Wed, 20 Jan 2021

realises the reconciliation needed runs deeper than a 15-min slot.

"Take the text out of context and you are left with a con," or "A text without a context is a pretext": those are good rules to remember when having a discussion on religion and gay people.

I was reminded of this when I heard the backstory behind the eNCA panel discussion I participated in about the LGBTI community and Christian theology: the Christian neighbour of a spiritually grounded, but not necessarily religious gay man, found out that he'd been visisted by a Christian who'd come over with the intention of proselytising him. As well as reminding him that homosexuality was a sin for which he'd need divine forgiveness.

Christians who believe homosexuality is a sin generally struggle to explain how a God of perfect love says, "Come as you are", in the same breath that he says, "That thing that's an integral part of your sense of self is sinful, but I forgive you even if you can't change or stop it", without being toxic.

The gospel I subscribe to - and I'll problematise it very soon, don't worry - is a gospel in which a God of actual perfect love says:

"Let go of the imaginary obligation to be something other than perfectly loved."

It's an invitation to stop doing that human thing we do, where we keep ourselves apart from the love that had always been available to us.

In Christian theology, this surrender is demonstrated by Jesus through death and it's vindicated in his resurrection. This event is psychologically imitated by believers when they cease trusting in their performance (against societal standards of goodness that require that they be something other than perfectly loved by God) and start trusting in the journey taken by the Christ.

When Jesus says, "I am the Way", I understand him to mean that he is the living, dying and living embodiment of surrender, such that his mission is designed to make it impossible for human beings to believe in him crucified and hold to their self-righteousness at the same time.

The problem is that, instead of being God's invitation to be joined with him by faith, it's presented as a lie that goes, "Believe this, or be separated from God forever".

It's impossible to be separated from God; the Psalmist understood that, "If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there", such that "even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you".

Of course, numerous people (including Jesus) have experienced the darkness of separation from God. This was real, but it wasn't true.

You can feel like you're standing on solid ground or that the sun rises and sets, but as real as those perspectives feel, they aren't true because the earth is spinning around the sun. God's holiness is that attribute by which God is total light in impenetrable darkness or absolute goodness in the midst of hell, and human faith is that attribute by which we attune ourselves to that reality until it overcomes that which is manifested of fear.

Eschatology

I've seen a pattern in the Bible where God was experienced through the filter of geopolitical events described in eschatological language.

Eschatology is a branch of study concerned with the ultimate or furthermost conceivable destiny of things like people and nations.

From the moment the people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt, God instituted rituals, festivals, prophetic patterns and laws describing (in excrutiatingly fine detail) the laws of cause and effect governing those destinies. Being the revealer of this knowledge, God also speaks as its primary mediator:

"If you do not obey what I have told you, I will bring you -

Yet the same God elsewhere claims to be the sponsor of world peace, instead of any conflict and war fought for any reason: why, then, would he use war crimes to teach his "disobedient" children a lesson?

Jesus told his disciples that, if they wanted the honour of being recognised as God's children, they had to love their enemies in imitation of the One who sends rain and sunshine to those considered just and those considered wicked. But who fits in which of those categories?

"There is none righteous," the scriptures say.

By what criteria does a God who sends rain to the just and the wicked (who are supposedly the only real group) decide to use the absence of rain or the abundance of floodwaters as punishment?

The answer is that he doesn't: we do.

Let me explain. If you annoyed God in the Old Testament, he would drown/incinerate/bury or otherwise inconvenience you; in the New Testament vision believed to be about the end of the world, however, there's a pattern where God is seen holding a scroll, which he gives to the Lamb (Jesus), who breaks its seals, which causes an angelic being to announce an event, which is then followed by the event.

The chain of cause-and-effect is elongated because the audience has been exposed to the cosmopolitan influence of the Greco-Roman Empire and, enjoying slightly more equality with its oppressors than previous generations with their enslavers, has more political material with which to imagine what's happening "behind the scenes".

Reflection

They're now ready for a God who sponsors the rules governing history (the scroll in God's hands is like the Torah), but that God doesn't pull the puppet strings. After all, if Pinocchio couldn't lie without his nose immediately giving him away, was there value in his telling the truth? Could he really love?

God is love; therefore, God's universe(s) will reflect his nature by reflecting the free wills of the personal beings populating them.

Cause and effect have always existed as scientific laws and geopolitical patterns that the ancient world didn't have the tools to understand to the extent that we have today.

When you read the bad things God supposedly does to his creations, from Genesis to Revelation, it looks a lot like current news headlines about what we're doing to one another and ourselves - or the random shit that just happens to compound the effects of what we've been doing.

The reason those events would be described in the biblical language of punishments and reward is that the less scientific language you have at your disposal, the less capable you are of thinking in abstractions about causality. You tend to think in terms of someone doing something more than you think about dominoes falling from an action ten steps prior.

This is why (as pointed out by Professor Greg Boyd) ancient Near-East monarchs described the actions taken by servants as their own actions, even if they didn't agree with them, simply because they owned the political architecture that made those actions possible. This is all to say, it's logical for a God of perfect love to do three things that are very closely related to one another:

1. Create a world where people can make choices that are antithetical to love (because love is about choice);

2. Accommodate his language about the most likely outcomes of those choices to the expansiveness of the lexicon afforded by the scientific progress that's developed originally from the totality of the choices in 1; and

3. Occasionally juxtapose descriptions of what the results of those choices look like in the immediate future with what they would look like if all humanity repeated those choices into eternity (often from enslavement to the mental state that produced those choices): this is why the biblical description for kingdoms like Edom has the same verbal cadence as the eschatalogical description of hell.

The point of such passages isn't that there's an eternal hell (maybe there is, I don't know), but that the political consequences of deceitful leadership can feel like a God-forsaken hell: This judgement on Edom will never end; the smoke of its burning will rise forever. The land will lie deserted from generation to generation. No one will live there anymore.

And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. Day and night, there will be no rest for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name. Throughout history, it's been the case that those who trusted wolves in sheep's clothing, or politicians who are beasts with "two horns like a lamb" whose pretense is betrayed by their tendency to speak "like a dragon", ended up relegating themselves and numerous future generations to enslavement. And enslavement was indicated by a mark or a brand.

But is this a torment from which smoke ascends forever?

The smoke of Edom's conquest rose forever, in the sense that the place never recovered, but if applied to the passage that's thought to be about hell, it's more suggestive of the permanency of the consequences of the enslavement on future generations than it is of eternal conscious in torment in the hereafter.

Jerusalem siege

Biblical figures tended to speak of the Jerusalem siege they knew was imminent as though it were the end of the world or an age in accordance with the modeling of its and its temple's architecture after the universe (as they envisaged it).

This eNCA TV discussion on religion and homosexuality was one of many opportunities for sharing the reminder that the religious texts weaponised against gay people were written in a context drastically different from today's. God may not change, but times do and time-bound creatures know God through the same filter that they know their world.

So the texts may be valuable and divinely inspired, but they aren't any more a direct look into God's mind any more than God being said to unleash a plague is a look into how God manages cause-and-effect.

READ | Siya Khumalo: Which interpretation of the Bible allows Gerry Elsdon to be a female pastor and homophobic

So the reminder of the contextuality of passages thought to be about homosexuality is incomplete unless the assumed foundation of Christian theology is also called into question by having the implications applied across the text.

The "wrath of God" has always been a political consequence and hell has always been the garbage heap in the valley south of Jerusalem. This isn't to say those things are only those things - realities exceed symbols - but that a religious establishment that's more fixated on policing the sex lives of individuals, than it is on unmasking the creators of the hells in the ghettos, slums and warzones around us, is like the religious establishment that sought to shore up its moral credentials by bringing the woman caught in adultery to Jesus without dealing with its own sins first. After the neighbour of the gay man heard he'd been visited by a Christian, she set in motion wheels that made possible the brief but impactful debate on thoelogy and sexual diversity on eNCA.

While it's important to have those discussions, that topic will be just another in the list of "sins" that Christians will find as they try to maintain the Christian privilege whereby they've controlled society.

They rightly fear that ,if sexual diversity is normalised, there'll be nothing left for God to forgive. To defend their position, they'll either dig their heels in or find other "sins" to pick on, but those "sins" will be present in a convenient minority that's "over there". But at base, we'd have shifted from religious homophobia to another instance of a decontextualised and ahistorical reading of the Bible, producing a flawed picture of both God and people.

A sermon that says, "Convert, or else", without rooting the "or else" in the scientific and political context known to the listener is a scare-job that, at its most successful, creates a slave and at its least successful alerts the listener that, far from being God's messenger, you're a wolf in sheep's clothing - especially if you don't realise whose agenda your worldview serves, or that worldviews shape our actions to ensure power accrues to some at others' expense.

It's by disrupting this accrual that the message of the crucified Christ has salvific relevance in the listener's world, such that "faith" ceases to be an arbitrary separation between "the saved" and "the unsaved", and becomes a tool for solidarity first and reconciliation after.

Remember, Christianity was a feminist movement in its time.

The evening before they left slavery in Egypt, the Jewish people were told to sacrifice a lamb per household and place its blood on their doorposts; on the eve of Jerusalem's siege by the Roman Empire, Jesus, "the lamb", died a death that would characterise the lives of those who'd be held hostage.

He even warned his disciples about which escape routes to take if they were in a position to escape.

Our understanding of the cross has to be tethered, then, as it was for its original audience, in that day's news between the 08:15 sports slot and the 08:40 weather report.

An analysis of who is being crucified figures out over whose dead bodies happens the maintenance or disruption of the status quo.

Perpetuate violence

A sermon that doesn't address the violence experienced or perpetrated by its audience can only serve to perpetuate that violence: its preacher is then in greater need of conversion than its audience is.

That eNCA featured this discussion between its news segments affirms a faith that says the Bible's stories (including the "good news") were the historical pattern of the tapestry of God's love weaving from the big, sexy political events to discussions and moments of solidarity that resulted, like dominoes falling, to people visiting other people's homes to spread fear sugarcoated in love in opposition to Jesus who visited pharisees and Marys and Marthas to spread hope.

Reflecting on these patterns is, as is every moment of the work I believe to have been called to do, a sacramental tribute to love's commitment to influencing the world one heart at a time.

Source: News24

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