crimes perpetrated against them. We treat abominably those we accuse of abominations.

In short, our imagination of holiness appears to be shaped by our own impulse to be viewed as blameless.

While we use the Bible to justify our stance on holiness, we need to renew a biblical understanding of holiness rooted in what the narratives tell us about the character of God–as revealed in Jesus–as a movement towards us of blessing.

When we catch on to what the Holy Spirit is up to, we might realize that holiness is not about us getting it right to please God, but that it is God’s pleasure to bless us with relationship. In this paradigm holiness is measured in fruit, not compliance.

This shifts the conversation.

For those who view gay sex as sin, their work is not to be separate, but to offer the blessing of holiness through loving relationality. The requirement of holiness is to join the activity of the Holy Spirit, to transgress our notions of holiness in order to bless and make holy–to be evident through increased love. In this view, God’s grace and holiness are sacrament–those gifts that make sacred– freely given in relationship through Jesus.

And the work for LGBTIQ Christians and their allies is the same–to bear fruit in keeping with repentance–to grow in our capacity to move towards otherness in relational posture of blessing.

If, indeed, God is like Jesus–moving towards us where we are trapped in the competitive, zero sum game, where we demand death to preserve the purity of our system, then holiness is not about separation, but about blessing that is offered in relationship to those we see as wrong.

Jesus’ parable of the yeast is genius because it speaks to the viral spread of holiness-suggesting that holiness is not diluted or polluted, nor does it displace what it encounters–instead, holiness works with whatever it encounters and finds a way to bless and name goodness–this is the movement of a creator towards their creation.

In this interpretation, we are faced (both turned towards and given faces) by a prodigal God who is consistent in character, bringing provision and feasting with those who are on the wrong side of holiness codes. This God’s project is to bless, making good and complete until all things are brought into completion, reconciliation with God and made holy.

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Prayers for Seattle Pacific University

A number of you who are readers are a part of the Seattle Pacific University community. Tonight, my prayers are with you all.


 

I blog quite a bit about grief and trauma, about social and cultural issues that shape our attitudes and hearts and lead to actions of violence. And today, we witnessed violence–and while a fast news cycle will drive people to try to quickly figure out why, right now, we are still in the moment of rupture. The work of untangling ourselves from a culture of violence is slow because it is work that is interrupted by the evil of senseless of acts of violence.

I recently had the chance to sit in a room with many of you, on your beautiful campus, here in Seattle. I am touched by the depth and thoughtfulness of your students, staff, and faculty, and my heart breaks for you as your campus–your classrooms and your homes–were violated today. My heart breaks, because it doesn’t matter why this happened, sorting out the why won’t undo the death and trauma of today.

And of course we must work together, over time, to sort out what we can of the why, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But not yet.


 

photo


 

 

Today, beloved ones, hold each other. Cry. Laugh (even though it seems strange, grief laughter–that sound of breaking–can open us up to be able to heal). Talk to each other. Tell stories. Call your loved ones. Hug. Pray. Scream.

There are people to talk to on your campus and there are therapists and pastors nearby who I can help you get in touch with who will sit with you as you process what’s going on. You are beautiful and beloved, and you are not alone. Whether or not sleep comes to you tonight, may you find some moments of rest in your sorrow.

And know that tonight, I am crying and praying with you. Seattle is holding you in our hearts. There is no sense to what has happened, but you don’t sit alone in the senselessness.


 

God, who knows us each by name,

 

You see the harm we do to one another. Hold your children, the members of the SPU community, the victims, and the man who shot them. Guide your people, that we may offer kindness and compassion as we bear witness to the pain of this community. Hold our sorrow and our rage, and our inability to make sense of these events.

 

Meet us in our suffering. Thank you for the courage of those who stepped in to stop the shooter, and grant us the capacity to forgive, to heal, and to stop such events from happening again. Give us the strength and space to tell our stories, to listen to each other, and feel whatever we are feeling in this moment and in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Allow us to grieve deeply so that we can come out of this more, loving, imaginative, and committed to your way of love.

 

We ask these things with broken hearts. Amen

 


 

Please feel free to contact me by email at didwell.blog@gmail.com if you would like to talk with me or to be put in touch with a professional counselor or pastor in the area.

Jonah Hill’s Apology and Open Carry

This week, social media has been a veritable cesspool of unsavory. So much so, that I have yearned for the drivel of catdogbaby videos and insta-filtered, cell-phone selfies of vague acquaintances and their latest foam art.

Among so many other things, on Monday, we were treated to news of cele-bro-ty, Jonah Hill’s weekend use of homophobic language aimed at a stalker/tabloid photographer who had been harassing Hill. And, by Tuesday morning, we were treated to a full-on, Tonight Show apology.


Here’s the thing: I’m more than happy to receive Hill’s apology. As far as public apologies go, his is way up there. He takes responsibility, seems contrite, and while explaining the context of his wrongdoing, he doesn’t seem to be justifying his actions. He even goes so far as to name that his intent makes no difference because of the impact of his words.

Great stuff. Pharrell and his publicist might want to take tips here (I’m referencing that star’s recent collusion in cultural appropriation with the racist-euro-fashion-magazine-industrial-complex, followed his non-apology/justification).

But here’s the thing, I can’t accept Hill’s apology for everyone. But what I can do is the thing that I know how to do–to pull up a seat and talk about what more may be going on here in our society at large that creates the conditions in which a person would say the things he said.


Before we get there, I should probably make note of the other half of my title: Open Carry. So far as I know, Jonah Hill hasn’t been involved in any way with open carry. And to some, there may not be an obvious connection between homophobic language and extremist interpretations of the second amendment used to justify bad behavior.

For any who don’t know, there are those who use the guise of confusing a “a well armed militia” with “individual license to carry loaded assault rifles in the baby aisle at Target,” to justify what should legitimately be called an “act of domestic terrorism”–that is, carrying a loaded assault rifle in the baby aisle at Target.

So where’s the connection? Well, I’ll get back to that. But to get there, let’s unpack what was happening with Jonah Hill’s comment to the photographer.


According to reports, after being harassed, Hill retorted to his harasser: “suck my dick, you f****t.”

Hill has since made several versions of his same, fairly well put together apology. Namely, he apologizes to LGBTQ persons for use of the f word, and he says that people being harassed by others should not lash out in harmful ways like he did.

I believe Hill when he says that he has always stood for LGBTQ rights, and loves and respects the LGBTQ people in his life. I believe he is actually sorry.

Frankly, I don’t have the time or energy for second guessing decent apologies, and when it comes to motives, if we’re going to be offended by impact instead of intent, then I feel the responsibility to receive apologies on the same grounds (though, to be clear, our perception of intent ALWAYS frames and shapes how something impacts us).

I also believe that there is much more wrong with the situation than what got covered in Hill’s apology (or in the coverage of Hill’s offense and apology).


First, there’s the un-addressed obvious–the opening phrase preceding Hill’s slur. Or, as I like to put it: you say “suck my dick” like it’s a bad thing.

Actually, this is really all we need to unpack the situation further. The use of the f word seems to be getting all the attention, but like other slurs, it bears absolutely no weight without all the cultural baggage of oppressive treatment that goes along with the word. In language studies, we might talk about the de-notative meaning of a word (in this case, the f word is associated with gay men) and the co-notative meaning associated with a word (in this case, all the reasons we feel like it’s a bad thing rather than a compliment when this word is used to describe gay men).

We can also talk about illocutionary force–that is, no one who reads the story of Hill’s comments has had to pause and wonder if Jonah Hill actually wanted, in that moment,  to drop trou’ and have the photographer perform oral sex on him. Though we know that millions of gay and straight couples engage, for pleasure and intimacy, in this very sex act on a daily basis, we don’t assume that’s what Hill wanted.

No, we get that, instead of being a pushy request for sex, the command, “suck my dick” is really intended as a threat against the photographer. It’s a way of borrowing words from a culturally understood vocabulary and using them to make another point that the hearer seems to be missing. In this case, the photographer wouldn’t leave Hill alone, so he used strong words that are backed by cultural violence to respond forcefully to what felt like a boundary violation–in other words, Hill felt angry and his words were meant to indicate that the photographer needed to back off and leave him alone.

That these words work in our society to communicate such an idea is a problem.


We are told so much about our culture when the phrase “suck my dick” is associated with power, dominance, and control, rather than with a male bodied person’s vulnerable request for sexual intimacy with someone else.

And here, we see clearly where the oppression of LGBTIQ persons and the oppression of women intersect in a culture so shaped by a dynamic of domination/violence paired with a paranoid insecurity that must be defended at all costs (see where I’m going here?).

Our tendency to use references to sex acts in a violent way speaks to what some have called our “rape culture”–that is, the normalization of sexual violence against women (as well as children, LGBTIQ persons, people of color, those with disabilities, etc.) that allows males to operate out of presumptive domination and ownership of other people’s bodies.

This shows up not just in violent language, but in blaming women and female bodies for the violence that men do against them “because she wanted it.” It’s the “gay panic” defense when homophobic people are violent “because I thought he was coming on to me.” It’s the failure of police to pursuit the violent sexual assailants of transgender women until videos of the event, which happened on a public subway, are made viral online (and it’s the failure of bystanders to protect the women involved).

This is our “sickness unto death”–our cultural loss of human personhood–and our despair of healthy interpersonal relationship that leads to the masculine defense of power.


But the truth is, we are vulnerable. And to open ourselves up to be seen as vulnerable means to open ourselves up both to harm AND to desirable relationship with each other.

Misogyny and homophobia are symptoms–like open carry–of our insecurity about being vulnerable, finite human beings. People who are at peace with their own vulnerability and who make a practice of treating all people with equal dignity and respect, do not carry assault rifles in the baby aisle at Target. Or at Sonic drive-ins. Or at church.

Jonah Hill reached for misogynist/homophobic language because he, like all of us, is shaped by a culture that has told him it is not okay to be vulnerable as a man. He reached for the tool that we have all collectively honed for just such a defense. His apology is not enough, because the problem is bigger than his use of the tool he was handed.

The problem is our problem. We use hateful, harmful language because we are afraid–afraid of being hated and harmed–afraid of losing our precarious grip on a small bit of control. This same fearfulness drives us to protect our borders, to arm ourselves with guns and oppressive immigration policies, and inaccessible healthcare systems (because someone else getting care will slow my access to care), to regressive drug incarceration laws.

All these things are symptoms of a disease that we need to heal from. And to heal from it, we have to stop defending and start grieving–grieving so that we can move far enough into the mess that we can begin to untangle it and grieving so that we can recover our desire for the intimacy of real relationships that honor all persons so that we all emerge, less bound by our impulse to be driven to violence by our fear.