Hagar, Prophetess to Trump’s America

When the Hebrew people were released from a half century of slavery in Babylon, they came back to the land of Judah. Having seen the great power of the ancient world for the lie that it really was, they took their collective trauma and channeled it into creating a society and a literary vocabulary through which oppressed people the world over would for thousands of years express their hope and pain. To distinguish themselves from their former oppressors, the Hebrews told and wrote down great stories. These stories imagined things that no one had imagined before.

And I want to talk about one of them.

This story begins with a man named Abram. Abram is a resident of the land of Babylon (an important detail to people who’d just been liberated from that land). Abram is wealthy. He owns flocks and herds and he owns slaves. Whoever first told the story probably was owned by a man like this man.

But then God speaks to Abram.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your family and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.

Genesis c12

Take a moment to appreciate the gravity of what this storyteller is arguing. To be a great nation had a formula. To be a great nation was to rule like Babylon. To administer like Babylon. To think like Babylon. It was to accumulate power and exploit those with less power. And this author comes along and tells the freed slaves that there is a way of being a great nation that they haven’t seen yet.

Abram leaves his former home but soon is presented with a conflict. Pay attention to this conflict because it is the same great conflict at the heart of the entire Bible—between the limited imagination of imperial, great-power thinking and the expanded, faith-based imagination of what the Bible will later call the “kingdom of God.” As the storyteller explains, God has promised Abram that he will be the father of a great nation, which is nice, but his wife, Sarai, is incapable of becoming pregnant. And Abram reasons that you can’t be the father of a nation if you can’t produce offspring.

So the story tells us that Abram resorts to the same thing that the first hearers of the story had just experienced in Babylon—Abram exploits one of his family slaves and conceives of a son through her. Once she has conceived, however, she is no longer useful to Abram and Sarai. Worse, she has just taken Sarai’s place of honor in this time when women’s value to society came from birthing children. The slave girl’s body has been exploited, but when she is no longer useful Sarai despises her and treats her harshly. The slave girl flees into the wilderness, where she cries out to God. Any Babylonian listening so far would praise Abram and Sarai for having prudently administered the resources of their estate, but this storyteller is not interested in blessing the Babylonian taskmasters.

First, the storyteller doesn’t want us to think of the slaves as a category, but as people. We are told the slave girl’s name. It is Ha’Gar. We are told her son’s name. It is Yishma’el. They are people and they have names and, as I will explain shortly, those names mean a lot.

Next, Ha’Gar is weeping in the wilderness when God tells her that her cry is heard. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham (“father of many”) and commands him to accept Ha’Gar and Ishmael as full members of his household. And to fulfill his promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation, he causes Sarai to have a son after all. It is through this son that the nation of Abraham will become great. Let’s go back to the storyteller.

What is he telling us?

He is telling us what we should be thinking about when we think about what makes nations great. This storyteller wants the former slaves to imagine a society built not on exploiting other people’s bodies, but on hearing the cries of society’s most powerless. Abram would not get his great nation by using a slave, but by having faith in a power that Babylon could not comprehend.

And this should get your attention: when the Hebrew former slaves eventually formed their legal system, their imaginations were clearly influenced by the storyteller of Abram and Ha’Gar.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and Ha’Gar: I am the Lord your God.

When Ha’Gar resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress Ha’Gar. Ha’Gar who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love Ha’Gar as yourself. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus c19

Ha’Gar is a Hebrew word that means “the alien.”

By the time that all the Bible men in my formative years had given me all their Bible knowledge, I never was taught this. Actually, what I got from these Christian soldiers was the opposite.

When Donald Trump spent the whole of President Obama’s time in office accusing him of a being a secret Muslim born in Kenya, the people who taught me from the Bible for three decades did not form a prophetic witness against the president for his race-bating and xenophobia.

They said “finally, a man who tells it like it is.”

When Donald Trump announced that he would call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” my wise elders did not call on our president to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

They saturated their Facebook walls in the most unaccountable conspiracy theories about Islam.

When Trump signed his first travel ban, Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States, and he said “We all know what that means”, my earliest tutors of the Word did not leave the White House and shake the dust off their sandals.

They worshipped and sang “Make America Like Babylon Again.”

This matters. Because this weekend, the rhetoric of the murderer in New Zealand was not very different from the email chains that having been circulating in our churches for decades. They are the messages of Babylon but clothed in the cover of the Bible. They are messages of manufactured fear disguised as “truth telling.” And as this man who peddled in this same online ecosystem pronounced death on the bodies of fifty sons of Ishmael in New Zealand, God heard the voices of those we despised and treated harshly.

Yishma’el means “heard by God.”

The Islamic faith traces its origins to Ishmael, and among the billion people who adhere to this great Abrahamic tradition, there is less than about a tenth of one percent who read their text and hear the call to violence. Language that can be heard as a call to violence is in the Koran if one wants to find it there, just as language that can be heard as a call to violence is in the Bible if one—like the killer in New Zealand—wants to find it there. But, like most Christians, Islamic adherents don’t hear a call to violence. They are humans just like you and me.

So when you participate in speech that categorically dehumanizes the billions of adherents of any one of the great Abrahamic traditions—as if their Abrahamic tradition has troubling scriptures, but yours doesn’t—you lay the groundwork for the very terrorism that consumes your imagination. And Jesus Christ prophesies hand-in-hand with Ha’Gar that our destruction is near.

Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was Ha’Gar and you did not invite me in.

Matthew c25
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Reading the Bible with Caesar

While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the rulers, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the rulers were disturbed when they heard this.

Acts c17

Every person who reads the Bible must interpret the Bible. If you want to tell me how you “just read the Bible for what it says”, I will smile and ask about all the property you sold to give to the poor.

When liberal Christians (or as I prefer, “Christians”) talk about how we interpret the Bible, we commonly use a shorthand, “reading with Jesus.” Implicit in this phrase is an admission that some parts of the Bible are on their face horrific, and we need a standard by which to determine what things we hold and what things we let go. We acknowledge the literary tradition through which the ancient Hebrew people distinguished and preserved their ethnic and national identity, and we preserve them—warts and all—because they are foundational to understanding Jesus’s colorful and subversive teachings as a Jewish rabbi. However, we also hold that the many, many, many parts of the Bible are not equals and anything that contradicts what Jesus taught takes a backseat.

I like the phrase, “reading with Jesus,” but I also have problems with it. For one thing, it’s too safe. It doesn’t offend the sorts of people who need to be offended. It continues a tendency of progressive Christians to try and sound to fundamentalists like we have a lot in common—when really we don’t at all. If I write something on here and it doesn’t fill my inbox with the rants of angry, right-wing, conservative, fundamentalist Christians, I usually feel like I’ve just wasted a whole lot of time.

More importantly, because it’s just a shorthand, it doesn’t actually mean anything unless you’re familiar with the intellectual giants whose work it summarizes. When I lived in Evangelical Fundamentalist World— and was made to believe that Tim Keller, Francis Chan, and Lee Strobel had important things to say—the phrase Reading with Jesus would have done nothing to stretch my imagination. I would have “read the Bible with Jesus” and then just remained one of the millions of believers who are of no concern to the “principalities and powers”—those against whom the Bible demonstrates its greatest and most timeless literary genius. This is no accident. It’s the result of billions of dollars that have shaped the readings of the people who taught the people who taught the people who taught your Vacation Bible School. The Gospel of John screams this at you when the post-resurrection Jesus resembled a gardner rather than a messianic warrior, and the writer tells you that no one recognized him.

To avoid reading our own biases into the Bible and calling it Reading with Jesus, we need to do the work of creating a defensible reference point, and I wrote this essay because there’s a simple but intellectually rigorous framework for doing that work.

Before you read the Bible with Jesus, you need to read the Bible with Caesar.

Sit across the table with Augustus. Hike through the forest with Domitian. Invite Nebuchadnezzar to your Bible study group. Go on a retreat led by Pharaoh. Meditate with Alexander the Great. Listen to the prayers of Nero and Caligula. Ask each of these powerful men how they would like you to read the Bible.

And then do the opposite.

Because in the four decades before Jesus was born, the Roman Senate and the court poets referred to Augustus Caesar as the Son of God and Our Lord and Savior. Throughout his empire, he established propaganda centers for the imperial gods called churches. When his army brutally occupied a new territory he announced his victory through messages that were called Gospels. The words son of God, savior, Lord, gospel, and church are Bible words that will always carry some degree of mystery and artistry. But if you asked Jesus what he meant by them in any concrete sense, he could point to the Roman empire and say “well definitely not that.”

Christians used these words in rebellion. To say Jesus is Lord was dangerous and unpatriotic, because it unmistakably communicated and Caesar is not. To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus was to deny the Gospel of Rome. The rebelliousness of the church was the same rebelliousness inherent in the Jewish religion—a religion that came into being on the underside of economic, religious, and violent power. To read with Jesus means to read about the world turning upside down, and the Caesars never want that.

So, with all this as a backdrop, lets talk about that. How would Caesar want you to read the Bible? If you’re an American, the answer is: probably how you already do.

Don’t Let It Be Too Political

The Bible concerns itself with structural economic justice from beginning to end, but discuss this ultra-biblical topic with any Christian fundamentalist and you will reflexively be warned that we shouldn’t let the Bible get too political. This is not the voice of Jesus, but of Caesar.

When you read the Bible in opposition to Caesar, Jesus’s well-known Beatitudes are rightly recognized as the constitution of the kingdom of God. When Jesus proclaimed “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of Heaven” his message was not that it is good for you to be poor in spirit, so you can go to Heaven. His message was that in the “kingdom” (or government) of God, which was coming down to Earth, those who had lost all hope under the weight of Caesar would now find blessing. The government of God was for them. When Jesus proclaimed “blessed are those who mourn”, his message was not that it is bad to be happy. His message was that in the government of God, those upon whom Caesar’s power had trampled would find comfort. You cannot put Jesus in the context of his Jewish literary tradition and read it any other way.

For Jesus’s favorite self designation was the “Son of Man”, a phrase that came from the centuries-old Jewish Book of Daniel. In the story, Daniel sees a vision of all of the world’s empires—which he sees as “beasts”—and they are stripped of their power and worship “one like a son of man.” Nobody in the story dies and goes to Heaven. Nobody leaves the Earth. In Daniel’s vision, the kingdom of Heaven comes to them. And Jesus changed that tradition in no way. As he said further in his kingdom constitution, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”

And I could just keep going. After the story of the Hebrews being freed from Egypt and from being just a source of cheap labor for Pharaoh’s great projects (how can you say this isn’t political???), they go out into the wilderness and God gives them a legal code that contains one welfare program after another. What’s striking to me about almost all of the Torah is how little of it would apply to all but the most wealthy of its adherents. And to take it further, God required that all of the Torah’s welfare programs benefit Israel’s immigrants.

Whether it was Pharaoh and his magicians being overcome by a nomadic shepherd and his staff, or the King in Nineveh hearing the worst sermon in the whole Bible and repenting in sackcloth and ashes, or King Nebuchadnezzar boasting about his power before losing his mind like a wild animal, the writers of the Jewish canon loved to tell incongruent and subversive stories that in various ways showed God humiliating the seeming invincibility of the world’s oppressive systems. The resurrection of Jesus after being killed by the execution device of the Roman empire comes straight out of this tradition. The Apostle Paul expressed this when he wrote “and having disarmed the powers and authorities, Jesus made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

We Americans have been scripted to read our Bibles and not think about what they mean for our systems. We apply our Bibles to what we do individually, but leave our systems intact. The American system for allocating resources is competition. You get things by being a winner (or by being born to the winners). We conceptualize most things in terms of what is mine and what is yours. Our identities consist of neat boundaries that protect my actions from having anything to do with you or anyone else. We don’t talk about “walking with the Lord” in any context other than our own private moral conduct. Private moral conduct is good, but if your nation’s systems do not bless the least among it, your nation has not inherited the kingdom of God. In the same way, a personal relationship with God is good, and I hope you have one, but Caesar would love for you to keep it there. He would love it if at the end of your Bible study, you, like Caiaphas, proclaim “we have no king but Caesar.”

Make It Only About Spiritual Things

The Bible is a spiritual book, and Caesar would love to keep it that way. But never does the Bible situate the spiritual world in one place and the physical in another. In the Bible, these two realms are always in direct contact.

In the creation poem of Genesis c1, the spirit of God was there in the creation and God called it good.

In the story of Jesus’s baptism, the spirit of God came on the body of Jesus right before Luke used a genealogy to argue that Jesus was recreating the same world that God called good (go read that genealogy in Luke c4 again).

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he didn’t instruct them to pray that we would all—as Plato taught—leave the Earth for some airy spiritual paradise in Heaven. He taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom in Heaven come to the sweat and soil of the Earth.

In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Moses brought the Israelites out of Pharoah’s economic system of slavery, and into the wilderness where they saw the “glory of the Lord.” And what was that glory?

Bread.

Not just bread, but freedom from Pharaoh’s system of cheap labor. Bread from outside the imaginations that Pharaoh sought to control. Bread that reduced his power to nothing.

Real spirituality concerns itself with tangible things. Like bread. Like segregated school districts. Access to healthcare. Affordable housing. Carbon emissions. Employment discrimination. Consumer protection. Rehabilitation for those who commit crimes. Peacemaking.

But a spirituality that sings songs on Sundays and then just floats off into the clouds is no threat to Caesar or Pharaoh, and it is how they will teach you to read the Bible. They are thrilled when they profit from systems that exploit vulnerable people and then the Christians come and tell everyone to just focus on getting to Heaven.

Make It All About the Afterlife

Speaking of Heaven, Rome did not persecute the early Christians because of anything having to do with the afterlife. This comes as a surprise to the modern fundamentalist Christian, but Rome allowed the people it subjugated to continue their religious traditions. In fact, Rome was famous for adopting the gods of people it conquered. As long as you worshipped the Caesars and the important gods of the empire, the Roman authorities did not care that you also worshipped another god or gods. The Romans especially did not have a well-developed theology of an afterlife, so people were completely free to preach about that.

(Almost none of your Bible is concerned with the afterlife either, but I’ve already written on this.)

I find it compelling then that, in spite of this religious tolerance, Rome found adherents of Judaism and Christianity so especially threatening. When Christians were identified, they were imprisoned and hauled into arenas to be mauled by wild animals. The Roman state depended on exploiting vulnerable people, but the Christians preached a different way of seeing the world. They acknowledged no distinction between slave and senator. They would not participate in any government ministry that required killing people.

Here’s a letter from the Governor Pliny to the Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century:

This is what I have done with those who have been brought before me as Christians. First, I asked them whether they were Christians or not. If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed. . . .

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your image — which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods — all such I considered acquitted — especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do. . . .

There are among them every age, of every rank, and of both sexes.

Nowhere in this letter, or in Trajan’s response, or in anything the Roman ever wrote about the Christians, does the topic of the afterlife come up. For this reason, Caesar would love for you to make the Bible an instruction manual to get to Heaven after you die. What he will not tolerate is you turning the world upside down. For that he will take your life.

And if Caesar wants to take your life, you’re probably reading the Bible with Jesus.

Jesus Probably* Wasn’t Pro-Life**

The modern person would scarcely recognize the political landscape of 1979, the year when Paul Weyrich is said to have first met with Jerry Falwell.

Polling in the 1960s consistently revealed that most Americans believed abortion should be legal in most cases and that the issue, if anything, was a women’s health issue. This was true among people you wouldn’t expect. Abortion access was liberalized in such conservative states as North Carolina in 1967, Georgia in 1968, Kansas in 1969, Arkansas in 1969, Virginia in 1970, and South Carolina in 1970.

This was consistent with the conservative faith institutions that constituted the majority of these states. In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Two years later, a 7-2 majority of the United States Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade held that a woman has a right to an abortion until the third trimester of her pregnancy. The decision went mostly unnoticed. In fact, after Roe was decided the Southern Baptist Convention in 1974 reaffirmed its 1971 position and reaffirmed it again in 1976. W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s president, went on the record saying, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

This probably strikes you as complete bonkers.

There was a time when the issue was not so atomic. In fact, and perhaps even more surprising, the states that most resisted liberalizing abortion access were the northeastern states—those same states that today overwhelmingly elect pro-choice candidates. What held these states back in that time was that they were overwhelmingly Catholic.

Obviously the political landscape is different today, but you as a modern citizen need to understand why. There’s a lot of history and a lot of money and a lot of cynicism behind why this issue went from mildly controversial at best to the single defining issue in American politics. I find the story nothing short of disturbing.

First, I’m going to explain what happened. The story is well-documented in the historical record. Second, I’m going to talk about how Jesus probably* viewed the issue. I think both parts of this essay are going to surprise you.

A Cynical Beginning

Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which held that racial segregation of public schools violates the United States Constitution, and following President Eisenhower’s enlistment of the National Guard to enforce the decision, church-run schools proliferated throughout the American South in the 1960s. These schools ensured that white families would not have to send their children to schools that admitted non-white children. The practice was so pervasive that they earned the name “segregation academies.”

The 1960s was also a time when most of the think tanks and advocacy organizations that made up Washington D.C. leaned liberal—think school desegregation. But the ethos of the American South really began its systematic infiltration of Washington in 1970, when the IRS issued Revenue Rule 71-447, which revoked exempt status for private schools that discriminated on the basis of race. Major funding for conservative causes and organizations skyrocketed after this decision. In this new environment that was suddenly flush with interested conservative cash, Paul Weyrich in 1973 co-founded the Heritage Foundation, which devoted itself to free enterprise, limited government, and a strong national defense. While its backers were almost entirely large commercial interests, Weyrich had an idea that would distinguish his organization from the few other conservative organizations.

Even though, as I said earlier, liberal organizations far outnumbered conservative organizations at this time, the Heritage Foundation was not completely alone. By 1973, the American Enterprise Institute had been around for more than three decades and had fiercely, but with little to show for it, opposed FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s and 40s, Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s, and Nixon’s Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act of 1970.

Where Paul Weyrich and his the Heritage Foundation differed from other anti-government organizations was their targeting of the long politically dormant evangelical Christian community to form a voting bloc with whom they could shoehorn conservative social issues with their otherwise unpopular pro-big-business causes. At first these efforts were unsuccessful. Weyrich tried a whole host of issues—pornography was one—but nothing seemed to fire them up enough to consolidate a voting bloc.

That is until the Catholic, Paul Weyrich, met with the megachurch Baptist preacher, Jerry Falwell, and convinced Falwell to steer evangelicals to politics and specifically to the issue of abortion.

The idea was that if, instead of framing the issue as when does science tell us that life begins, the issue could be framed as godless liberal feminists just want to be able to kill babies so they can have more sex and we have to stop them, ordinary people could be manipulated to support any politician as long as they prayed to God and saluted the flag and were on the right side of the should-we-be-able-to-kill-babies question.

And it worked brilliantly.

Indeed, were there some group out there advocating to kill babies, I would agree that a political movement would need to consolidate against them. It would dramatically change my priorities. It would influence which sources I trusted. If the smart people in the we-shouldn’t-kill-babies group advocated tax cuts for the wealthy, I would support tax cuts for the wealthy. If they told me that climate change is a hoax, I would believe it was a hoax. If they delivered an alert to my television screen every time some non-white person committed a crime in a downtown setting, I would live far away in the suburbs and put my children in private schools. There are many reasons why fetuses should be deemed a human life sometime after conception, but because conservatives have been trained for so long to equate pro choice with anti life, our society is divided into two groups who increasingly cannot speak to each other. No matter how much science and data and decency might be found in some good idea, if it comes from the baby killing group, it would be inherently suspect.

What you’ve just read was the impetus behind the Moral Majority, the 1979 brainchild of Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, the key mobilizing force of evangelical Christians beginning in the 1980s, and almost everything you hate about politics in 2018. If you want to understand why 81% of white evangelical Christians cast their vote for the President of the United States of America on a guy who bragged about regularly sexually assaulting women, you need to understand that most of them believe they are the last humans on earth who care about human life. Donald Trump, however flawed, had promised them early and often that he would give them their long-sought fifth anti-Roe vote on the United States Supreme Court.

And he delivered.

Jesus?

Just because the modern pro-life movement owes its beginning to such cynicism does not per se make it wrong. I too cast my party-line votes each election cycle for candidates whose true motivations I will never know. I do this because they vote for policies that I believe further my values. My values are formed from many sources, but chief among them is my confession that Jesus is Lord.

So, what did Jesus think?

Can we know that?

Actually, we can—and with more certainty than you might think.

But first we need to untangle a few things, starting with the Bible. When modern Christians gird themselves in the armor of God and unsheathe their sword of the word, the scriptures they usually fling around are Psalm c139 v13, Jeremiah c1 v5, or Isaiah c44 v24. Each of these verses have in common the idea of Yahweh knowing humans so intimately that they are known even before they are born. To express this idea, each writer uses language that can be translated from the Hebrew as having been known “in the womb.”

Which is why I find it so interesting that 83% of Jews—who for thousands of years have shared these biblical sources along with Christian believers in Yahweh—believe that in all or most cases abortion should be legal. No doubt, that most modern Jews disagree on an issue with modern evangelicals doesn’t prove anything, but it certainly demands interest. Jews and modern evangelical Christians share so much scripture and yet disagree so profoundly on this issue. Considering that Christians go to the Old Testament for 100% of their proof texts against abortion, I think it intellectually dishonest not to wonder why Jews see the issue so differently.

For one thing, Jewish people have always had a very different relationship to the Bible than modern evangelical Christians. They view each part of the Bible with far more nuance. The Bible for them, rightly, is not an instruction manual for how to avoid burning in fire for eternity after you die. Its parts are not equals, are in conversation with each other, and sometimes disagree. Specifically, they don’t go to psalms for ethical and legal authority. The psalmists and the prophets are sought after for their poetry, their advocacy for justice, and their worship liturgy—but not as legal authorities.

On the legal question of when life begins, the Jewish rabbis do their work through the Torah, specifically the laws of compensation in the Old Testament book of Exodus. According to the Old Testament book of Exodus, one who deliberately kills someone is guilty of murder, so it would seem then that if a fetus was considered a life, a person who for some culpable reason killed a fetus would also be guilty of murder. But the Torah doesn’t do this.

Instead, the rabbis do their interpretative work through a scenario described in this same section of Exodus in which two men are in a fight and one of them strikes a nearby pregnant woman and the blow causes her to miscarry. What the rabbis note about that passage is that the offender is guilty of a capital offense if the mother dies, but if her only harm is the loss of the fetus, the case is treated as one of property damage. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, an ultra-Orthodox Jew wrote in his legal treatise, the Tzitz Eliezer, “It is clear that in Jewish law an Israelite is not liable to capital punishment for feticide. . . . An Israelite woman was permitted to undergo a therapeutic abortion, even though her life was not at stake. . . . This permissive ruling applies even when there is no direct threat to the life of the mother, but merely a need to save her from great pain, which falls within the rubric of ‘great need.’”

I find the Jewish commentary on abortion remarkable for two reasons. First, Jesus, from his birth to his ascension, was an observant rabbinic Jew, and so was every single person who wrote every single letter of your Bible. Second, this interpretation goes way back. Based on the writings we have in the Talmud (a collection of rabbinic interpretations of Torah that existed during Jesus’s time and even earlier) this was almost certainly the view of Jewish people when Jesus was alive.

These two points are remarkable to me because, if in fact Jesus disagreed with the Jewish authorities on the question on when life begins, the fact that the gospel writers included none of it would have been an incredible miss. Jesus was not afraid to disagree with the Pharisees and Sadducees on points of the law, and the gospel writers were not afraid to tell you about it.

*When I say that Jesus “probably” wasn’t pro-life**, I mean that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t pro-life. I simply cannot imagine that he believed life began at conception. It would defy everything I know.

**(as conservatives define the term)

Now, I want to be careful, lest this essay unleash a torrent of well-deserved backlash. First, while the Jewish authorities have never viewed fetuses as fully human and while they overwhelmingly support the public legalization of abortion, their views differ on what harm to the mother that must be substantiated before permitting an abortion. Virtually all hold that abortion is not just permitted but demanded when the mother’s life is at stake. They also virtually hold that abortion is never a capital offense. The rabbis differ on what harm is required to the mother for the act to be considered not sinful. For these reasons, I want to be very clear about my purposes behind this essay.

My purpose here is to cool the room down.

I want you to question what you have always thought absolutely certain.

I want to open you up to asking more questions.

I want to open you up to people whose opinions you never found worth hearing.

I want to kindle your interest in scientists and feminists and ancient Jewish rabbis and modern Jewish rabbis and the Jewish rabbi named Jesus.

I want to free you from being a single-issue voter.

I want you to understand that the modern movement against abortion is mostly a manufactured one.

Because right now I think most of you are just getting played with junk theology and junk science.

Despite the manufactured frenzy around “late-term” abortions, they are not legal and never have been. 92% of abortions take place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. Of the 1.2% of abortions that take place at or after 21 weeks, almost all of them are performed to protect the life of the mother. And as for the fetus feeling pain? Neurons in the spinal cord do not form until week 23, which is about the point when the third trimester begins and abortions are no longer legal. The nerve fibers that connect to pain receptors in the cerebral cortex don’t form until, at earliest, 26 weeks. And the brain does not activate until about week 30.

Finally, while we are apt to demonize women who have an abortion for “financial reasons,” we usually miss the fact that most women who terminate a pregnancy live below the federal poverty line. We are talking in large part about women who have virtually no way to raise a child.

I don’t blame conservative evangelicals for their unwavering single-issue voting stance. I don’t blame them for their aversion to people who differ in this way. I too was a conservative evangelical and for most of my life their views were my views. If this describes you, I believe you are wrong, but I also believe you mean well. I am not angry at you.

But I am angry.

Because we are systematically manipulated to scapegoat our most vulnerable women and force them to carry a yolk they cannot bear—in the name of the Lord.

Because an elected group of overwhelmingly white men will on one day vote to restrict abortion access and on the next day vote to cut benefits to poor single mothers—in the name of the Lord.

Because on one day they will vote to protect life and on the next day all but ensure that life will consist of bitter misery—in the name of the Lord.

Because they will show up to the National Prayer Breakfast and bow in prayer and quote some Bible and salute the flag and proclaim some imaginary nonsense about the Founders and run ads in your district with promises to protect this country from terrorists and from all others who have no value for human life and we all know that means women who make the choice to terminate a pregnancy.

Because this little pious routine guarantees them success every election cycle.

And once elected they are free to do whatever they want and without consequence.

And cloaked in the protection of the Almighty (and their wealthy donors), they do.

They go to work every day and protect the extravagantly wealthy from anything that might possibly require contributing more to the poor mothers who must now endure even more pressure than the pressure they already did not know how to endure.

I am angry, but it is not with you that I am angry.

I am angry at the greedy and cowardly people in power who in the name of God protect themselves and their positions at the expense of poor single mothers and everyone else.

I have no doubt it will continue long after I’ve published this insignificant essay from this insignificant blog. I’m not the first or the smartest person to share these ideas. But now you know where I stand and why.

When God Moons Us

The command of the Torah that Jesus claimed is most important begins with an important preamble, which I will talk about today.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

Deuteronomy c6

In this essay I will discuss the subversive and prophetic imagination found in the national story of the Jewish people—the liberation story of Moses. To that end, I will give special emphasis to the Hebrews’ most original and revolutionary gift to the world, monotheism. Modern people—being modern people—divorce this idea from its ancient context and in so doing miss most of its genius. Specifically, modern Christians use this verse to tell non-Christians they are going to burn in fire when they die because they don’t believe in the correct God, while modern secularists use this verse to characterize the Bible as arrogant and intolerant. Both of these ideas miss the mark. That a single God created all things is a progressive idea.

It is one of the most important ideas in the history of the world.

Before I begin, always remember the conventions and motivations of the Bible’s writers, which I belabor over and over on this blog. First, the history of Israel consists of successions of empires devastating and subjugating them, and, with few exceptions, everything in your Bible is a reaction to one of them. Second, and again with few exceptions, every Old Testament story is set during the empire previous to its writing, but is tailored to speak to life under the current empire. These stories were not inspired to tell the journalistic “history” of life under the previous empire, so much as to advance subversive arguments about the imperial systems of the writers’ day. These stories are a mixture of history and myth and take the form of see, this has happened to us before.

I say “myth,” but don’t take that to mean they are less than true.

It is out of that tradition that the Hebrew people offered the world the literary personification of their national hope—their prophet and liberator, Moses. Moses and the exodus story describe Hebrew life enslaved in the brick pits of Egypt in the heyday of its power. However, in the tradition I described above, the story and tradition of Moses was mostly born in the brick pits after the devastation wrought by the Assyrians and the Babylonians—the two earliest professional military superpowers of the ancient world.

In the exodus story, Moses grows up as a minister in the court of Pharaoh but later is forced to flee the country and live in the wilderness. Meanwhile, the Pharaoh decides to exploit the Hebrews as a source of cheap labor for his grand projects.

Let heavier work be laid upon the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words. So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh.”

In the society described in the exodus story, society’s lowest people were useful only to the extent that they could meet production quotas. But constructing a society built on such gross oppression and quelling the inevitable unrest usually requires help—specifically help from the gods. To that end, the empires of the ancient world were awash in gods. As Walter Brueggemann writes, these gods were “immovable lords of order.” They were the backbone of the oppressive systems of the world’s empires. More than any other thing, their role was to control people’s imaginations. The functioning of those societies was evidence of the rightness of the religious systems because kings did prosper and bricks did get made.

The systems of imperial religion are never disinterested.

Today, we might identify the god of America as the stock market or the GDP and our brick workers in the dehumanized immigrants who work our fields, our hospitality sector, and our fast-food restaurants.

The subversive message in the exodus story was that the creator of all things wasn’t interested in supporting the imperial system, but those who lived in its shadow. God wasn’t a comfort to pharaoh and his taskmasters, but to the laborers in the brick pits.

And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning.

And in response to the cries of the Hebrews, God called Moses.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. . . . And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Moses was the first prophet. When most evangelical readers hear the word “prophet,” the idea that generally comes to mind is something like fortune teller, but that is almost never what prophets did. The prophetic tradition is a tradition of offering up word pictures that originate from outside the power structures of the imperial gods. Walter Brueggemann describes prophecy as “words from elsewhere,” and I think that’s right. They were artists, poets, street performers, social critics, and irritants.

In these modes, the prophets worked to fan the flames of society’s collective imagination.

Prophetic criticism consists in nurturing society away from cry-hearers who are inept at listening and indifferent in response and to mobilizing society to its grief. For this reason, empires, which have no capacity or intention for listening to grief, are the constant target of prophetic concern. You find this in the Bible from start to finish.

Fear was and is the primary means by which empires stifle the imagination of those within its influence, and, to this end, the imperial gods were up to the task. First and foremost, the gods of the empire were local deities. They were not concerned with the well-being of anyone but their local worshipers, and they offered protection against whatever group was considered the “other.”

For example, the chief god of the Babylonian empire, who gave sanction to brutality towards the savage “other” was Marduk. In the Babylonian creation story, Marduk became the chief god after a clash with the god of chaos and ocean water, Tiamat. The clash began when Tiamat’s husband sought to kill all the other gods because they created too much noise (literally “babel”) and he couldn’t sleep. Out of Tiamat’s death came the creation of the earth (not coincidentally in the same order of creation as found in the Genesis creation story). It was the Babylonian’s task, according to this story, to subjugate the babel of the world to the domain of Babylon and its chief god, Marduk.

The creation story of Genesis was a prophetic critique of the Babylonian story. If nothing else, notice that when God finished creating all things, God rested. We draw all kinds of lessons out of God resting on the seventh day of the story, but the original message heard by the workers in the brick pits was clear and undeniable: God does not need empires to keep scary barbarians in check and, that being the case, there remains no more need for empires. Dominion over the creation should be exercised by humankind broadly, and our relationship to the creation should be more like that of a gardner rather than as a warrior.

This gets me to monotheism.

In the exodus story, when Moses took the Hebrews into the Sinai desert, he instructed them in the most foundation tenet in all of Judaism: The God of the slaves on the underside of the empire is the only God, is one, and cannot be captured with human images. What’s happening here? Is this just arrogance? Is this exclusivism? Is this hubris? Again, its easy for modern people who have become accustomed to these ideas to dismiss it this way. As if to say, how dare they think they have an exclusive claim to the divine? But that kind of criticism is mostly a reaction to a modern remaking of God into the image of Marduk. That kind of criticism loses seriousness in light of the fact that the idea of there being one God, one creator of all things, and one God to be worshipped was not an idea that came from the empire, so as to dominate all other people and ideas.

The idea of monotheism came out of the slave class.

And this should make perfect sense. A world in which all people and all things come from the same creator is a world in which all people are equal. This is a world in which the slaves are on the same plane as their taskmasters. A world like this created by an invisible God is a world in which no one can harness the power of God to exploit other people. A world in which all people and all things come from the same creator is incompatible with empire.

Do you see its genius now? The ethical precept that all people are created equal isn’t controversial anymore, but it was completely foreign to the ancient world. The dignity of all people was not the ethos of Babylon, Greece, or Rome. The idea that a senator from Rome and a slave from Carthage were equal was unthinkable. The fact that we at least give lip service to this idea is completely due to the courage and inspiration of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon.

Interestingly, as the story progresses, Moses and the Hebrews struggle with this revolutionary idea. Even the people who would benefit most from more egalitarian societies can be the most stubborn defenders of the status quo. This is the power of the imperial gods. In the exodus story, the newly freed Hebrews want to go back to an understanding of God as like the gods of Egypt because that’s all they have ever known. Their imaginations have been stifled for centuries. They want to go back to gods that have physical qualities. Gods that can be seen, felt, and understood. Gods with boundaries. Gods with limits.

In one part of the story, Moses is alone on Mount Sinai and he too is tempted in this way. Moses is on the mountain and asks that God show him his “glory.” When most modern listeners hear that word in the story, the connotation is something like brightness or shininess or grandeur. But the Hebrew word we translate “glory,” which is kavod, literally means “weight.” What’s happening here? Moses wants to know God’s dimensions, as if they go this far but not that far. As if they protect us but not them. Moses’s idea of God is one who would make the Hebrews into the next world superpower.

His question is akin to asking God, “just how big a boy are you?”

To this, God responds that Moses’s questions reveals a categorical misunderstanding. God cannot be seen. God cannot be measured. God isn’t like the gods of the empire. God isn’t a local deity who protects the welfare of one group to the exclusion of other. God is a universal creator who connects all things. Under this god, the welfare of one group was no longer disconnected to the welfare of everyone else. All are connected and all matter.

Then something funny happens. God tells Moses that he will cause himself and his goodness to pass by him, and once God had passed him by, Moses would see—as it is written in the Hebrew—God’s ahoray. Your Bible translates this word as God’s “back.”

What it literally means is “rear parts.”

(I know this is the Bible, but it’s okay to grin).

This is why I love the Bible. Not only were the Hebrew writers for centuries willing to push the limits of human imagination, but they had a sense of humor while doing it. The slaves in Babylon dared to imagine a literary tradition of liberation from the oppressive gods of Egypt, but when its main character wanted to retreat back to the imperial religion of Egypt, what did God do?

God mooned him.

The War Horse of Pilate; The Peace Donkey of Jesus Christ

The world’s most famous horse is Bucephalus of Alexander the Great.

Historians are split on whether Alexander the Great or Jesus Christ was history’s most consequential figure. What is not in dispute is that by the age of thirty, Alexander defeated King Darius III of Persia and subsequently amassed one of the largest empires in the history of the world. We know a lot about Alexander, but we also know a lot about his horse. Alexander’s supposed ancestor, Achilles, said that his horses were “known to excel all others—for they are immortal. Poseidon gave them to my father Peleus, who in his turn gave them to me.” Alexander understood the potential for his horse to grow his myth and legend, and so grow his empire. Horses are powerful animals. A cavalry of soldiers on war horses projects all kinds of symbolism: Freedom, power, might, sexiness.

Which is why when insecure nations want to project power, they begin by constructing a statue of some guy on a war horse.

In Rome, Italy is a statue of Marcus Aurelius on a war horse. In Lisbon, Portugal is a statue of King John I on a war horse. In China is a statue of Yue Fei on a war horse. In Medellín, Colombia is a statue of Simón Bolivar on a war horse. In Zacatecas, Mexico is a statue of Poncho Villa on a war horse. In Bremen, Germany is a statue of Otto Von Bismarck on a war horse. There are thousands of statues of guys on a war horse. It’s a universal symbol.

And this symbol works in America too.

Just south of the Washington National Cathedral is a statue of George Washington on a war horse. Three miles from there is a statue of Andrew Jackson on a war horse. In Gettysburg, PA are statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and others—each on a war horse. And just like John Wayne, you’ll find General Lee on a war horse in towns small and large and towns north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Which is why I find it so damning that at the exact same time that Alexander the Great was out conquering the world on his war horse, the Bible tells of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah, who—like all Hebrew prophets—was able to see past all the bullshit of war horses:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.
Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope;
even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
I will bend Judah as I bend my bow
and fill it with Ephraim.
I will rouse your sons, Zion,
against your sons, Greece,
and make you like a warrior’s sword.

Zechariah c9

Zechariah captured a thought that has held true since the beginning. War isn’t glorious. It doesn’t set the world right. It does not ever bring peace. War ruins people. And as I’ve said many times on this blog, Israel and Judah are history chief sufferers and judgers of war. While the rest of the world stood in awe at the mesmerizing power of spears and shields and swords and chariots and horses of the world’s empires, the Hebrew prophets saw them for what they really are.

They saw them as evil.

Satanic.

And the Torah saw them the same way.

The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself.

Deuteronomy c17

Zechariah then, like all of Israel’s and Judah’s prophets, and like the Torah was preparing God’s people to prepare the world for a time when the world would be rid of this. A time when, as Isaiah put it, “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they study war anymore.” Zechariah saw through the lie of Alexander the Great and his great empire. He saw through the lie of his war horse.

And he declared that a day was coming when God would raise up a king who would not be like Alexander the Great and King Darius and Nebuchadnezzar. This king wouldn’t exercise the splendor of conquest. He would be a lowly king. He wouldn’t stomp all over the earth on a scary war horse. He would gently come to power on a little peace donkey.

Fast forward, then, hundreds of years.

Persia and Greece were gone, and in their place was Rome. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus—who had grown up as a boy reading Zechariah—in his final week made the uphill journey from Jericho by the Dead Sea to the city of Yerushela’im. Jerusalem, which had seen more blood than anywhere else in the ancient world, ironically means “way of peace.” As Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was exactly one week before the Jewish festival of Passover. Normally, about 40,000 people lived in Jerusalem, but the city would swell to more than 200,000 during Passover. Understand, you put that many occupied people in one place, and the occupiers will take notice—especially consider what the occupied people were there to celebrate. Jews from all over the known world flooded into the City of the Way of Peace to celebrate Yahweh freeing them from bondage under the Egyptians.

The Romans weren’t stupid. They could read the story of the exodus and figure out that they were now the Egyptians. They had no problem understanding that Jerusalem’s idea of peace was a world without Rome.

So they flooded the city with troops.

Literally on the same day that King Jesus to the shouts of “Hoshana!” entered Jerusalem from Jericho in the East, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and his army entered Jerusalem from Caesarea Maritima in the West. Understand that when the gospel writers wrote the story of Jesus, they assumed you would know this and would quickly make this connection.

When Pilate entered Jerusalem, he was accompanied by six hundred war horses and tens of thousands of foot soldiers. It was an unmistakable display of intimidation. It was like saying, “Don’t even think about it.”

If there is anything that we as Americans need to learn today, it is what Jesus did when he came to Jerusalem to announce that he would be king over all the world’s kings.

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

Matthew c21

Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem on a donkey so that you can know how to go to Heaven when you die. Jesus rode on a donkey to free us from the seduction of violence and warhorses and empire. He died on the Roman cross to free us from our Hell-bent march that comes from believing the world will be made right when we kill all the bad people.

Of course, no one in the City of the Way of Peace listened to him, and that led to this lament over the city.

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day the way of peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Luke c19

And Jesus was exactly right.

On September 16, 2001, the United States declared war on terror. In that week or terror, I was among the majority of Americans whose heart was moved to go to war. I was inspired by Sean Hannity’s book, Deliver Us From Evil, a proclamation of a world free of terror because America would finally use its military muscle that politically correct liberals had for so long curtailed.

We’ve spent trillions on the war since then, and that raises all sorts of questions. Like . . .

Do you feel safe yet?

Have we . . . won?

And if we haven’t won yet, when will we win?

Do we expect to win soon?

If not, do we need an even bigger military?

Are we not killing enough people?

What will winning look like?

How will we know that we are safe?

I ask these questions because next year’s newest adults will have never have known  an America that wasn’t at war.

We are raising a whole generation to lack any of the prophetic imagination found in the Bible.

On Monday, we memorialize those who died while serving in our nation’s armed forces. As followers of Jesus, we embrace the peace donkey over the warhorse. You don’t hear much of this in America’s churches, but America’s churches for the most part have little interest in being followers of Jesus. I have faith in the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, who rode the peace donkey and preached the way of peace. I have faith like Peter, who met Cornelius the Roman centurion and preached to him and his household the gospel of peace. I have faith in exactly what the Bible says that Jesus came to teach: Peace. I have faith in the very first word that Jesus spoke after he was executed as an innocent man on the execution device of the empire: Peace.

Yet, as followers of Jesus, our shunning of war does not mean that we seek to dishonor those who have ever served in the military. Really, the way you can know that I honor our troops is that I don’t want to send them into war again! The Bible is against war from Genesis c1 to Revelation c22, but the sin of war isn’t on those whom the nation sends to fight in it. I’m friends with many people who serve in the military. Many in my family serve and have served. Our soldiers are the victims of war, not its victors, not its profiteers. They go to foreign countries as eighteen-year-olds. They lose their lives. They lose their bodies. They lose their peace. They come home from war, and for the rest of their lives their minds cause them to relive it. They experience Hell in the truest biblical sense. The sin of war is not on them.

The sin of war is on the nation that sends them.

I’m worried about President Trump and his national security advisor, John Bolton, who has made no secret his desire to go to war with Iran and North Korea. Bolton, you should know, was one of America’s champions for the war in Iraq. I’m worried that, as a result of pulling out of the agreement with Iran and the summit with North Korea, we will seek to secure their cooperation through shock and awe. But we tried this in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. We know by now what will happen. We won’t get peace. We’ll kill lots of foreign people, destroy lots of foreign buildings, and our young people will come home with PTSD so that more young people can go and kill lots of foreign people and destroy lots of foreign buildings. This is the judgment of the Lord. This is the Hell that the Bible describes.

So instead of appropriating our nation’s treasury on new war horses, lets spend it on the tens of thousands of homeless veterans we walk by on our streets each day. How about that for honoring those who have fallen on foreign soil? Instead of appropriating our nation’s treasury on new war horses, let’s build more schools and hospitals. On this Memorial Day, let’s honor our nation’s dead servicemen and servicewomen by learning from their pain rather than sending a new generation of young people into the same hopeless and un-Christian cycle of death. Let’s instead pray for the life that comes from the eternal. On this Memorial Day, I hope you will join me as I pray this ancient prayer from Saint Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 6

The Bible sets forth a table.

Those who sat at the table first insisted that it forbade Assyrians. They had a Bible, and in the book of Nahum they read that the Assyrians had provoked God’s wrath, and they read that God’s wrath never ceases. But then the book of Jonah said that, not only does God’s wrath cease, but God would do anything to make it cease. The book of Jonah grew the table, and the Assyrians had a place.

But those at the table also insisted that it forbade Moabites. They had a Bible, and in the book of Deuteronomy they read that the Moabites would never live among God’s people. But then the book of Ruth said that, not only could Moabites live among God’s people, but King David—the greatest king in Israel’s history—was the decendent of a Moabite woman. The book of Ruth grew the table, and the Moabites had a place.

But those at the table also insisted that, while it might possibly allow Assyrians and Moabites and Greeks and Romans, it forbade those Assyrians and Moabites and Greeks and Romans who did not become Jews. They had a Bible, and in the book of Deuteronomy, they read that those who keep Torah are blessed and those who abolish Torah are cursed. But then the book of Romans said that, not only would gentiles not have to follow Torah, but that it had always been this way from the beginning. The book of Romans grew the table, and we gentiles have a place.

This takes me to my first point.

The 8th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles introduced a man in a chariot who was traveling south through Gaza. The writer of Acts used this man—and numerous strategic details—to once again make a bigger table.

We are told that he was the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, but he had just spent the week in Jerusalem to worship God during Passover—that is to say, this man was a Torah-observant gentile. We are told that the long route from Ethiopia to Jerusalem is a wilderness route—that is to say, if this man was to have a seat at the table, he had to want it. We are also told that he was reading the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, but was having trouble understanding it—that is to say, he spent a whole week in the capital city of Judaism, and yet no one there would explain their great prophet Isaiah to him.

These details set up a final detail, one that at first seems intrusive, but is the key to the whole story. We are told that the man was a eunuch—that is to say, because he worked in close proximity to the Queen of Ethiopia, he had at some point been castrated. At first glance, you might wonder why that information is any of our business.

But the Bible once again was up to mischief.

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted among the people of the Lord.

Deuteronomy c23

Do you you see what’s coming? This man had traveled more than two thousand miles through the wilderness to have a seat at the Lord’s table. But those at the table insisted that it forbade those who were not gender conforming. They had a Bible, and in the book of Deuteronomy they read that eunuchs could not enter the kingdom. No one in Jerusalem would explain the prophet Isaiah because the Bible told them he was not welcome there in the first place.

But despite clear biblical authority on this matter, the man asked a daring question: What prevents me as a gender nonconformist from being baptized? And the Bible answered, nothing.

The book of Acts grew the table, and gender nonconformists have a place.

The Word of God

The Bible sets forth a strangely growing table.

Every time the Bible declares that there is no room for some people at the table, the table just grows.

It outgrows even the Bible sometimes.

This is an unruly table.

It doesn’t always listen to the Bible.

But it always listens to God.

Because growing the table is how the people of God solved the problem at the heart of their scriptures.

Growing the table is how they defeated the empire.

This table, you could say, is my religion.

Putting faith in God requires putting faith in God’s Word, but God’s Word isn’t the Bible. God’s Word is Jesus. The Bible isn’t always the perfect record of what God said; it is the perfect record of what God’s people could hear. The Bible is an anthology, a collection of writings as God’s people came to hear God more and more clearly.

Make no mistake, the biggest problem the Jews had with Jesus was the Bible. And they were usually right! That’s why John wrote his Gospel. John wanted you to know that the Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. . . .

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

John c1

Jesus is what God has to say, not the Bible. You don’t get to just find a Bible verse and announce, “The word of God!” That’s not how the Bible works. That’s not what it’s up to. It’s not in the business of setting you straight. It’s up to mischief.

The Bible is the inspired journey of those who sought to know God. Sometimes they heard him well. Sometimes they didn’t, even when they thought they did.

But eventually they found him.

Eventually they found the Word of God.

And his name is Jesus.

This is why I’m not impressed when my alma mater, Harding University, suspends LGBT people because of “biblical authority.” My question is which biblical authority? And my next question is and what about our authority to bind and to loose? What about our authority to grow the table beyond what can sometimes be found in the Bible? Isn’t that biblical authority too? And if we don’t exercise that authority, do we really believe in biblical authority?

I don’t worry that Paul couldn’t imagine that LGBT people would also have a seat at the table. I don’t worry about this not because I have a low view of the Bible, but because I have a high view of it. I place a high value on the enduring trajectory it sets forth—bigger, bigger, more, more! The Bible that sets forth Paul’s early interpretation on how to carry out Jesus’s commands is the same Bible that gives us the authority to thoughtfully disagree with Paul.

The fact that more people could be welcome to the table than Paul could imagine simply puts him in league with most everyone else who wrote the Bible. Paul did a massive amount of loosing. He did a massive amount of “But, Paul, you can’t write that because the Bible!” But nowhere does Jesus say that Paul would do all the loosing there was to do.

So, I say yes! Let’s follow biblical authority.

Let’s let in more people than the Bible does.

Because THAT is what the Bible does.

An Objection

Before we go on, you may object. You may want to say that Jesus’s teaching on the keys to the kingdom applied only to his first disciples—specifically those who were there with him in Caesarea Philippi. I disagree with that objection, but I’ll grant it’s an honest objection. Nevertheless, if that’s the objection you want to make, I have one question for you: Where was Paul at this time? I know he wasn’t in Caesarea Philippi.

And if Paul wasn’t one of the disciples in Caesarea Philippi, then, according to your argument, what authority does he have to bind and loose who will be in the kingdom? And if he wasn’t there, what other authority do we have to exclude LGBT people from our assembly? And if your answer is “the Torah said so,” then are you also keeping kosher? Are you observing the sacred calendar? Do you wear garments made from different kinds of threads? When is the last time you woke up and recited the Sh’mah?

You see the problem?

All said, I’m holding to what I’ve argued all along. The keys to the kingdom were not given to Jesus’s first disciples only for them to be buried in the ground. The authority that Jesus described—the authority of the church to bind and loose—had long been a thing that was passed down. There is no indication that Jesus intended anything different. Frankly, I think Jesus made that abundantly clear.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.

Matthew c18

We quote that last sentence all the time. I would like to think it still applies today. But if it does apply today, it cannot be divorced from what Jesus was actually talking about in context. Where two or three gather in Jesus’s name, they are given the authority to decide whether people will be admitted into the kingdom. That’s a crazy, insane amount of trust that Jesus has in humans. Do we believe it?

Why This Is Scary For You

I understand why you find me so threatening. It’s Hell, right? If I asked you what Jesus saved us from, you would say our sins. And that’s a good, historic, biblical, and orthodox answer.

But if I asked you what happens if your sins aren’t forgiven, you would probably say, you go to Hell.

Okay, and what is Hell?

Eternal separation from God in fire after you die.

And what is the kingdom?

Those who when they die go to Heaven and not Hell.

And how do we know how to avoid this eternity in fire?

The Bible.

Do you see why I spent so much time trying to unshackle you from that tight little system?

(Do you see why this took six installments?)

If the conversation I just simulated is the world you live in, I get how threatening it can feel when someone like me comes around saying that God loves and accepts LGBT people. Because in that Bible you use to know how to not go to Hell, Paul describes homosexuality as sinful. If you live in a Bible-as-the-thing-that-tells-me-how-I-can-personally-be-saved-when-I-die kind of Christianity, I can’t imagine you ever believing that God loves and accepts LGBT people. I really can’t.

But as I’ve labored to explain, the faith I just described is not the ancient faith.

That faith was not about using the Bible to know how I can personally be saved from my personal sins when I die. That faith was about how we can be saved from our systems of sin now. And the Kingdom isn’t the people who will go up to Heaven when they die. The Kingdom is the renewed Earth made to look like Heaven.

These are massive differences.

I believe they are altogether different religions.

But if my explanation on the church’s authority to interpret Jesus’s teaching is to not scare you so much, I had to remove from the modern “fire insurance” kind of Christianity. I had to rework the questions you bring to the Bible. We all need a more ancient understanding of what specifically about the Jewish law and prophets Jesus claimed he fulfilled. God is remaking how the world works. He’s remaking our social structures, our politics, our economics, our relationship to the earth, and our understanding of violence. This is the Kingdom.

Who’s In?

Using our authority to extend a place in God’s Kingdom to our LGBT neighbors should not be scary at all—it’s exciting. No doubt, the church has to make judgments about who and what will be in the Kingdom. Not everything belongs there. But to be clear, we really do have a lot of guidance on this. And from the Word.

Jesus made it crystal clear who would be blessed in this Kingdom. It wouldn’t be the power brokers of Rome. It wouldn’t be the rich. It wouldn’t be the violent. It wouldn’t be Tiberius Caesar. It wouldn’t be King Herod. It wouldn’t be the High Priest Caiaphas. No.

As Jesus said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are the meek.

Blessed are the pure in heart. 

Blessed are the merciful.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

And if Jesus were here today, I think he’d have more.

Blessed are those who can’t get a seat on the school bus.

Blessed are those who love anyway.

Blessed are those they say are unnatural.

Blessed are those who have been referred to conversion therapy.

Blessed are you when they say it must be a mental illness.

Blessed are those about whom they say “It’s a choice. God wouldn’t make them that way!”

Blessed are those who want in, but are kept out.

Blessed are the ones hit by waves.

And blessed are the ones who refuse to ride them.

I don’t know about you, but I know of a certain minority population who are uniquely equipped to teach us about the Kingdom. When I see LGBT people, I see all the people who Jesus said would be blessed there. When I see LGBT people, I see the babel who were rejected by the empire when the Hebrews wrote a new creation story. When I see LGBT people, I see all the groups that the Bible excluded from the table until it later grew the table. If we want to welcome the kinds of people whom Jesus welcomed, we should welcome the LGBT. We should give them a seat at the table, and we should let them do most of the talking. If we want to see the Kingdom come sooner than later, we should welcome the LGBT.

God loves them.

And he accepts them.

Amen.

God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 5

You’re a foreigner to the Bible.

Too often people go to the Bible unaware that time, distance, and culture—much more so than language—are the primary translational barriers between themselves and its writers.  They are the scrambling force between those in the white suburbs of America and those ancient middle easterners whose livelihoods were lost in the Babylonian exile or under Roman occupation. Certainly Jesus’s gospel is powerful enough to enter into any culture, but applying the gospel in new cultures requires the hard work of understanding how it affected its original one. Because we usually do this work poorly, or skip it altogether, we assume things the Bible does not assume and fly past assumptions the Bible so completely took for granted that it hardly felt the need to express. These foundational mistakes set us up to apply the Bible with all our might to concerns that its own writers never found concerning and to give authority to writers beyond what they would have even claimed themselves.

This is what we do with Paul.

If you’ve been in churches for any length of time, you’ve met this man. Few sermons quote Jesus without quoting Paul at least ten more times. Paul, after all, tells us how we can get our sins forgiven so we don’t burn in fire for eternity . . . right?

Yet despite the fact that his few words on the ethics of homosexuality represent the entirety of that which is found in the New Testament, I’ve hardly quoted him at all so far. I’m not avoiding Paul. He has actually been with us this entire time. However, before I could focus your attention on his specific words, I’ve had to take you to hear Paul in a more biblical place—a place where Paul’s words carry the weight of his actual background. Otherwise, we take our cue from Victor Frankenstein and bring to life a theology that is a reactive monster.

As I hope to show you, reading and hearing the real Paul requires disciplined work on two fronts:

  • The actual problems Paul sought to solve
  • The methods he used to solve them

I’ve spent the better part of four long installments to give you tools for that work. For our purposes, we will finish that work today.

So let’s begin with the Old Testament prophet, Nahum.

(Note: When someone writes “let’s begin with Nahum,” that’s how you know they’ve given up all hope of becoming famous).

The Bible began when the 8th century Assyrian King, Tiglath Pilaser, created the world’s first professional army. Again, when you to pair this fact to every other great start the Bible got under the suffering of the world’s great killing machines, you can’t miss a powerful pattern. In 740 BC, Tiglath Pilaser marched that professional army from his capital in Nineveh, around the Sea of Galilee, and south into the Northern Kingdom of Israel, where it laid siege to its capital, Samaria. The immense and prolonged suffering of those caught in the middle of it all set off a fire in the heart of one of the earliest writers of the Old Testament. Down deep in those wretched circumstances, Nahum could not help but hear a God who would destroy his enemies:

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The Lord takes vengeance on his foes
and vents his wrath against his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power;
the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.

The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

The Lord will restore the splendor of Jacob
like the splendor of Israel,
though destroyers have laid them waste
and have ruined their vines.

King of Assyria, your shepherds slumber;
your nobles lie down to rest.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with no one to gather them.
Nothing can heal you;
your wound is fatal.
All who hear the news about you
clap their hands at your fall,
for who has not felt
your endless cruelty?

In Part 2, I explained the problem of empire and how it was central to the Jewish vocation to restore the world in the image of God. In Part 3, I explained how the book of Deuteronomy was the Hebrew people’s earliest, though not singular, answer to that problem. In Deuteronomy, which was written strikingly in the same form as the treaties by which Assyrian Kings governed conquered subjects, God rewarded good and severely punished evil.

And lest you might wonder whether Deuteronomy’s Assyrian form was an accident, Nahum left little doubt. Nahum made clear that Deuteronomy was at least partially engineered as kind of weapon against Assyria. Literally the entire book was about how God would take vengeance on them. Regardless of what God may have been saying, Deuteronomy was all they could hear. They heard that God would pay back the people who had inflicted so much misery on them. They heard that the same God who was slow to anger nevertheless could reach an irrevocable point when he would release a terrifying blast of sizzling agony.

“Nothing can heal you,” emphasized the broken and bitter man, and his people said “amen.”

Joppa: Part 1

And this sentiment had staying power.

When Babylon in the 6th century BC sought to rule the world, it too performed the march around the Sea of Galilee, march south, siege maneuver, and forcing into exile and slavery of the Jewish people. And those caught in the middle of it went back to the wrathful imagination of Nahum.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm c137

Psalm 137 was an amen to Nahum.

But a new thing happened too. The passage of time caused other people in the Babylonian captivity to see problems with Nahum. You can see in the text I quoted earlier Nahum’s promise that God would restore the northern kingdom: “The Lord will restore the splendor of Jacob like the splendor of Israel.” The problem was it never happened. In fact, it still hasn’t happened.

And this made Judah fertile for new ideas about God.

About who God is.

What God is like.

What God is up to.

And out of Judah came to life a new idea.

A new idea that found expression in my favorite book of the Bible, a book I must have read hundreds of times.

Jonah is a short book, but it is one of the ancient world’s great displays of literary brilliance. It’s progressive, it’s hilarious, and it’s bold. Whoever wrote Jonah had an agenda. From start to finish, Jonah comedically and satirically personified the wrathful ideas in Nahum. Also, he was a complete diva.

Those who first heard the story of Jonah were experiencing the human degradation of the Babylonian captivity, but the story took place during the previous captivity under Assyria. The story began quickly. God told Jonah to go preach to the people of Nineveh so that they would repent of their violence, but Jonah fled from the Lord.

Jonah didn’t flee because he was afraid of Nineveh.

He fled because he was angry at Nineveh.

And he had a plan.

Jonah had read Deuteronomy and Nahum. He had been obedient to Torah all his life. But he didn’t do these things because he had developed a tender heart. He did this because his pleasure centers were fixated on God’s white-hot wrath being poured out on his enemies. Again, for Jonah Deuteronomy was a weapon. It was an instrument of wrath prepared for those whose lives were happy and prosperous at the bitter and painful expense of him and his people. Jonah could not conceive of a future world made in the image of God that included gentiles—especially those like the violent Assyrians. His religious categories included one happy slot for Jews and one retributive slot for all others.

And so when it appeared that God might want to save those people after all, every warning blinker on his Nahum dashboard went off. What God called him to do was unconscionable. It could not happen. And so he reasoned that if, instead of going to Nineveh he just went somewhere else, the Assyrians would have no chance of repenting and God would then be forced to inflict the wrath that he had slobbered for all his life. So Jonah went to the coastal city of Joppa and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Tarshish was literally the farthest city in the known world from Nineveh. The author’s choice of Tarshish not only solidified Jonah’s status as a diva, but also set up a sharp argument.

If God’s heart was for the people (and animals) of Nineveh, Nahum was far from God.

Because no matter how hard Jonah tried to force God to activate Nahum, God just wouldn’t let it happen. That’s the great scandal of the story. Instead of God preparing wrath, God prepared a great fish. You know the story. Jonah was swallowed, vomited back to the shore, and forced to grudgingly go to Nineveh.

Even when he got there, Jonah was still working to try and prevent them from escaping the wrath of Deuteronomy. So instead of preaching a passionate sermon calculated to win their hearts and minds, he preached easily the worst sermon in the entire Bible.

“Forty days and Nineveh will be otherthrown,” was the whole thing.

Yet the English reader usually misses and important word in the Hebrew. Jonah accidentally unleashed a pun on himself. In Hebrew the word for “will be overthrown” is the same word for “will repent.” And that’s what happened.

To Jonah’s horror, right there in front of him the most powerful city in the known world—all the way from its king to literally its cows—instantly and without hesitation cried out to the Lord, declared a fast, and fell prostrate in sackcloth and ashes. Jonah preached the worst sermon in the entire Bible and it produced the most successful display of repentance in the entire Bible. No prophet in all of history was more successful than the man portrayed in this Jewish comedy.

And he came furious.

After Jonah saw the whole city of Nineveh instantly repudiate its violence, and thus would be spared the fire of Heaven’s hottest furnace, the rest of the story shows Jonah having a meltdown on a hill outside the city.

Jonah was a comedy, but it introduced a serious and sophisticated argument about the Jewish vocation: Even the worst gentiles in the empire could change and enter the kingdom of God—even the Assyrians, and by extension the Babylonians.

It’s an idea I’m fond of, considering I’m a rather wealthy resident of Nineveh.

Joppa: Part 2

This is the rich literary tradition behind what happened next. We’re getting warm.

Hundreds of years later, Joppa was again the scene of a Jewish move. It had been a decade since Jesus had died when the apostle Peter, one of his twelve disciples, was in meditation on a rooftop in Joppa. Before we go on, the fact that Peter’s actual name was Simon bar Jonah should focus your mind on this move. In other words, Simon bar Jonah was in the same coastal city where Jonah had fled from the Lord because he could not imagine that gentiles, let alone those of the empire, could ever enter the awaited kingdom of God. Any first-century Jewish hearing this story would be alerted that another big move was about to happen.

And on that rooftop, God told Peter to do something that Peter could not imagine possible.

God told Simon bar Jonah to eat food that the Bible instructed Jews not to eat.

And then God told him to enter the household of a leader of the empire that had crushed his nation.

And God told him to preach to him so that he would be saved from his empire and instead join the kingdom of God.

And just like Jonah, Simon bar Jonah said “no.”

Actually twice.

Peter heard the word of the Lord, but just like Jonah, he couldn’t follow that word because of the Bible.

Please tell me you’re seeing the connections.

If there is a trajectory to the Bible, it is that more categories of people will be in the kingdom than previously thought, even when those categorical exclusions find their support in the Bible. Every time God’s people resist new categories of people entering the kingdom, God prepares a great fish. Or a storm. Or a plant. Or a scorching wind. Or a worm.

For Peter, God prepared a sheet full of unkosher animals.

Peter had grown up with Jonah. His Judaism was more advanced than Nahum. He understood from his scriptures and from his years as a disciple of Yeshua that gentiles would enter God’s kingdom of peace. He knew each of these things even before Jesus called him to be his disciple. All of this was clearly in his Bible.

He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

Isaiah c49

But while Peter knew that we gentiles would enter the kingdom, in a thousand years he would not have imagined that people would enter the kingdom as gentiles. Like Jonah, God’s command set off all his warning blinkers.

However, unlike Jonah, Peter never boarded a ship and head for Spain. He didn’t jump into the ocean to die. He didn’t call out to God to let him die in a scorching wind. Peter was a contemplative. On that day a brand new space opened up in his brain. For the first time in his life, he figured out that people who did not follow Jewish law could be properly formed to reject empire and accept the kingdom of God. So he went to the house of a commander in the military of his oppressor and taught him the “gospel of peace,” a different gospel than Pax Romana.

And for preaching against Pax Romana, Rome would eventually crucify him.

Peter was passionate, but he wasn’t a theologian, let alone very literate. Peter was a fisherman, a laborer. When he was called to explain his actions, he didn’t have much to offer other than I saw this sheet of animals and God told me to eat it. That would be enough for some, but if you’ve been in the church long enough you know that some people are theological doubting Thomases. No matter how much beauty can be found in an idea, they won’t believe it unless you can show them where it says that in the Bible.

To speak to those people, God chose a man on his way to Damascus.

Saul of Tarsus

The Bible’s word for spirit, wind, and breath are the same word.

When the reader is introduced to Saul of Tarsus, he and the Jewish Sanhedrin are in a dispute with a man named Stephen over the importance to the kingdom of the Temple in Jerusalem. Don’t be a modern reader and minimize the stakes here.

The Jews lived under the occupation of Rome. They lived under Syrian occupation before Roman occupation. They lived under Greek occupation before Syrian occupation. They lived under Persian occupation before Greek occupation. They lived as slaves in Babylon before the Persian occupation. They lived as slaves in Assyria before they lived as slaves in Babylonian. They tasted their history in the bitter herbs they ate every year during Passover.

But located in Jerusalem was their hope of overcoming it all. In Jerusalem was their temple. The home of Yahweh. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who created all the heavens and the earth. Who rescued the Israelites from Egypt. Who promised Abram that he would be made into a great nation and that every nation on earth would be blessed through his nation. This was what their sacred scriptures told them.

Let your heart be softened to the desperation in the hearts of those who threw their stones at Stephen and the other disciples of that rabbi named Yeshua. To downplay the temple order was to threaten to leave the Jews in a permanent state of bitter misery. Today we have exchanged the Jews’s faith in their temple for our faith in fleets of bombers. And we throw stones at those who call them into question.

But an important contrast happened in the story. When the Sanhedrin killed Stephen by stoning, we are told that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and shouted, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” These were beautiful words in their own right, but they also literarily strategic. Because immediately after Stephen died, the author tells us that Saul was breathing out “murderous threats” against those like Stephen.

Remember: spirit, wind, breath—same thing.

In Paul was the spirit of accusation (literally in Hebrew, the spirit of “the Satan”). On the other hand, in Stephen was the spirit of advocacy (the Holy Spirit). Stephen and Saul are the Bible’s clearest expressions of the work of Satan and the work of the Spirit. The spirit of the Satan is in the one who accuses. The spirit of God is in the one who advocates, even for those who first harmed them.

Yet it is singularly because of Saul of Tarsus and his message—specifically that our faith that Jesus conquered the Roman cross without fighting is sufficient to usher in and inherit the kingdom age—that those of us in the party of Stephen owe our welcome in the kingdom of God.

Paul’s letters are complicated. When you read them, don’t lose sight of the thesis at the heart of his whole project. Paul’s heart and soul were dedicated to showing from the Bible how it was always God’s plan that non-Jews as non-Jews would enter God’s non violent kingdom.

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Ephesians c2

In support of that overarching thesis, Paul’s letters essential made three arguments: (1) the law and the prophets were all along about Jesus,

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Romans c10

(2) God through Jesus forgave the sins of everyone and not just Jews,

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans c3

and (3) non-Jews could enter the kingdom as non-Jews.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Understand, then, that all those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Galatians c3

But the Bible is sometimes less than cooperative with this idea that gentiles would not have to follow Torah.

For example, long before Jesus came the Torah already had a mechanism for the forgiveness of sins. This was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Paul’s Jewish detractors rightly countered that if the gentiles wanted their sins forgiven, they could just become Jews and follow Torah. This was effectively Peter’s position before his vision in Joppa.

Understand that, contrary to what most modern Christians understand, the Jews were not waiting on God to send his messiah so that their sins could be forgiven.

In fact, when Paul was on his way to Damascus with arrest warrants, it was also because of the Bible. The Law of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy had long since instructed the Jews that “cursed is everyone who is hanged upon a tree.” Yet Stephen and his cohorts were exchanging the glory of the temple for some rabbi whose death came by being hung on a tree. Do you see the scandal?

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Corinthians c1

That’s the power of what happened when Ananias called Paul a brother. The scales from Paul’s eyes fell and he began to see the complete story that God was trying to tell Nahum and the writers of the Torah. Paul was no longer saw Deuteronomy through the spirit of accusation, but the spirit of advocacy. Yes, cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree, but God was not out to hang sinners on trees. He was out to save sinners by himself hanging upon a tree. Jesus took that curse, the sins of the violent world of empire and accusation, and conquered them in his resurrection.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians c3

This, then, fed into Paul’s argument that the prophets and the Torah were and always had been a forerunner for Jesus. Understood this way, Torah, if perfectly followed, was one way to be properly formed to enter the kingdom to which Isaiah had called the people, but a person’s faith in the counterintuitive work of Jesus was also sufficient. And more beautiful.

Today, we usually talk about faith versus works in the context of where will we spend eternity when we die? It completely misses Paul, who was proclaiming a new way to a world without war.

That was the direction of Paul’s work.

But to really understand the mind of Paul, we have to understand his method. If you recall from Part 4, the Pharisees were breathtakingly creative with the text of the Bible. They had little qualms with straying at times from its original intent.

Hillel was the most important Pharisee in the history of Judaism. He was notably more liberal than his adversary, Shammai. Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel, was the president of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Saul of Tarsus was a disciple of Gamaliel. This was Paul’s upbringing. Not only could he perfectly recite the Torah and the Prophets, but he knew how to stretch their ideas beyond what you and I would ever feel comfortable. Certainly beyond what you and I would think biblical.

This post is already getting long, so I’ll provide just a few examples among many.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote “our ancestors all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.” By now you should recognize the gist of message. It’s what he frequently argued, that Jesus was with the Israelites long before there was a Torah. But to understand the significance of arguing his point that way, I need to make a modern analogy.

If you were to ask the typical Christian how many magi came to present gifts to baby Jesus, you would almost uniformly get the answer three. The text doesn’t say that, but we’ve adopted that assumption because of the number of gifts was three. We adopt all kinds of assumptions about the Bible’s stories that both aren’t in the text and are probably questionable. In a similar way, the Jews had developed a similar extra-biblical assumption about the story of Moses in the Sinai wilderness. There’s no water in the Sinai desert, so when story says that the Israelites came to a place called Rephedim, they complained that they had no water in the desert, and Moses miraculously got water from a rock. In another book, the wondering in the Sinai desert had progressed by forty years. At this point, the Israelites came to a place called Kadesh, they complained that they had no water, and, again, Moses got water from a rock.

The Pharisees, however, who were familiar with the barrenness of the Sinai desert, caught on to a logistical problem in the story. Forty years had elapsed between the giving of water in Rephedim and the giving of water in Kadesh, but the text never explained where the Israelites got water the rest of the time. So when they debated the question, the conclusion they reached was that the rock in Rephedim and the rock in Kadesh were the same rock.

And that the rock had followed them the whole time (hahahaha).

So the well, which was with Israel in the wilderness, was a rock of the size of a large vessel, and was oozing out and rising as from the mouth of this flask, traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys. Wherever Israel encamped, it encamped opposite them before the door of the Tabernacle.

Tosephta Sukkah

I hardly needs to be said that the traveling rock is not in the Bible.

And for good reason. It makes no sense. Why would the Israelites panic in Kadesh about getting water if for forty years a watering rock had been following them the whole time? Right? You see the problem?

But for Paul, everything in the Bible was now about Jesus. Even things that he assumed were in the Bible’s stories, but actually weren’t. To Paul, this watering, traveling rock was Jesus and because it was Jesus, that was just more evidence that God’s plan from the beginning was for the gentiles to enter the kingdom. See it?

(If you don’t, well, haha neither do I).

It would be like supporting the doctrine of the trinity by saying that there were three magi and therefore the Bible has a preference for patterns of three.

This is what I mean when I say that Paul was “creative.”

If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.

II Corinthians c5

Why, thank you, Paul.

And there’s pleeeeeeeenty more. The book of Romans is Paul’s greatest theological discourse on the admission of gentiles into the kingdom. In chapter 9, Paul quoted from Hosea to continue the same argument.

What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea:

“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and,

“In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’”

Romans c9

Sounds good, right?

Well, I’ve read Hosea.

And, haha, Hosea was not saying what Paul is saying. Hosea was writing about God rescuing disobedient Jews. I know this not because I’ve been given special powers, but because Hosea plainly said so.

Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them—not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the Lord their God, will save them.

The Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” they will be called “children of the living God.”

Hosea c1

This is a great example of the lengths to which Paul was willing to stretch the meaning of a text in order to get more people into the kingdom.

The story of Saul of Tarsus is the story of a man who learned not to let the Bible get in the way humankind’s evolving understanding of God. He was a Pharisee, and he argued like one. As long as he could see the beauty in an idea, he would not let the the original intent of a text to become an obstacle to that beauty. And the idea of all people being welcome to the table of the Lord is a beautiful idea. It’s no longer a controversial idea.

Saul of Tarsus was an ancient man who used controversial means to argue points that are no longer controversial.

Keys

The point is that Jesus gave his disciples the keys to the kingdom (see Part 4). He gave them the authority to bind and loose, authority that had previously been the exclusive domain of the rabbis. He gave them the authority to interpret how to live out his teachings and thus decide who would be in the kingdom. Where any two people gather in Jesus’s name, such as the council in Jerusalem in Acts c15, Jesus declared that this exercise of authority would be recognized in Heaven. This is stated multiple times.

The Apostle Paul was one of the first to interpret what it meant to live in the kingdom that Jesus had described. In allowing gentiles to enter the kingdom without adopting Jewish customs, Paul was one of the first to exercise the keys to kingdom.

As I hope you have seen, Paul did a lot of loosing. He certainly did much more loosing than binding. He went “out of his mind” to allow non kosher gentiles into the world that was being renewed into the image of God. The epistles of Paul are the difference in literally more than 99% of the world’s population having a seat at the Lord’s table. They are the only reason I have any part of the kingdom project to make the world of Isaiah c2. That’s some mighty loosing!

But as much as Paul’s upbringing gave him the tools to creatively push boundaries, Paul’s upbringing caused him to bind some things too.

Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

I Corinthians c6

While Paul’s imagination of who would be in the kingdom of God would be broader than his contemporaries, we should not be surprised at its limitations.

First of all, understand Paul’s Jewish upbringing. Paul would have memorized Leviticus before he reached puberty. And Leviticus prohibited a man from having “sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman,” calling it an “abomination.”

(btw the same chapter of Leviticus said the same thing about men having sex with their wife while she was on her period).

Second, understand Paul’s upbringing in the Mediterranean city of Tarsus. Tarsus was a thoroughly Greco-Roman city, and the brutal realities of that world probably influenced him even more than his Judaism. Among the prostitutes on the streets by whom young Saul would have passed each day on the way to synagogue would also have been young slave boys who were used by their masters for anal sex.

A common misconception of the ancient Greco-Roman world is that it was full of and open to homoeroticism. This misconception comes mostly from a few lines from Plato, who was gay. And just as Greece was nowhere near as democratic as most imagine, it was nowhere near the affirming place that most modern people imagine. What was common was slaveowners sexually abusing their young slaves. The Greek literature we have on this subject consists almost entirely of exercises of power and domination, not respect, consent, and openness. One would lose all social standing by having “passive” gay sex (that is, being on the receiving end).

The ancient literature is full of derogatory names and insults for such people. No such derogatory words existed, however, for the man on top. Penetration in the ancient world signaled virtue. In fact, we get our word virtue from the Latin word virtus, which literally means “manliness.” Sexual brutality was not only common, but expected. Even flaunted.

I hope this helps you understand why it was only natural and even compassionate for Paul to outright declare that this kind of thing would not be in the kingdom. On the specific point of penetration being used to dominate people, I wholeheartedly agree.

This was the lens through which Paul thought about homosexuality. His experience with the dehumanizing aspects of men penetrating other men was front and center in his limited understanding of the kingdom. While we shouldn’t blame him, we need to be careful as we decide how to apply his knowledge to the twenty-first century. Paul’s intentions were noble, but modern-day homosexual relationships don’t look like the cruel power displays that Paul witnessed in Tarsus. Today’s gay teenagers aren’t out to exercise male dominion. They want companionship.

If Paul were to sit down today, I have not doubt he would steadfastly maintain complete opposition to homosexual relationships. I’ll concede that point. But you are finally ready for what I have to argue about that. For all the many words I have written, this is where I’m going with them:

When Jesus gave his disciples the keys to the kingdom, he gave his church the authority to disagree with Paul.

Part 6