Pete Buttigieg and the Church’s Need for Repentance

I found a good article on Pete Buttigieg‘s run for the Presidency that has come up on Patheos:


I agree with the author’s general assessment, that Buttigieg’s run will be interesting. It highlights an interesting intersection of non-binary sexuality and progressivism, both political and religious. How contentious the Religious Right makes it, remains to be seen. Some of the more conservative commentators there have suggested that the Gay rights movement has reached a sort of critical mass, and is pushed on us everywhere. That being Gay will be secondary to what Buttigieg’s political agenda is. I would like to think so, that the conservative church is tired of attacking Gays for being Gay, but I have my doubts.

I agree, especially in light of the Religious Right’s adoption of a grossly immoral man as their choice to lead our country, that Buttigieg’s sexual orientation should be of little concern to them, or anyone for that matter, and they should give the same “pass” to Buttigieg that they have afforded the Adulterer in Chief, but I am not taking bets on it.

Western Christianity is changing, and that is concerning to the “old guard:” the Religious Right. The change primarily centers around, not the Bible as much as the collapse of Christendom: the old collusion of Church and State that gave the Church so much power over the direction society was going. Conservative Christianity in the West is still grasping for power, not realizing that the path to the Kingdom of God is not found in power. Historically, the ability to control the actions of the citizens of the State has been a hallmark of Christianity in the West: a blend of imperialism, nationalism and religion. 

And, of course, the hot buttons for the Right have centered predictably around “control” issues: control of other’s sexual behaviors, control of women’s bodies and control of minorities: the foreigner or strangers in our midst. In order to maintain control distance needs to be created between the “controllers” and those they wish to control. This is accomplished by enforcing an obsession with the “rules” of inclusion in the controlling group. This is usually referred to as “orthodoxy:” right belief. And, predictably, orthodoxy is defined by the “winning” or controlling group, in this case Western Christianity, which eventually “won” the battle and Eastern Orthodoxy did not, for a variety of reasons.

In the past, I have touched on what I feel is a gross misunderstanding of sin found among evangelicals, which is less about sin itself and its definition, and more about demanding repentance of the wrong individuals. It is the classic attempt to remove the speck of dust in one’s neighbor’s eye but not seeing clearly because of the log in one’s own eye. While we all sin (see Romans 5), as did Adam, one must remove the log first before attempting surgery on others.

If you look at the gospels as a whole, and how Jesus dealt with sin, he did not direct his calls for repentance to society as a whole. No, not the Romans, no matter how unjust or depraved that society was. Instead he concerned himself with Israel and Judaea’s need for repentance. It was primarily a call for the “church” of his day that the call went out to. The “unbelieving and perverse generation” Jesus refers to in Matthew 17:17 is the Religious hegemony of Second Temple Judaism, and their failure to step outside that comfortable bubble and be spiritually aware. The chapters preceding and following are all directed at this religious group. In chapter 15, he refers to them as blind guides, as concerned with exterior ritual and neglecting righteousness. Chapter 16 deals again with spiritual blindness, the inability to discern the “times:” that the religious elite couldn’t see what God was doing among Israel, and ultimately the Gentiles.

In chapter 17, Jesus begins to spell out the inevitable results of chastising organized religion: when cornered, religion that is in power will resort to violence rather than admit the need for repentance. In chapter 18, he is asked who is greatest in the Kingdom of God. Astonishingly it is not the influential, the powerful, those who know their doctrine, but it is the simplicity and powerlessness of a child that best represents “greatness” in the Kingdom. Of course this reflects the teachings on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 on who is “blessed” in the Kingdom. 

Historically the church has applied this admonishment of Jesus to repent as squarely applied to the Jews for their rejection of the Messiah. It has fueled antisemitism for nearly 2000 years, from about a century after Christ, through Martin Luther and his polemics, culminating in the holocaust. This is a total misrepresentation of Jesus’ criticism and who and what he was critiquing. He had compassion on Israel not hatred or contempt. But he was seriously concerned about the leadership of the Jews and, yes, their theology.

Jesus did things with scripture that show a certain disregard for the letter of the Law. Conservatives will often quote Matthew 5:17 “Don’t assume that I have come to destroy the Law or Prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill;” as though this makes Jesus more fastidious than the Pharisees. When you take a closer look at what Jesus quotes from scripture, and what he doesn’t, a different picture emerges. This also mirrors the difference between the evangelical and progressive approach towards the Bible. Let me explain.

When Jesus begins his public ministry, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed Me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captives and recover of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19. It is telling what he refuses to quote from that passage, in which Isaiah had continued to say, “and the day of our God’s vengeance…” There is a profound redirection of scripture that takes place in Jesus’ teachings on violence and hatred of enemies. Paul, who started out persecuting the nascent young church, catches the drift of Jesus’ teachings as well.

As Jacob M. Wright points out:

“Before his conversion, Paul had read his Bible and concluded that he should commit violence in God’s name. After his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul completely reassessed how to understand scripture, leading him to a radically different understanding.

IN ROMANS 15, for example, Paul quotes several scriptural passages to illustrate how Gentiles “may glorify God for his mercy” because of the gospel (verse 9). Highly significant is what Paul omits from these passages:

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: “I̶ ̶d̶e̶s̶t̶r̶o̶y̶e̶d̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶f̶o̶e̶s̶.̶ ̶T̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶c̶r̶i̶e̶d̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶h̶e̶l̶p̶,̶ ̶b̶u̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶n̶o̶ ̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶s̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶—̶t̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶L̶O̶R̶D̶,̶ ̶b̶u̶t̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶d̶i̶d̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶a̶n̶s̶w̶e̶r̶ ̶.̶.̶.̶ ̶H̶e̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶G̶o̶d̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶ ̶a̶v̶e̶n̶g̶e̶s̶ ̶m̶e̶,̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶ ̶p̶u̶t̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶G̶e̶n̶t̶i̶l̶e̶s̶ ̶u̶n̶d̶e̶r̶ ̶m̶e̶ ̶ … Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” [quoting Psalm 18:41–49]

Again, it says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people,f̶o̶r̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶a̶v̶e̶n̶g̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶b̶l̶o̶o̶d̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶s̶e̶r̶v̶a̶n̶t̶s̶;̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶t̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶v̶e̶n̶g̶e̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶e̶n̶e̶m̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶m̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶a̶t̶o̶n̶e̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶l̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶.̶” [Deuteronomy 32:43]

Paul has removed the references to violence against Gentiles, and recontextualized these passages to instead declare God’s mercy in Christ for Gentiles. This constitutes a major redefinition of how salvation is conceived: Instead of salvation meaning God “delivering” the ancient Israelites from the hands of their enemies through military victory (as described in Psalm 18, above), Paul now understands salvation to mean the restoration of all people in Christ, including those same “enemy” Gentiles.

In Romans 12:19-21, Paul again quotes Deuteronomy 32, citing the Lord’s declaration “it is mine to avenge” to argue that we should not seek vengeance, but rather work to “overcome evil with good.” In its original context, however, this passage was a celebration of vengeance: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay … I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.” This passage, which originally advocated vengeance and violence, is now used to promote enemy love.

Remarking on this pattern in Paul, New Testament scholar Richard Hays once joked that Paul would have surely flunked a seminary class in exegesis. But, as Hays himself argues, Paul was in fact intimately familiar with the original context of these passages, as were his readers. This is no case of sloppy exegesis. Paul is deliberately reversing the meaning—turning the tables in order to provoke his audience.”

While Jewish leadership used scripture to justify hatred and violence of enemies, both Paul and Jesus were selective about what to use in scripture and what not. It was the difference between weaponizing scripture and disarming scripture. As the church gained more power after Constantine, it began to weaponize scripture as had the Jews. It is the difference between actively looking for scriptures to support violence and bigotry and looking for scriptures that do not. And this is where we are today. Jews have moved on, facing centuries of persecution they have wrestled with the violence in scripture and for the most part are defenders of the powerless, knowing what it is like to face oppression.

So here’s my main point of all this: the progressive movement in Christianity is a movement of repentance. As in my own experience, which is not terribly unique, progressives are merely Christians that have been convicted about their own implication in a religion that has hurt others. And it is centered, in large part, about what I have mentioned above: are we to use scripture to demonize or oppress others, one can find verses for that, or are we to go beyond that and follow Christ’s example? Are we to be comfortable and complacent in a church that has continued to be unrepentant, or are we to call the church to repentance?

And this is the major bone of contention between conservatives, those who look for “gotcha” passages and progressives that do not. Between those who see no need for repentance and those who, like the tax collector, cry, “have mercy on me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Will this be a “Damascus experience” for the church as Shane Phipps hopes? Will the church honestly address its homophobia, or see it simply as another sign that society is drifting further away from orthodoxy as defined by evangelicalism?

Author: socalkdl

Like so many Evangelicals of late, I have grown weary of the so-called "Culture Wars." I can agree with Philip Yancey in his "Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News," that grace within the church seems to be a vanishing commodity. Although still connected to the Evangelical church I have often felt distant and removed from portions of its theology and interaction with a Post-Christian society. A few years ago I felt it necessary, for my own spiritual health, to step back and "deconstruct" my theological belief set. I had become too enmeshed in the Evangelical "bubble" to honestly and critically assess my conservative theological doctrines. What has followed in the past few years is my own journey of rediscovering the Bible, and, above all, rediscovering God. It has become a journey that still surprises and delights me. Not everything is new. The faith first delivered to me by the Evangelical church has been reaffirmed. The Good News is still the best deal out there. But there have been new discoveries as well. It is my hope that my posts encourage your own questions and reassessments. It is my conviction that, because we see through a mirror darkly, there are questions that are valid to ask, and that we should not be afraid to ask them. God bless you in your own spiritual journeys. Kirk Leavens

2 thoughts on “Pete Buttigieg and the Church’s Need for Repentance”

  1. Nice article, sir. I’ve not thought of progressive Christianity as a movement of repentance.

    It’s probably good for us “progressives” (I don’t feel very progressive) to consider the potential pitfalls of getting our way as well. As you noted, Constantine’s ascension to power had the benefit of removing persecution of Christians, but it didn’t take long for this to transition into persecution of pagans.

    I always have to remind myself, given my own frustrations and grief over what we’ve become, how easy it is for me to weaponize Scripture and think of the “opposition” as wholly other. If progressive impulses save Christianity in America, I hope we’re merciful and compassionate to the people who fought us on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right. When you think about the history of “progressive” Christianity, it arose in large part, from Liberal Christianity. Although a diverse movement, not centered around particular creeds or theology, there is a tendency in progressivism to create a bit of a litmus test of what is “acceptable” progressive thought and action. And the “pride” that I think was a part of the Liberal ethos very easily inserts itself into progressive thought as well. It’s easy to think we are smarter than, or privy to “truth” that conservatives don’t have. It’s the same reason Liberals politically are thought of as elitist. Probably a good reason to always be willing to deconstruct things and not hold one’s faith to tightly.

      Liked by 1 person

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