January 27

God and Gender: A Theological Reflection

Talking about gender is like walking into a minefield. Some of the hazards are societal beliefs, some global and some more local, while others are reactions to those beliefs. Nevertheless, this post will venture where most sane people fear to tread. And please remember that I am speaking of what we might call archetypes– the so-called “norm.” Many of us don’t fit that norm. Yet our beliefs about gender often do.

Let’s begin with one of the Bible’s most radical statement about gender identity: that of God.

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27 [NRSV])

I was raised with the vision of a male God. To be honest, coming from a matriarchal family, the idea of a female God terrifies me. But the Bible tells us something challenging: God is both male and female. This is radical because most ancient cultures had a pantheon of male and female gods. But the Hebrews had only one God, and that God encompassed both genders. The “image of God” is both male and female. One might say that the image of God is the union of the two.

Obviously this doesn’t mean God is a hermaphrodite. God has no physical body, and therefore no genitalia. Though we tend to limit our vision of creatures to their physical traits, male and female are characteristics that go beyond physical gender. The sea, for example, has most often been seen as female, as are the ships that have sailed on her. The earth is often described as female, and the sun as male.

God encompasses characteristics of both genders: creating and loving and nurturing, building and tearing down and disciplining. These are archetypal characteristics for female and male respectively. But in us as creatures, these characteristics are rarely manifested in ideal ways. Males, we believe, are responsible for propagating and protecting the species, and females for nurturing it. We know that the male role is often abused, and the female role is sometimes abdicated. Or the characteristics may be twisted into destructive forces: male (the archetype suggests) is prone to violence, and female to manipulation.

But we don’t always have perfect alignment with the characteristics of our gender, and that’s true throughout nature. The characteristics of male and female are neither exclusively genital nor consistently presented. What do we make, for example, of the male seahorse carrying embryos to birth? Or the female praying mantis decapitating her mate when he has served his purpose? Or the earthworm, each of which is biologically both male and female?

Still, our society often finds a nurturing man suspect, or a female leader. Men are not supposed to be beauticians, nor women soldiers or politicians. When you think of the word “nurse,” what gender is the image?

Much of this presupposition can be traced back to the Mosaic Law, which defined male and female roles.

A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. (Dt 22:5)

These books were finalized at a time when order was extremely important. They defined who was “in” and who wasn’t. You see, when Israel fell to Assyria, ten tribes were taken into exile. They were never heard from again. When Judah went into exile in Babylon, they were determined to survive as a people. They wanted above all to avoid assimilation. That is why there is so much emphasis placed on category.

Here’s an example: animals with cloven hooves are ruminants and provide dairy. The pig has a cloven hoof but is not a ruminant and does not provide dairy. It doesn’t fit, therefore it is unclean. The camel and the rabbit are ruminants but do not have a cloven hoof, therefore they are unclean (Lev 11:3-7). Similarly, lobster is neither insect nor fish; it doesn’t fit and is therefore unclean (Lev 11:12).

And they emphasized that different categories do not mix. Don’t wear a garment made of two fabrics, or plant a field with two kinds of seed (Lev 19:19, cf Dt 22:9-11). The practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together would have been an abomination, and a cotton-poly t-shirt would be strictly forbidden.

This concern with order extended to interpersonal relations. Just as Lev 19:19 forbids the mating of different kinds of animals– no breeding of mules in the Hebrew world– so a particular view of family was also emphasized. Not only was incest forbidden, but so was the marrying of your wife’s sister as a second wife (Lev 18:18, note that polygamy was assumed.) This is also where homsexualty is condemned. These are practices that “don’t fit,” and keeping category boundaries was imperative for survival. Similarly, men must be men and women must be women. Belonging to a category is everything.

This was embedded in Jewish culture for centuries before the birth of Christ. It was so important that, in at least one instance, category overrode the biblical ideal to “cleave to” your spouse (Gen 2:24) when, after return from exile, the Jews sent away all foreign wives (Ezra 10:3, Neh 13:23ff).

It’s only in this light that we can see how radical was Peter’s dream about eating unclean food (Acts 10:9ff). He was told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Immediately afterward, Peter witnesses the Holy Spirit coming to a group of Gentiles– non-Jews who were considered unclean. The dream was not really about food at all. It was about the inclusion of those traditionally seen as unclean, the “out” group, into God’s plan of salvation. The people who don’t belong, who don’t fit. Paul would later write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This turned Jewish traditions on their head! Category was no longer a barrier. The Jewish obsession with “in” and “out” had served its purpose.

Some of this reversal we accept. No longer do we recoil at mixed garments or different crops planted side by side. Mules may have fallen out of fashion, but labradoodles are popular. I was even recently served lobster at a Jewish wedding!

But other aspects remain challenging for us. Not long ago it was still considered scandalous for a woman to wear trousers in public. Based on the comments of some female pastors, for some people it still is! And I’m old enough to remember the comments made about men with long hair and women with short hair. Underlying these comments is a common concern: “They don’t fit!” For us, as for the ancient Hebrews, category remains important.

But God has overthrown human categories. In Christ there is no male and female. This challenges us! Men, according  to our accepted archetypes,  want to “manly men doing manly things.” We want our women to be feminine, however we might define that. (As a man, I dare not speak to what women want.) To consider that gender is a category that has been overthrown challenges our social order. Jesus wouldn’t do that, would he? Yes, he did exactly that. “So the last shall be first, and the first last…” (Mt 20:16). This was not just spiritual, and not even just economic.

This has far reaching ramifications. The most obvious have to do with gender equity and gender identity, but it doesn’t stop there. If God represents male and female, what does that say for leadership styles? For a system of incarceration based on punishment? For our foreign and domestic policies? For judging a presidential candidate (male or female) on their fitness to lead the nation through troubled times?

Society, of course, has a hard time with this. Category remains an important tool for preserving order, and we are acutely aware of who is “in” and who isn’t. But as Christians who follow the Gospel, we are called to challenge societal norms. God is both male and female. So is the Body of Christ. How can we transform, our own vision to that of the Bible?

January 17

Who Killed Jesus?

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him (Mt 26:3-4)

It seems like a simple question, right? The Bible tells us that the chief priests and the elders did. And it was the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. Who else could we blame?

Enter the theory of substitutionary atonement. Postulated by Anselm in the 11th century, this theory became widely influential, and remains the foundation for many Christians’ understanding of redemption. In brief, it suggests that humanity, through its disobedience, owed God a debt it could not pay. In order to satisfy this debt, Jesus assumed human form and was sacrificed to God as satisfaction for our debt. (Anslem suggests this was a debt of honor; John Calvin later contributed the idea that the debt was penalty for our sin.)

What’s the problem with this? Any way you look at it, this makes God responsible for Jesus’ death. God killed his own son to atone for our sins.

There’s not a lot of biblical support for this theory. Hebrews suggests this mechanism, and there is some sacrificial language in Matthew. But Matthew also makes clear that it was the religious leaders who caused Jesus’ death. Luke and John also take very different views. For Luke, Satan is defeated when Jesus’ followers begin doing the work Jesus did (Lk 10:17-18, cf John 14:12); Pentecost is the moment in which this salvation is revealed. John (like Mark before him, see Mk 15:39) sees Jesus’ death as an act of love; salvation comes through the Incarnation (Jesus’ birth) and, by extension, the Resurrection. Paul often argues similarly.

We might wonder why there are multiple views of salvation in the New Testament. One answer is that these authors were writing for different audiences. Jews understood sin and atonement to be inseparable– Hebrew uses the same word for both. Gentiles would have had trouble with this view. Perhaps more importantly, though, to expound on the mechanism of salvation requires knowledge of the Mind of God– knowledge that I, for one, do not have.

In the early Church, the most common view of salvation was called Christus Victor. It suggested that salvation came not through Christ’s death. but through his resurrection– his victory over sin and death. Yes, the religious leaders (and the Romans) killed Jesus. That was human sin. But Jesus was victorious over that sin by rising from the dead. That is the victory Jesus brings to us (see for example 1 Corinthians 15:12-19). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).

Can we believe that God killed Jesus? If not, then substitutionary atonement doesn’t work. Yes, Jesus died for our sins. In fact he died as a direct result of our sins. But it was not his death that brought salvation. It was his victory over death. In Christ, death and sin are conquered. And, as Luke adds to this discussion, through Christ, when we follow and imitate Christ, we too conquer sin and death. Not by works, but by the grace of inclusion and the transformation of our hearts to obedience to undertake Christ’s call to new ways of living.

You might wonder why this matters. But our view of salvation affects our whole social order. If Christ died for our sins, nothing more is required of us. Convenient, isn’t it? All we have to do is say we believe, and we don’t have to change much. Sure, we should refrain from legalistic sins like drunkenness and adultery. But love of our neighbor can be a noun rather than a verb. We get to ignore passages like Matthew 25:31-46. Injustice? That’s for God to worry about. We’re headed for the hereafter. (For more on this misconception, check out this sermon.)

That’s called “cheap grace.”

We are called to do the works of Jesus (Jn 14:12). And Satan is defeated when we do (Lk 10:18). If we are saved, our lives will be changed. Our behavior will be changed. We will become citizens of the Kingdom of God, and act accordingly.

Christ conquered death. This was no legalistic sacrifice to appease a vengeful God. The Resurrection conquered sin– our sin. So let us do as he did, in the faith of his salvation.

Amen.

January 10

Our Broken Social Service System

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The purpose of our social service system is to help people climb out of poverty, right? But too often, it does the opposite. Let’s take a fictitious but representative example.

Bob is married and has two young children. He has a decent job that provides health insurance. His wife is a full-time mom. They live in a 3-bedroom home that costs $1,200 per month– a little higher than the average 3-bedroom apartment, but not much. Their utilities cost $300 per month. They get by, but they haven’t saved much.

Bob loses his job. Without a job he can’t pay his rent, much less afford the $600 per month payment for COBRA health insurance. Fortunately, his family becomes eligible for food stamps ($650 per month) and Medicaid. He can also apply for HUD vouchers to help with his rent, but the waiting list is over a year out. He can’t move to a cheaper place because he has no income. What landlord in their right mind will rent to someone without a job?

Bob is having trouble finding a position that pays as well as his last one. So he takes a $12 per hour part-time job– a decent paying job in these parts– that leaves him time to pound the pavement looking for a better one. He now earns $1,500 per month. That’s just enough to cover his rent and utilities, but not gas or car insurance for the family’s (one) car, or clothes for interviews, or anything else. And his food stamps get cut to $450 because he’s now earning money. And the more he makes, the more his food stamps get cut. At $2,000 per month, which is just enough to get by with food stamps. they phase out completely. If he replaces the $650 per month subsidy with income, he loses his Medicaid. Then, not only does he have to come up with a premium for insurance, but his family faces a $10,000 per year deductible. And he starts to owe income taxes, which aren’t taken into account for social programs.

To break even, Bob now has to earn $50,000 per year, or $24 per hour. Or he has to find a job that provides health insurance. Neither is common in this area. The median income in the city is $33,807, which is 27% lower than the average for the nation. And if Bob’s wife looks for a job, they’ll have to pay for childcare. Childcare Aware lists this state’s average cost of childcare for an infant and a toddler at $19,396 per year— the equivalent of $9 per hour at a full-time job. Is it worth it to have Bob’s wife work for a net increase in income of maybe $3 per hour, while putting the kids with strangers for the day?

But let’s back up a little. Is Bob better off making less than $1,000 per month and getting enough food stamps to feed his family and have health insurance (Medicaid), or making enough to pay the rent and not being able to feed his family or pay for medical care? Ultimately Bob faces a choice between feeding his family and paying his rent. Neither is an attractive proposition. Where is the incentive to earn, when earning actually causes you to lose ground?

This state is not unusual. In fact, New Jersey has a higher cost of living and a lower earning threshold for social services. So does Pennsylvania. In Arkansas, the Medicaid limit is $114 per month!

How does this help get people out of poverty? If you can’t drive to an interview, if you can’t afford presentable clothes, it doesn’t matter what your skill set is. You’re going to wind up in a job like eviscerating chickens for $12 per hour. Or security for $10 per hour. Or a minimum wage job doing manual labor. And the inevitable medical expenses become long-term debt, putting you further in the hole.

Yes, unemployment is low. But the majority of jobs where I live won’t support a family. And if you lose the one you have… well, welcome to the world of perpetual need.

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January 8

Reading Apocalypse

As we hear predictions of the End Times, and as people compare the President to Jesus (or certain apocalyptic characters from Daniel 7), it’s important to examine how we read the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. These works are not easy to read. They are heavily symbolic, confusing, and easy to misconstrue. For example, over least a thousand years, people of each generation have tried to apply the events of Revelation to their own time. So far, Christ has not returned.

Ian Paul, in a thought-provoking post, describes the conventional view of the book of Revelation:

The Book of Revelation is a divinely inspired prophecy of the end times in which we now live. Although John didn’t understand what he was seeing or describing, events which were far distant from him in time, we now know that he was accurately predicting events that are happening in our lifetime. Because of this, we need to get ready for Jesus’ imminent return.

Yet, while Paul debunks some of the flaws in our reading of Revelation in particular and apocalypses in general, his interpretation still has some shortcomings. There are particular themes and methods in apocalyptic writings which we easily miss, and this leads to flawed interpretations.

Time

As human creatures, we experience a linear existence. We thus expect the Bible to provide a linear narrative. This experience of time was called by the Greeks chronos time, or sequential time.

But God isn’t linear. God is all, including past, present, and future. Early Christians described God’s time as kairos time–experienced by us as the moment when God breaks into chronos time. The apocalyptic writers understood this concept well. We can see it clearly in Revelation’s references to the fall of Babylon:

God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath” (Rev 16:19b). Here, Babylon seems to have fallen already.

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 18:2). Here again, Babylon appears to have fallen. The Greek uses the aorist tense, which indicates a past action or an element of a continuing action.

Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed” (Rev 18:6). This appears to put the fall in the present tense, even though previous passages suggest it has already happened.

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning… And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore…” (Rev 18:9, 11). The Greek uses the future tense in the first passage, and the present tense in the second. Here, the lament over Babylon is both future and present.

Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more…‘” (Rev 18:21). Here again, the Greek (like the English) uses the future tense.

In this narrative, then, the verb tenses to the opposite of what might be expected: Rather than being seen as future, then present, and finally past, the events begin as being described in the past, then move to the present, and finally the future. In a linear sense, the story is moving backward. But the writer is not envisioning a linear sense of time. This is God’s time, kairos time.

Patterns

Related to the apocalyptic sense of time is the apocalyptic sense of history. In biblical writing, one can trust God in the future because of what God has done in the past. The Exodus is, of course, the pivotal narrative: the God who saved Israel from Egypt will save Israel again. Nearly every Old Testament book references the Exodus as proof of God’s love. We can see this also in the psalms: Even the plaintive Psalm 13, “How long, oh Lord?” ends with the recollection of God’s favor in the past as assurance for the future. “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Ps 13:6).

Apocalyptic writings take this one step further. Daniel, for example, is set in Babylon during the Exile, but its prophecies are not about Babylon. They are about the Seleucids, several centuries later. The message is clear: as God destroyed the historical Babylon, so God will destroy the oppressive Seleucid regime.

Likewise, Rome was referred to as Babylon because, despite Rome’s apparent power and its destruction of Jerusalem (like Babylon before it), God had destroyed Babylon, and thus God will destroy Rome. We can see, as Robert G. Hall writes, that the apocalyptic author “is clearly interested in the future, and in how the determined plan of God touches his present…”[1] But more importantly, John  J. Collins notes, “The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of historical events, but on recurring patterns.”[2] What has happened before will happen again.

This suggests a cyclical rather than linear view of history. And it helps explain the verb tense confusion in the Babylon narrative. Babylon has fallen, Babylon is falling, and Babylon will fall– because, so long as history endures, there will always be a Babylon, and God will always intervene.

Reading Faithfully

As we read Revelation, Daniel, or the apocalyptic sections of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, we should keep these characteristics in mind. Apocalyptic writers do not see God’s time as linear. They see history as cyclical. Yes, there is an end to history toward which God’s plan moves. But their concern is not the imminence of that plan’s fulfillment, but its meaning for us today.

As we read Revelation, we ought not to interpret the events of our time as portents of an imminent Second Coming, nor of the New Jerusalem appearing in our lifetime. Rather, we might interpret events and divine interventions consistent with God’s character and what God has already done in human history.

Above all, the message of the apocalypse is that what appears to us as chaos does actually have order to it– and it is an order instituted by God. Yes, we should be concerned when our actions (and those of our nation) are destructive and oppressive. This is what “Babylon” and “the nations” were judged for. Yes, we may expect divine intervention. It may even be the end of the world as we know it– just as the fall of Rome was the end of the world as many knew it. But the end of time is probably not yet here. As Jesus said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36).

Babylon may fall, but we still must plan for the future.

 

Notes

[1] Robert G. Hall, Revealed Histories: Techniques for Ancient Jewish and Christian Historiography, London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 43.

[2] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2016), 62-64.

January 5

Dusk: An Epiphany Lament

There is a kind of darkness that lies like a blanket, thick and oppressive. Even the moon, shrouded by clouds, is barely discernible. The blackness weighs on the heart and soul, a darkness within and without.

This is what the Lord showed me today as I worshipped with my congregation in celebration of Epiphany, the coming of the light.

Dusk is falling.

In the coming night, the light will seem to have departed. But, like the moon obscured by clouds, it will not depart, for the darkness cannot overcome it.

The coming of the night should not surprise us if our eyes are open. It has been on the horizon for some time. But perhaps we didn’t recognize the signs.

How could we know that elevating science over spirituality would empty us of meaning? That consumerism would shift our allegiance to personal comfort and the elevation of self rather than societal wellbeing? And that this shift would change the political landscape to promote sameness to protect our comfort at the expense of others? That it would shift our economic outlook to seek short-term comfort rather than long-term stability? Or that such an attitude might mirror the addictive behavior now ravaging our communities?

We couldn’t have known, unless we happened to read and understand the Bible or any of the sacred texts of any world religion. Even Buddhism, arguably the religion friendliest to science, warns against materialism and self-centeredness.

These, of course, are now far in the rear view mirror as we have found new sins to practice: arguing rather than listening, rejection of responsibility in almost any form, and entitlement. Their manifestations devour our society in polarization, military adventurism, and self-destructive behavior from individual overdose to premeditated climate devastation.

I have prayed for change. I have worked for change. But the change I have seen has been in the wrong direction. There’s no point in assigning blame, there is plenty to go around, just as the consequences will affect each and every one of us.

We could, of course, blame Trump, a president who has now turned his back  on nearly every element of his declared foreign policy. We could blame the violent words and actions of some of his supporters. We could blame Democrats for running a losing candidate against him. We could blame thirty years of structural violence that led to our present political polarization. Or a foreign policy that has created the enemies we now face–including the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratic government. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. It’s history, and we now face the future.

We have reached a point of no return. There is no turning back.

Dusk is falling.

Those with a cyclical view of time will not be surprised. Night must come before morning. This is the good news: at the end of whatever kind of night this is and however long it goes on, light will once again shine. Something new will have dawned, and the promise of a new day. What will we make of it then? Will we have learned from our mistakes? Will we teach to our descendents the lessons we learned? History suggests that such lessons are soon forgotten.

But that is yet in the future. For now, what lies before us is the dark night.