The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Rome

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of the church over the centuries has been related to how the church is to manifest the Kingdom of God in society. One of the main purposes of my blog and indeed, why, a half dozen years ago I decided to “deconstruct” my evangelical assumptions, can be summed up in a desire to better manifest the Kingdom of God. The gospel message is about the Kingdom of God and not, as in evangelicalism, about what you must do to avoid hell and “go to heaven when you die.”

When Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was the “king of the Jews,” his reply of “my kingdom is not of this world,” seems to have never fully registered with his followers in the centuries that followed. Looking at the social milieu in the first century we see a Palestine under Roman control. Israel has faced a number of centuries being conquered and reconquered by foreign powers. In other words, a theocratic state conquered and ruled by secular states. In order to survive and maintain some degree of power, the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Pharisees compromised with the Roman government. In doing so, they took on the methods of Rome: quest for power, control, wealth, in other words, their own self-interests. The common person was largely left out of the equation and reaped little benefit form the merger of church and state. In fact, they suffered because of it. 

In a blatant rebuff of an earthly theocratic rulership, Jesus declares the Kingdom of God is not “of this world.” This is something he conveyed over and over in his parables and is the central theme of the Sermon on the Mount: the Kingdom of God is not like early kingdoms. It is worth pondering for a moment. If God’s Kingdom is not of this world, was a theocratic state, i.e., Israel, ever really a “final plan” of God’s, or was it a misunderstanding, a tribalistic anachronism of Moses and Aaron’s? Certainly, the tribalistic, warrior God of early Israel seems at odds with the Heavenly Father Jesus portrays.

In large part, Jesus’ clashes with the religious leadership was over collusion. When religion merges with the state, it is religion that suffers or is diminished. So how is it that the Kingdom of God is to flourish among men (and women)? The key to understanding is scattered throughout his teaching via parable. Parables were a popular teaching method in the first century and allowed Jesus to be subversive to the Jewish leadership in a way that the common folk could understand and agree with, but not give legal reason for his arrest. It bought him time to get his message out before his inevitable arrest and murder by the state.

Jesus knew, no doubt, that his “good news” was good news to the poor, the sick, those rejected by the religious powers, but would be a threat to those who colluded with Rome. The growth and distribution of the Kingdom of God was not to follow an earthly blueprint. Like a tiny mustard seed it would start small and eventually snowball into something huge. But not by coercion or manipulation. Not by putting the Ten Commandments back in courtrooms, not by putting Bibles in classrooms, not by having compulsory prayer in our schools, not by passing legislation to deny women, minorities and foreigners equal rights, but by the selflessness of people sharing the love of God to others. For almost 300 years this was the paradigm of the early church, in stark contrast to the Jewish-Roman collusion, which did not end well for the Jews.

But, then, in the early 4th century, the emperor Constantine, a ruthless violent man, “converted,” i.e., saw the advantage of merging the growing Christian church with his secular power regime. The early church fathers, tired of the relentless persecution, did exactly what the Jews had done in the first century, they colluded with the enemy of the Kingdom of God. To some, this was seen as a godsend, the opportunity to spread the gospel unhindered by persecution. In retrospect it allowed a perverted and unhealthy church to grow in power, wealth and influence. In time holding the “keys to the Kingdom” meant the religious controlling majority could not only declare heresy, or anathematize “false teachers,” but arrest and execute those who did not toe the line.

History had repeated itself. The lesson that collusion with the state does not end well, as with the Jews, was a lesson not learned. The entire Middle Ages was squandered by the Church of Rome consolidating its stranglehold on Europe. And again, with the Reformation and it’s break with Catholicism, the same mistake of collusion was made. Some finer points of theology had shifted but the Reformers policies were straight out of the Catholic playbook.

Fast forward to the 18th century. Christianity in Europe had become, state religions. Dying institutions propped up by the secular governments as a way of morally legitimizing their harsh governments. Ah, the great American democratic experiment. Unfortunately, again a major misunderstanding of how the Kingdom of God operates. The cries of religious freedom were then, as they are now, primarily not about freedom for all, but freedom to practice particular forms of religion at the exclusion of others. Slavery, the seizure of tribal lands and subsequent displacement of First Nation peoples and the various persecutions of Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Mormons, etc., all an outgrowth of a nation who fancied herself, “Christian.” Yep, collusion again.

Someone once said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again, expecting a different result. This is what the American church is guilty of, colluding with the state and eventually expecting it to result in the Kingdom of God. The evangelical church over a two century period, enjoyed a tremendous growth, not only in numbers, but in power and prestige. It identified completely with the nationalist interests of the American government. The government, as conceived by the fathers of our nation, became an object of worship, in its romanticized form by the conservative church.

Any hint of change to the chummy relationship the church had developed with civil government was seen as an attack on “Christian values.” This is the tragedy of Trump Christianity: the Right has so thoroughly mixed partisan right wing conservatism with Christian ideals, that the Gospel of the Kingdom has been pushed out. Now, with the major shift in American ideology away from conservatism and towards equal rights  and inclusivity, the Religious Right is majorly threatened. It would mean the death of “church as usual.”

This is an observation I made a few posts back, that society is advancing morally faster than the Religious Right is. Society as a whole, is acting more Christlike than the church. The goal or methodology of the church, in its endeavor to bring the Kingdom to earth, is not to impose legal sanctions and laws against what it determines to be “sin,” but to simply love others, regardless, and seek justice, mercy and grace for all mankind. This is not meek pacifism, but a call to action. Actions that will have an effect on society for the better.

God Asks Jesus into His Heart

“God repents of Old Testament days, asks Jesus into his heart”

“It’s reported that God, who has been known to go by Jehovah, has recently decided to follow Jesus. God recently released a statement that sending his Son into the world made him rethink some of the old ways he use to deal with people. “Perhaps wrathfully raining down fire on cities and drowning millions of people wasn’t the best or most Christlike way to go about things,” God reportedly said. God especially felt bad about commanding his people to commit wholesale genocide against the Canaanites and the Amalekites, including their women, children, babies, and pets. “I’d rather not talk about that stuff. It’s in my past. I was still new at this whole human race thing. As God, I’ve decided to give a Christlike example for my creatures to look up to. Jesus has taught me a lot.”

After hearing Jesus teach against wrath and hate, and commanding people to love their enemies and be peacemakers because this is what their Heavenly Father is like, God said that Jesus’ words really had an impact on him and made him think. “I really liked the way Jesus portrayed me. I think I can live up to that,” said God. “When my Son even forgave his own murderers, that kind of sealed the deal for me. It’s really had a powerful affect on people’s lives too. I want to be more like Jesus.” 

God said that since becoming a disciple of Jesus, he no longer plans to torture the majority of mankind forever in fire, and is taking a new course of direction. “A different approach to this whole thing is really needed,” God said. God promises that his change of heart is real, and that he promises to practice the fruit of the Spirit in the future.”

Jacob M. Wright*

This post from Jacob Wright appeared on Facebook. Although tongue in cheek, it expresses a very real problem with church doctrine, post-reformation, and especially in American theology’s Puritan roots: the Jonathan Edwards “sinners in the hands of an angry God” approach so common in much of today’s evangelical theology. Numerous assumptions have been made historically in Western Theology, that have more in common with Medieval views of justice and administration of laws than the Heavenly Father Jesus introduces us to in the Gospels. Instead, with post-Reformation teachers and theologians like John Piper, God’s actions are assumed to be just, even when they seem immoral.

Evangelicalism seems at times, unaware of the contradiction of the ancient Hebrew understanding of natural disasters, plagues and a Yahweh who was their tribal warrior god, and the Heavenly Father Jesus introduces us to. In fact, some evangelicals have attempted to interpret current events as God’s anger with mankind, hence hurricanes to punish America for “the sins of homosexuality,” or for America just being to darn liberal in general. It is interesting to see how this plays out in social media, as conservatives will claim that when calamity befalls those they see as outside the fold, it is God’s judgement. On the other hand, when bad things happens to them, it is either a trial to bring forth spiritual growth, or it’s the result of general wickedness from those outside the fold. It’s a primitive and self-serving technique that, not surprisingly, always puts them on the right side of things. On a side note, is Trump God’s “anointed one” or, conversely God’s punishment on a hypocritical conservative Christianity? Depends a lot on one’s point of view!

In large part, this is the result of refusing to admit the ancient understanding of God was different than Jesus’ understanding of God. The assumption being that Jesus accepted the writings of the Law and Prophets uncritically. This is simply not true. The Jewish understanding of God by the first century had evolved quite a bit since the early days of human sacrifice and a methodology of questioning scripture, its meaning and application had arisen called Midrash, a Jewish scholarly commentary that by the second century was annotating the the Biblical texts. Although conservatives oft quote Jesus’ saying he came to “fulfill the Law,” (the Greek means to complete, to perfect (telios), and therefore he unquestioningly accepted the Bible as true, it is a bit more complex than that. It is more accurate to think of Jesus as explaining the Bible than vis-versa. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” John 5:38-40. Note, it is not the scriptures themselves that give eternal (aeon) life, but belief in Christ himself. This is a profound statement coming from a Jew raised in a culture that taught that observance of the Law as presented in the Tanakh and Masoretic Text was a corporate responsibility tied not to an individual savior, but to the writings themselves.

And here is where conservative Christians oft get in trouble. They don’t seem to realize where Christ aligns with Judaism and where he, for good reason, deviates from it. And how that affects his understanding and application of scripture. Numerous times he (and other NT writers) simply ignore the original intent of a Biblical passage when a literal approach would obscure the love of God or a broader theme. Matthew 5 is a good example of this. The main reason for this in the relatively recent systematic theologies, is that they rely on an inerrant text. Because of this presupposition Jesus MUST accept the OT scriptures uncritically or the whole systematic house of cards falls apart.

The problem with removing God from moral responsibility, is that it gives us a capricious God, and the admonition to be holy as God is Holy becomes meaningless. The moral compass is destroyed. John Piper’s God, for example, tells us to do as he says, not as he does. This is not leading by example (Christ’s example is also destroyed in this scenario), but is leading by threat of punishment. We are not allowed to ask “why,” but are simply told “because I say so.” Without a moral compass in the very nature of God himself, we are reduced to rote legalism: following laws for the sake of the rules themselves. This is why Jesus is our example, not scripture itself. Scripture presents us with varied understandings of God, while Jesus presents us with a unified witness to what God the Father is like. He is like Jesus, not Zeus.

But this is exactly not what the standard evangelical teaching of scriptures gives us. History has born witness to the atrocities of the church when it assumes God’s “wrath” is something to appropriate for itself to further the Kingdom of God. 

As I have pointed out elsewhere, the sometimes violent, always coercive God goes back before the Reformation, to the 4th and 5th centuries when the church aligned itself with the state. The threat of eternal punishment and being declared anathema was a fearful threat the church could effectively use to manipulate a largely illiterate body of believers. If that didn’t work, church sponsored murder or torture would. 

Does any of this look like Jesus? I don’t think so. It is time to put down the false allegiances we have and worship the God Jesus introduces us too.

*Jacob Wright is in process of turning many of his Facebook posts into a book. His GoFundMe page is here: https://www.gofundme.com/jacobwright

Bondage to Doctrinal Purity

One of the bondages Jesus came to set us free from was bondage to a legalistic, weaponized use of the Law of Moses. He hung out with those deemed undesirable by religious folks, especially religious leaders who used the Law as a means of excluding people. In opposition to the Laws of Moses he healed on the Sabbath, touched lepers, worked on the Sabbath, shared God’s love with a Samaritan woman, healed a Roman officer’s young manslave, “pais,” (probably meant in the common context of male lover), included eunuchs (sexually other) in the kingdom of God, and showed a profound interest in the spirituality of women. His sermon on the mount, and “you have heard it said, but I say unto you,” shows a midrash style of reinterpretation at odds with the Saducees and Pharisees.

So here’s the problem I see, and the recent flack over Andy Stanley’s series on the OT is a good example, when Christians try to make Christianity about following rules, you don’t end up with more loving Christians, just legalistic ones. Take male headship for example. Instead of seeing the Pauline example to be taken from Christ’s self-sacrificing servant attitude, men only see “rulership” over women. One can read that into the narrative, but only by ignoring Christ’s example. When you do so, the SBC and Paige Patterson is what you get.

Evangelicalism has always tended to get lost in the weeds. Rather than seeing the overarching trajectory of scripture as pointing to Jesus and his twofold commandment, they heap on as many laws as possible, not trusting the work of the Holy Spirit. It becomes more about excluding others than letting others in. Christians become defined by who they are not, rather than who they should be emulating. It reduces Christianity to a scorecard, with their particular statement of faith as the standard by which to score others.

Currently the UMC, United Methodist Church, is struggling over what type of Jesus and what type of Gospel they wish to represent. Things do not look good for the health of the denomination. A rather large faction within the church wishes to return to the good old days when Gays were excluded. When the law of love is supplanted by an obsession with doctrinal purity, everyone loses. How many more denominations and church splits do we need before we realize this?

What do You do When Scripture gets it Wrong?

So I have been dealing this week online with the outpouring of vitriol and jubilation by my more conservative brothers and sisters in Christ over the SCOTUS reversal on the Colorado Commission’s decision against the Christian baker. As you know, SCOTUS decided the baker did not receive a fair hearing. BTW, we should stop referring to these people as “Christian bakers” but rather as “Christians who bake.” Different meaning altogether, catch my drift? The SCOTUS decision, unfortunately will embolden more divisive and hateful behavior from the Religious Right who seem more invested in their perceived unjust treatment by society than any concern for the rights of others who have been marginalized and vilified for centuries, much of it stemming from the misapplication of their religion. 

I have waded into the fray and tried to reason with people, tried to bring God’s love into the equation, tried to get them to see what science shows us…but they will have none of it. When you have an inerrant scripture, no amount of facts to the contrary matter. Frankly, I am deeply discouraged. It is like watching a train wreck in slow motion and being helpless to stop it. As a nation we have not seen this level of divisiveness and hatred since the Jim Crow South, which conservative Christians were also deeply complicit in.

To simply say, “I believe the Bible,” reflects an incredible amount of self deception, as no one, no matter how fundamentalist, approaches scripture that way. It is dishonest to claim otherwise. So what do you do when scripture seems to accept slavery as a given in society? Or that killing your enemies or the families of one’s enemies is God-ordained? What do you do when the Bible tells you killing children is a blessed or fortunate event under certain circumstances? What do you do when scripture says sex outside of marriage warrants stoning? Or that when a man lay with a man, they both shall be put to death?

Accepting that slavery was morally wrong was a hard sell to conservatives in the South. The Bible “clearly” supported it. In fact, Southern Christians really didn’t concede defeat in the matter but sought ways to circumvent the abolition of slavery, and felt doing so was upholding scripture. The result was a simmering hatred of Blacks that resulted in 4000 lynchings and a continued animus that still plagues the Southern church. That anti-gay “scholars” such as Robert Gagnon don’t see a connection between the slavery issue and the Gay issue is a tragedy of self deception and spiritual blindness.

I am afraid the lesson of slavery was not learned by conservatives. Scripture is still being used to diminish the worth of the “others” that are hated and feared for their difference. It is as though the conservative Christian’s self-worth is determined by comparing themselves to the supposed debauchery of Gays. Just as a White male could feel superior by lynching Blacks and controlling them, today’s conservative wants to regain control over Gays via legislation that marginalizes them and allows for discrimination against them.

Southerners gave dozens of reasons, besides scripture, why Blacks were inferior or dangerous, none of which were true or scientifically supportable, but that didn’t stop them from treating them as “truths.” It is the same with the conservative arguments against allowing Gays to be Gays. When the conservative understanding of scripture conflicts with reason, science, psychology and the law of love, their small minded views take precedent over all else. To further bolster their hatred numerous untruths about Gays were presented by conservative leadership to lead the faithful into believing Gays were dangerous and would lead to the destruction of the American family. The SCOTUS decision on same sex marriage reflected the fact that the justices were not convinced of the truthfulness of those claims by the Religious Right.

Unfortunately, conservatives still struggle with how to be Christlike. Rather than seeing the trajectory of scripture leading away from legalism and a judgmental spirit, they cherry-pick scriptures that can be weaponized and used to exclude others from a seat at the table. If you’ve listened to any of Franklin Graham’s pronouncements it is clear that the gospel is, for many evangelicals, more about exclusion than inclusion. All a part of the delusion of the Pharisee that prides himself that he is not like other sinners. While the Colorado baker thought he was upholding God’s laws against same sex relations he was unfortunately breaking the greater commandment to love others, to serve others whether we approve of them or not.

So does scripture get same sex relations wrong? Does scripture get human sexuality wrong in general? It depends on what we are referring to. Many evangelicals seem to think the Bible has all the answers. It does not. The Bible is first and foremost a sort of “diary” of human thoughts and the progression of those thoughts, about God. It is not God talking about himself, but man talking about God, and what man perceives with his limited understanding about God. To assert otherwise misrepresents what scripture is actually. It is not a marriage manual. Many of the sexual mores presented in scripture are simply no longer applicable. They are culturally bound, and sometimes immoral in and of themselves. They’re based on ancient assumptions of male superiority and women as a reflection of man’s authority. They are also based on prescientific assumptions of biology.

Most evangelicals I have talked to and argued with have no interest in educating themselves or of learning empathy. The reliance on authority figures for their directives and a literal use of scripture to the exclusion of outside sources that may temper their views is disturbing. It displays a remarkable laziness in attempting to come to grips with a complex issue: human sexuality. You would think that the adamant declaration that all same sex activity is immoral and the resulting wish to exclude them would warrant a more thoughtful and thorough study. But it has not.

When presented with these objections, conservatives double down and revert to outdated sexual mores designed to keep heterosexual males at the top of the food chain. Let’s be honest. Few conservatives would claim having multiple wives glorifies God. Yet that is supported by an uncritical reading of scripture. Yet many of those same Christians would declare a woman cannot teach a man, and should not work outside the home. While polygamy is almost universally recognized as demeaning to women, Christian men for centuries have sought ways to circumvent this and still control women for their pleasure.

When it comes to scripture, it must be remembered that male dominance is the backstory. When talking about same sex relations it is necessary to keep that in mind. And that the backstory is over 2000 years old, that we cannot take an ancient culture, uproot it, and simply plop it down in the 21st century and expect it to fit unadjusted. Male dominance is still the backstory, some things apparently do not change.

““But let’s just remember it’s not about the cake. It was never about the cake, and it was never about this one case.

The larger takeaway here is that it’s not only PRIDE month … it is PRIDE month in 2018, FFS, and here we are still talking about this. Still in a fight about whether or not people who love each other are allowed to live together and have all the rights that implies; whether or not they are allowed to have cake; whether or not they are allowed to show up at church and have bread at the table. Here we are, Church, still in a squabble about who’s in and who’s out, who Jesus loves more, and who’s allowed to sleep with who.

This is not about the Courts, and it’s not about the cake. It’s about the Body of Christ needing to get its shit together and love people. All the people. 

“Maybe it was never about the cake, but you know what? We’re here for the cake. We’re here for whatever thing you have to fight for today, because we are in this thing with you until you don’t have to fight for it anymore. And also, we’re here for the cake because we just like cake. And we would love to have a piece at your wedding. But more than that, we’d love to have you at our table.” (Erin Wathen)

Evangelical Thuggary

If you’ve read my brief introduction to my blog, you are aware my background is (or was) evangelical. When I first woke up to the realization that trouble was brewing in the evangelical camp, I did not know where this knowledge was going to lead me. The current culture wars that were being waged by the Religious Right seemed over the top mean spirited. As a concerned evangelical I thought there must be a way to better present the love of God for humanity. Having gone through the sexual revolution of the 60’s followed by the Moral Majority’s reaction in the 70’s and 80’s, I realized that there was a pattern here.

In both cases, the hard right conservatives within evangelicalism pushed for political control, both within evangelicalism and within the American legal system, drowning out more moderate voices within evangelicalism. It was becoming increasingly difficult to separate neo-fundamentalism from evangelicalism as a whole. As a result, I wanted to understand more of what it meant to be evangelical. So a few years back I somewhat timidly decided to step outside the evangelical “bubble” and get third party perspectives on the movement, especially the unique American manifestation of it.

The first books I read were “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelism” by Matthew Avery Sutton, and “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Christian Right” by Daniel K. Williams. It was an eye-opener. The history revealed was nothing like the rosy narrative of evangelicalism I had been taught. But it rang true as I had actually experienced a great deal of it coming of age in the 60’s, I had simply submerged it under the more flattering presentation of my chosen tribe.

I soon realized I was going to have to set all my beliefs on the table and begin to examine all in the light of the gospel. At this point I was still very much an evangelical, just a very concerned one. Then, when the Christian Bakery in Oregon refused to bake a wedding cake for the lesbian couple hit the news in 2013, red flags went up. Mind you, at this point I was somewhat typical of most evangelicals: SS marriage was not “Biblical marriage” in my thinking. But the thought of Christians refusing to serve others seemed so anti-Christian. Serving others, even one’s enemies, is so central to the story of Jesus, I could not wrap my brain around how anyone calling themselves a Christian could treat others that way. It also brought up memories of a time past when other Christians declared “we don’t serve your kind here.”

So the last 5 or 6 years has been a gradual move away from evangelicalism to a more inclusive, less judgmental faith in Christ. This was never my original intent, but after a few years I realized I had so little in common now with the tribe I had grown up in, that I was now outside that tribe. This has been confirmed over and over in my interactions since with evangelicals. I have dealt with trolls and bullies, Judaizers and self righteous bigots, my interactions, when they find out I am progressive, are seldom pleasant. There is an unfortunate tendency among the evangelicals I deal with to pummel and bludgeon you into compliance with their “orthodox” views.

I attempt to be thorough, critical and cite sources for my views. This is seldom met in kind. Thuggery and name calling is the more typical response. This seems to be the new norm among what I would call the “Fox News Christians,” the “MAGA Christians.” Evangelicalism is now defined in the public eye, largely as represented by the Christians that put Donald Trump in power. For evangelicals, this is a sad turn of events that has been almost 50 years in the making. Post-conservative and moderate evangelicals struggle to have their voices heard, and are generally drowned out by the thuggish majority that have found a champion in Trump, the much anticipated “Cyrus,” that will return fundamentalism to a major force in America.

This is not just my online experience, either. When I share Christ with friends and coworkers the apprehension is palatable. They assume at first, I am an evangelical. I have to get past that hurdle in order to share the gospel. People this is sad! It is only after they learn I am not an evangelical that they feel free to open up and share with me.

While there are notable exceptions, Beth Moore, Jen Hatmaker, Phillip Yancy come to mind, most I fear have been or will be drummed out of the evangelical camp. Like Andy Stanley and his recent sermon on “unhitching” from the OT, they will be deemed “heretics.” It is a relentless process of gradually cutting off any novel or critical thinking in favor of a Borg-like assimilation of all theological thought by the Pharisaical thought police. I do not think history will look back kindly on the movement. Nor do I think the neofundamentalists are going to suddenly become moderates. They taste victory and victory is sweet.

Is American Christianity too Exclusionary?

One of the many books I am reading is Robert Gagnon’s “The Bible and Homosexual Practice.” As one can deduce from the title, Gagnon assumes from the start a couple of things. One, being Gay is a psychological pathology and, two, it is something one chooses to do, a practice. To be honest, I am not particularly invested in what he has to say about what the Bible says about LGBTQ individuals. I am more interested in HOW what he has to say affects others, and whether typical American white patriarchal hypocrisy and its exclusivity ends up being counterproductive to the gospel message.

Being a heterosexual Gentile, I don’t find arguments based on Levitical code particularly compelling, or indeed, relevant to a 21st century Christian’s worldview, nor understand why scholars like Gagnon spend so much time dissecting them and passionately defending prohibitions that defined the covenant between JEWS and YHWH. There were many things listed in those codes that were forbidden, toevah, and were designed to set Israel apart from her neighbors. Evangelicals tend to concentrate on a few toevah that have little impact on them, while disregarding all the other toevah that would inconvenience them or that they enjoy, such as shellfish or wearing clothing of mixed fabrics.

Indeed, some of Israel’s practices were anything but moral. The prohibition against human sacrifice was cruelly circumvented in Israel’s Canaan holy war, where women and children were slaughtered as “herem,” set aside, dedicated to and destroyed for YHWH. This ethnic cleansing was a form of human sacrifice, just not done in a ritualistic manner. The same literalistic “if it was ok for Israel, it’s gotta be ok for the US Cavalry” was the go to excuse for American Manifest Destiny as an American Christian nation systematically raped and pillaged across the lands of the First Nation peoples. Conservatives go to great lengths to rationalize and validate Israel’s genocide, why, so that they can justify their own attacks on others.

The excuse for imperialism from a religious standpoint has always been grounded in the view that the Church universal has replaced Israel as God’s “set apart” people. There is a certain self conscious pride that accompanies that claim, an underlying arrogance that says “we know what’s best for everyone else, and we are going to force it on you.” “We will assimilate you, and if you resist, we will alienate you.” Conservative Christianity has always had a Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde relationship with society, loving, if you meet the requirements for membership and know the rules, but don’t step out of line, or you’ll be ostracized.

This tendency towards religious imperialism is currently on full display in America amongst white conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and other conservative Christians. The outcries against women’s reproductive rights, against minority, immigrant and refugee rights, against the women’s movement, against the LGBTQ community, all give evidence of the need to exclude others, and set one particular group, apart, and above all others. Conservatives have taken the worst aspect of Israel’s past and appropriated it for their own form of Levitical law. While Jesus, and later Paul, show a marked departure and trajectory AWAY from legalism, conservative Christianity shows a dogged determination to return to as much literal interpretation and legalism as possible.

Indeed, the great commandment and the Golden rule seem to almost get in the way of the conservative agenda of “defining” Christianity, of establishing its boundaries. When someone mentions God’s love for all mankind, when Jesus’ cry for God’s unconditional forgiveness for sinners is brought up, all sorts of exceptions are raised. God loves you except if you do this or that.

And, of course, what follows whenever you have religious imperialism, is the effort to impose laws that maintain that religious superiority, again, as we are seeing in America. Just as we saw in ancient Israel with it’s insistence on conformity of society, while maintaining its “apartness” from the heathen, we have this concerted effort to force Christianity (one form of it, anyway) on society, while retaining a sense of superiority at the same time. Time and time again, I have heard my evangelical brothers and sisters talk about America needing to be a Christian nation, while not the other hand, refer to “wide is the path to destruction” and few will find the “narrow gate.” I have even heard Christians joke about it. Their exclusiveness becomes a badge of honor.

Gagnon and others fall into the same trap of seeing Christianity as exclusionary, legalistic and controlling. They make the mistake of defining the relationship God wishes to have with his children as following a set of rules. In doing so, being a child of God becomes something you DO rather than something you ARE. And in the process of defining, as narrowly as possible, who God’s children are, they turn away the greatest amount of people they possibly can. This should not be the goal of Christianity.

Conservatism’s Troubled Marriage to the Bible

Recently on Patheos, the following meme was made by a fellow progressive concerning fundamentalist Christians and their relationship with the Bible:

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The context for the meme was a discussion on James McGrath’s Blog Here As one conservative, Realist1234, on Patheos pointed out, everyone comes to the Christian Bible with an agenda, progressives rejecting the parts that don’t fit their views. At the same time, Phil’s meme resonates with what I know to be true, in large part among evangelicals and fundamentalists. What has happened historically within orthodox Western Christianity is that in the development of the Christian canon, in the development of the various creeds, in the creation of various denominations, the church has built a framework of understanding scripture that subconsciously “bends” the Bible to meet certain religious and philosophical presuppositions. Fundamentalists would point out, I’m sure, that progressives do that very same thing: bend scripture to meet their own presuppositions.

Fair enough, but the key to fruitful dialogue between conservatives and progressives has to start with a willingness to examine those presuppositions for validity and whether those presuppositions promote a “healthy” religion or a toxic one. It is interesting that Phil chose to frame his statement within the marriage context, that of the Bible being the faithful “wife” and the fundamentalist as being the “husband.” I am reasonably sure fundamentalists would state just the opposite, that they are the dutiful “wives” obeying their husband, God’s Word. It is interesting to me because the marriage image is so often used in both the Hebrew canon and the Christian, as an apt metaphor for mankind’s relation to the Creator.

For me, where the marriage “hits the rocks” among conservatives is when literalism becomes the “glue” that holds their marriage together. It tends to promote a “contractual” relationship with God, where the contract becomes the object of adulation rather than God, the husband. This is due, at least in large part, to the Reformers, who raised scripture itself on to such a high pedestal that it detracts from our marriage to Christ. 

I think conservatives miss the irony that Jesus spoke in parables when they scour the scriptures for propositional truth statements. They are missing the fact that scripture uses, as Gary Dorrien calls it, “true myth,” to impart spiritual insight. The conservative church is not content with the beautiful poems and allegories her husband brings her, but obsesses with the marriage license, reducing the relationship to hard facts. In doing so, conservatism misses the broader truths that parables and myths bring. The search for propositional truth stops short of discovering broader principals of living and applying Christ’s teachings. Instead of a developing love story the Bible becomes a rule book, a legally binding document stipulating the terms of the marriage agreement.

Don’t get me wrong, as a progressive Christian I have great respect for the Bible, but I am not married to it. I am married to Christ, and it is he whom I desire to please. The Bible is very valuable in helping us understand how to best serve God and others, but if it becomes the focus of our adoration, it becomes idolatry.