An Answer to the Nashville Statement

 

Two days ago (29 August 2017) a group of conservative American Evangelical Christians issued “The Nashville Statement” on human sexuality. I won’t repeat all 14 articles here (although they are short), but I think Art. 10 can serve for the whole:

“We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.”

Because this statement has been widely distributed, by both those who agree and disagree, it has the power to gravely harm many Christians. In that light, I feel empowered, indeed, obligated as one who has taken up a ministry of public preaching and teaching, to make a statement myself.

MY TORONTO STATEMENT

The authors and signatories of the Nashville Statement are my siblings in Christ and those of all other LGBTTwQ Christians, and we are theirs. Therefore any disagreement or correction must be made in love. In that spirit then I say that the authors and signatories are dangerously misled and mistaken. They have confused the spirit of the age (to which we should not be conformed (Rom 12.2)) with the insights derived from modern philosophy and the natural and physical sciences.

God’s two revelations – in God’s Creation and in God’s written word – can never be in conflict with one another. If they appear to be, then we have mistakenly interpreted one or the other (or maybe both!). As St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas did each in his own day, we must learn to allow the revelation of the Creation explored by our divinely-created reason to illuminate our reading of the highly poetic Primeval History of Genesis, especially Genesis 1.1-2.4.

The root and ground of the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah does not lie in the correct interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, but in the love of God embodied and expressed in Jesus and acted out in our human love for God and one another. St Paul tells us that the old binaries of slave and free, of Jew and Gentile, and even of male and female no longer exist for those of us who are in Christ (Gal 3.28). They have been wiped out in the unity of the Body of Christ. Christian leaders should not attempt to reimpose any of those binaries on Christians or on those seeking Jesus. This is tantamount to demanding circumcision before baptism of Gentile believers.

Their identification of homosexuality with immorality harks back to a misunderstanding of Paul’s writings, especially in Romans, as I have written elsewhere (http://wrestlingwiththebible.ca/clobbertexts.html). I repudiate the suggestion that homosexuality is intrinsically immoral. Any human action may be immoral: for example, we may use our God-given ingenuity to murder, our imagination and powers of persuasion to call others to the sins of racism, our bodies to rape. That there are immoral homosexual acts, as indeed there are immoral heterosexual acts, does not mean homosexuality or heterosexuality either one is inherently immoral.

I want my fellow LGBTTwQ Christians and seekers to know that many many churches large and small join me in rejecting the Nashville Statement. We must not allow it to make our siblings in Christ feel they have once again been rejected by the Church! And we must pray in love for the individuals and institutions who wrote and signed this statement, that they will open their hearts to the inclusive love of our risen Lord and their minds to his revealing Spirit.

Dr Abigail Ann Young

Toronto, ON

31 August 2017-08-31

 

LENT 2

Here it is the week of Lent 2, the second full week of Lent. In Year A, that means two readings that focus on Abraham (from the start of Genesis 12 and Romans 4) and the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus from John 3. Seems like a good time for a Lenten checkup. Every Lent I pick something to add and something to give up, and I revert to a very old-fashioned view of the Lenten table: meat once a day only and not at all on Fridays. I find the planning necessary for the latter provides a constant reminder of why I am doing it and what Lent is for. This year as I already mentioned I gave up social media – that continues to be a wrench, but I think I am breaking some bad habits and that I’ll have a healthier approach when I do come back. And we decided to add some devotional reading to our home prayers, which is working so well that we have plans for making regular readings part of home prayer after Lent.

So Lent is going really well, and I should just relax and enjoy it, right? Wrong! Any time you put the words “relax” and “Lent” in the same sentence, you should sit up, take notice, and look for the catch. This is the hidden trap of giving something up for Lent, which isn’t helped by the newer practice of taking something up for Lent. Now you’ve got a scorecard and can tick things off day by day: “ate no chocolate on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday” or “carried out Lent devotions on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday”. And before you know it, Lent has lost its real point and meaning.

When that happens, we need to ask a simple question: what is Lent for, anyway? It’s for getting ready to walk with Jesus from the Palm Sunday crowds through the week to Friday’s despair and finally to Sunday’s joyous eucastrophe, to use a word J.R.R. Tolkien coined to talk about the reversal of fortune from bad to good that comes at the end of so many cherished stories, as it does at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and at the end of the gospels themselves.

Our Lent conventions of giving up and taking on, of fasting, almsgiving, prayer, study, self-examination, and repentance, are necessary and important guides and aids to us in getting ready for that week-long walk with Jesus. We couldn’t do it without them – I know I couldn’t. But they are a means to an end, not the end itself. The end is so to embrace the mind of Jesus that we can “walk the walk”, at least for a time.

The Lent 2 Gospel contains Jesus’ deliberately punning conversation with Nicodemus, which turns on the untranslatable Greek phrase “anōthen gennēthēnai”, meaning both ‘begotten/born from above’ and ‘begotten/born again’. On Sunday we saw how Nicodemus failed to take that ambiguity into account and simply rejected Jesus’ statement. He failed to see both that the phrase has a double meaning and that Jesus was deliberately playing with that double meaning. So we need to be more attentive than he was and see that what we need is to be born again from above. The practices of Lent exist, and have done for so long, because when we faithfully observe them they open up our hearts and minds to the Spirit who accomplishes our rebirth from above, not just once at our conversion or our baptism, but again and again through our lives as we come ever closer to the mind of Jesus. As St Paul wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Jeremiah: About Reading the Bible in and for Our Time

 

Now the Christmas season is past, and Epiphany is well underway, our Monday night Bible Study group has resumed. In the Fall we read the epistle to the Hebrews, so it was time for another Old Testament book. We’re starting the book of Jeremiah, an unhappy and somehow very modern prophet! Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet. This isn’t an unusual response to God’s call in the Bible: Moses was not enthusiastic about the call to lead God’s people out of Egypt, and Jonah’s reluctance is well known. In Jeremiah’s case, the reaction is exacerbated by two things: his youth and the negativity of the message he was called to give.

Like other “writing prophets”, Jeremiah’s prophecy is distinguished by its contingency. In a particular time and place and set of historical circumstances, the word of YHWH comes to Jeremiah to warn that if the people of YHWH persist in breaking the covenant, they must expect the consequences. A similar message had been given by many previous prophets and gone unheeded. Over time however the window for real change had grown narrower: not just individuals but their whole social order was corrupt. When this had happened in the northern kingdom of Israel, the northern prophets were unsuccessful in changing their society and its people. So YHWH used the Assyrian conquest of the north as an instrument, however blunt, to correct the people of the northern kingdom and warn the people of the southern kingdom yet again. By the time Jeremiah was called to preach to the sourthern kingdom of Judah, that kingdom and its people were in as bad a state as the Israelites had been, or worse.

The Judahites believed, partly because they generalised incorrectly from YHWH’s deliverance of Judah and Jerusalem in the time of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, partly because they mistakenly believed the covenant with David’s royal line was absolute and not contingent upon the king and people alike adhering to the Mosaic covenant, that YHWH would never abandon Jerusalem and the Temple. Jeremiah had to tell them they were wrong, and he had to do it in the face of a royal theology and a religious system dedicated to telling them they were right. Who did they want to hear? If you guessed Jeremiah, you are wrong!

In trying to discern what aspect(s) of Jeremiah’s message can be applied to their own time, to our own time, students of Jeremiah and preachers often fail to honour the particularity of Jeremiah’s message. They and we are looking for a prophetic message that speaks beyond Jeremiah’s time and place to offer guidance in our troubled world. In Jeremiah’s preaching, does YHWH have a message for the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, for a time when some find that the centre has ceased to hold (as Yeats wrote), for a world undergoing rapid transition and change?

We must be careful not to content ourselves with facile platitudes about speaking “the truth to power”. Because that was part of Jeremiah’s prophetic mission, we can’t conclude that every oracle in his prophecies can be interpreted as speaking what we conceive to be the truth to the powerful! As Christians we affirm that the prophets can be understood on two levels: that in addition to the message that they brought in their own circumstances to their own time, there is a message within that message that speaks to later times, later events, in the life of YHWH’s people (including YHWH’s people the church). But classic Israelite prophecy, both the early prophets like Elijah and Elisha and the later prophets like Amos or Jeremiah, grew out of a unique relationship between YHWH and YHWH’s people which came to an end when all hope of reviving the monarchy was lost after the return from Exile. The classic prophets were part of how YHWH continued to call men and women to speak YHWH’s word and will to the people even after they were ruled by hereditary monarchs instead of leaders like Moses and Joshua.

To appropriate Jeremiah’s message, that is, to properly make it our own, we must crack open that historical matrix and reveal the word of YHWH that is its core. No modern secular state or its rulers, be it the USA, the EU, the UK, or Israel itself, stands in the relationship to YHWH that the Israelite people and their kings did during the time of the judges and the monarchy (whether united under David and Solomon or divided into Israel and Judah). We must put to one side what of Jeremiah’s words belong to such unique particularities of his time and place. So, for example, YHWH is not saying to us that failure to obey the Sinai covenant will result in the loss of our special relationship with a particular land. Our covenantal relationship with YHWH as Christians is under a new covenant, which Jeremiah himself foresaw. But just as there was no “get out of jail free” card for rejecting the Sinai covenant, Jeremiah speaks across the centuries to tell us there is no “get out of jail free” card for rejecting the new covenant. Instead Jeremiah warns us that we too are bound to YHWH by the covenant of our baptism and that we must live out that covenant in our lives or suffer consequences.

How do we carry out the work of discernment that allows us to put the particularities of Jeremiah’s own time and place aside and find the word of YHWH that speaks to our time? That work must be based on respect for the biblical text and its history. And it must also be carried out with love for YHWH and YHWH’s people in every age. It may end with us between a rock and a hard place, as it did for Jeremiah himself. We may end up repeating his call to become the remnant of YHWH’s people that still heeds the covenant in a hostile world. Our work may end with us speaking, as Jeremiah did, hard truths that no one wants to hear — speaking not to power, but to all but the few who welcome the call to repent and welcome the reign of God.

Advent is Here!

And so Advent begins! One Church year has ended, and a new one has begun. We approach the turning of the seasons, when the winter solstice marks the shortest day and the light begins its slow return, and at the same time we approach the fulfilment of prophecy in the birth of the Messiah and see afar off the fulfilment of future hope in the Messiah’s return. Advent is a season of contemplation, a time for meditating on the light of candles in the Advent wreath and the coming of spiritual light they signify. And above all it is a time of waiting, waiting to relive again the miraculous birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem of Judaea, waiting for the fulfilment of the ages in the Messiah’s sudden return.

In our modern day and age, our ability to contemplate, to meditate, and above all to wait, in Advent is compromised by the commercial machine that Christmas has become. The meaning of this birth and this second advent have been all but drowned out. We must work to carve out time for Advent, and not allow it to be hurried into Christmas, and Christmas busy-ness. We must learn expectant waiting.

This is hard. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to wait. We want rapid responses, to speed things up. And when we do have to wait for something, we want distractions from the annoyance or the tedium of the wait. Out comes the smartphone, and texting or social media or the like takes us away from the wait. We have not had an opportunity to develop expectant waiting. Perhaps this is why our Advent texts are full of reminders to stay alert and pay attention. After all, Jesus says, if the householder had known when the burgular was coming, they wouldn’t have gone to sleep and been robbed! If we are distracting ourselves with our smartphones, we’re in no better a situation than that householder, and just as likely to be surprised when the Day comes ‘like a thief in the night’.

But I’ll bet that when we were kids, we all knew what expectant waiting was, though we didn’t call it that. It was waiting for Christmas or birthdays to come. As adults, perhaps parents, we can still capture something of that sense of expectation, waiting for a loved one to receive a particular gift. But what if we try to focus on an Advent theme such as I’ve referred to above, the coming of light into a dark place, the promised birth, the return of Jesus? Wouldn’t that be worth waiting for, and waiting for in the same way that we wait for a child’s Christmas? Wouldn’t you be willing to wait for such a coming?

Think about that and what it might be like. Who might you wait for it with? Your friends? Your church family? What would it be like to wait for it? That is the experience of expectant waiting, Advent waiting. It’s our task as individuals, but also the task of the whole community, the whole Church, to enter into Advent in the spirit of expectant waiting. As you light your Advent candles, in your church or in your home, look for the light of Christ, coming into our lives and into our world, and wait.

Speaking the Truth to Power

My niece came up recently with a very intriguing question, in the context of the current US political climate: “So is there or is there not a Biblical mandate to speak truth to power at this time? “

The immediate answer would appear to be to appeal to the example of the OT prophets. But the classical Hebrew prophets’ responsibility to speak the Word of God, the Dabar YHWH, was predicated on the special relationship between the Hebrew Monarchy with YHWH, to which there is no analogy in any modern state. No theocracies here! Yet we all now rightly condemn the ‘official’ church of Nazi Germany for assenting to its crimes and praise the stance of the Confessing Church in resisting Nazism.

That seems to me to offer a model for the Christian citizens of any country when they see a conflict arising between their obligations as Christians, eg, their duty to God and their neighbours, and their obligations as citizens of that country, eg, to obey the laws of the land. When that rubber hits the road, we are obliged to chose the higher citizenship, that we hold in the heavenly Jerusalem, over the lesser, that we hold in any earthly country. That perspective puts the responsibility of speaking the truth to power not upon prophets only, but on all Christians, as frightening as that may be.

The first step would be to resist in every possible way the imposition of laws that seemed to violate the Gospel imperatives of love of God and love of neighbour and to say clearly and openly why, as Christians, they opposed those laws. And the second would be civil disobedience. Either could be personally dangerous; it isn’t necessary to look at as extreme an example as that of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany to know that. When the Freedom Riders and others in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s worked for civil rights and voting rights for black Americans, they were threatened, attacked, and in some cases murdered by racist organisations like the Klan and racist individuals. I very well remember how my own mother, who felt very strongly about civil rights and voting rights, had to choose between her desire to go to Mississippi and her family obligations, because my father was so ill and I was too young to take over that responsibility. So she found less dangerous but equally necessary work to be done with the League of Women Voters right at home in San Antonio. That kind of quiet, behind-the-scenes work for Gospel imperatives is itself a form of speaking the truth to power. Actions are themselves a form of speech when injustice is at issue.

At this point in the US, the group which has triggered these fears has not yet taken office, passed any laws, or made any regulations or policies. So now is an opportunity for Christian groups and individuals to speak about the statements or potential appointments that have raised fears, explain why they seem to point in a direction that is contrary to Christian values, that is, contrary to the love of God and neighbour. Ideally such interventions would suggest alternatives that are in keeping with the two great Commandments.

But there can be no doubt that, as Christians, we have an obligation to speak the truth to power in whatever way comes to hand (or mouth) in our own time and circumstances.