Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Tag

Newsweek says Bible supports gay marriage. They’re right.

Newsweek magazine has an excellent cover story in their most recent issue that argues that the Bible does not support the position of same-sex marriage opponents, despite their claims that it does. The article opens with this:

Let’s try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?

This book supports same-sex marriage rights; it doesn't oppose them

This book is supportive of same-sex marriage rights

The authors point out that fifteen decades ago the Bible was used to support (and to oppose) human slavery.  They also point out the many ways that the institution of marriage has already changed, both since the Mosaic Code was written and within the past few years. They deal with the anti-homosexuality passages in the Bible, albeit with a bit less skill and thoroughness, and give a status update on the state of same-sex unions in various U.S. denominations.  Further polling data on how Americans view same-sex unions and homosexuality are also included.  (See also my prior post, Newsweek poll: support for gay rights is up.)

The article argues that, far from supporting the position of same-sex marriage opponents—who too often go unchallenged theologically—the Bible supports an inclusive view of the institution.

The religious argument for gay marriage …  “is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.”

The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage. If one is for racial equality and the common nature of humanity, then the values of stability, monogamy and family necessarily follow. The religious argument for gay marriage, he adds, “is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.”

Not surprisingly, the article, “Gay Marriage: Our Mutual Joy” (available online here), has proven pretty controversial.  The usual suspects among conservative religious groups is accusing Newsweek of blasphemy, relativism, and the whole gamut of their normal charges.  The magazine’s editor anticipated this and wrote in the issue that “Religious conservatives will say that the liberal media are once again seeking to impose their values (or their ‘agenda,’ a favorite term to describe the views of those who disagree with you) on a God-fearing nation.”  He continued, “Let the letters and emails come. History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion.”

Whether you’re inclined to agree with it or not, I highly recommend you check out the article for yourself and make up your own mind.

Monks fight at tomb of Jesus. For the second time. This year.

If you worked here you'd be a monk. And you'd be getting in fights all the time.

If you worked here you'd be a monk. And you'd be fighting all the time.

This is embarassing.  Armenian Christians and Greek Orthodox Christians got into a brawl at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the shrine which probably marks the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial—so it’s only about the holiest spot on the planet to Christians.   Too bad we can’t say this is the first time it’s happened.  This year.

The Guardian describes the action:

Armenian monks and their worshippers had been participating in a ceremony marking the 4th-century discovery of the cross on which Christ was crucified when they found their path blocked by a Greek Orthodox monk posted in Jesus’s tomb. Fists began flying, kicking monks lost their footing and 10ft ceremonial candlesticks and banners toppled to the ground. Police dragged priests from the melee in head locks and arrested two Armenian clerics, who were later released.

Here’s a video of the brawl that has been circulating on YouTube:

Monks get in fights at the church all the time—this is the second time this year alone that police have had to break up fisticuffs there.  The situation is complicated, but these fights and ill will stem from a centuries old agreement that divides up the church amongst the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenians, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Churches; it governs which group controls which areas and when and how they can use common areas.  The agreement was imposed by the Ottomans, who controlled Palestine at the time, in 1767 and divides the church among the claimants; it was confirmed and made permanent in 1852. 

But the agreement hasn’t really helped things much; there is no sense of unity or charity amongst the various groups controlling the Holy Sepulchre.  In 2002 a brawl resulted in eleven people being hospitalized.  The cause?  A Coptic monk stationed on the roof moved his chair on a hot day from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, who apparently had control over the shady spot, and a fight broke out.  How Christian.

If that desn’t tell you how sad the situation is, maybe this will: above the entryway to the church—which, again, probably marks the place where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried—is a ladder.  No big deal, right?  Right.  Except it’s been there for over a hundred and fifty (150) years because the various factions can’t agree about what to do with it.  Here’s an idea: move the dang thing!  Their inability to reach agreement has bigger consequences too. Recent inspections indicate that the roof is unstable and will collapse soon and destroy the whole church; it needs urgent repairs but the Ethiopians and Coptics who control the area can’t agree on what to do.  For a simpleton like me, the solution seems obvious (fix the roof) but these holy men of God can’t reach an agreement on that so soon there won’t be any roof at all—shady spots and all will be destroyed in a massive collapse which will be well deserved if these simpletons can’t get their act together.

The entrance to the church.  Note the ladder above the doorway has been there, in that same exact spot, for at least 150 years.

The entrance to the church. Note the ladder above the doorway; it has been in that exact spot for at least 150 years.

What happened to the unity that Jesus called for his followers to have?  What happened to the charity that we are supposed to show others?  Turning the other cheek, anyone?  Or does being at the tomb of Jesus absolve one from the need to actually follow what he taught?  Happily, the keys to the church are controlled by two Muslim families, who Saladin himself entrusted with that duty in 1192.  Can you imagine how much worse this ridiculous squabbling would be if any of the Christian groups got their hands on the keys?  If they don’t straighten out pretty quick there won’t be any church anymore.  Maybe that’d actually be better; this fighting does more to sully Jesus’s legacy than the presence of the building can ever do to preserve it.

Wikipedia has a good article on the church, including the history of the building, and reasons to think it may be the real place.  It also has lots of pictures of the interior and exterior, including the ladder.

News and thoughts on California’s Proposition 8

MSNBC reports that the contest to pass or defeat California’s Proposition 8 is the second most expensive political battle in the country this year, trailing only the bajillions of dollars being spent by McCain and Obama—but mostly Obama—in their battle for the White House.  Proposition 8, which I previously blogged about here, would amend the California Constitution to remove the right of same-sex couples to marry.  This blog opposes the measure and hopes that Californians will defeat it at the ballot box on Tuesday.

Flag of California

It may be the best state flag with writing on it... but it's still got writing on it! Grrr.

The latest polls indicate that 49% of respondents intend to vote no (and support protecting the rights of same-sex couples) and 44% intend to vote yes (and remove the marriage rights of same-sex couples); the remainder are undecided.  Apparently, most people who are undecided in the final days of such campaigns on controversial social issues tend to vote no.  So, the smarter money would be on the measure not passing, though it is sure to be close.  Incidentally, Intrade speculators are indeed putting their money on it not passing; current market consensus is that it has about a 25% chance of success.

I am disappointed and distraught that Proposition 8’s main supporters are, with no exceptions that I know of, all part of my own religious tradition, Christianity.  Formerly, Christians like William Wilburforce—who successfully lobbied against the slave trade—and Martin Luther King, Jr.—who championed civil rights—were all about expanding human freedom; it’s unfortunate that that’s not the case in the present instance.  It is furthermore unfortunate that Prop 8 supporters and others similarly minded people—when they address the issue at all—make such flimsy arguments about why the parts of the Mosaic Code that they want to impose on other people must still be followed but the parts that they don’t want to be held to don’t apply any more.  I think they also damage their standing with their claims about the alleged harms of permitting same-sex marriage, which, at best, are all out of proportion to the evidence and, more commonly, are in direct contradiction to it.

Andrew Sullivan has interesting blog posts here and here on the enourmous amount of money that Later Day Saints (Mormons) are donating to the pro-8 cause.  Though they’re only about 1.5-1.8% of the state’s population, apparently about 30-40% of all pro-8 money is coming from Mormons (not all of them in-state).  The second Sullivan piece indicates that the total might be as high as 77%, but that figure seems insufficiently sourced and is pretty unbelievable to me.  He writes that LDS efforts are “about consolidating the Mormon church into the wider Christianist movement. If the Mormons can prove their anti-gay mettle, they will be less subject to suspicion from evanglicals.”  He quotes another gentleman who says that “For whatever reason, [Mormons are] trying to get some respect from other religions. … They’ve always been looked down upon by the Christians, the Catholics, and evangelicals” but would gain credibility if the marriage succeeds.  An interesting analysis.

The LDS Church is by no means monolithic, however (few religions are).  Mormons for Marriage have an excellent website explaining why they respectfully oppose Proposition 8 and are actively working to promote marriage rights.  (It strikes me as Orwellian how so many groups that are against marriage rights for certain people get themselves considered the “pro marriage” side.)  Check out their site; it’s very well organized and contains lots of information.

I feel that it’s very likely that by 2030 same-sex marriage will be legally available to most, if not all, Americans.  This current opposition is another one of those things some Christians think is a really good idea (and others think is really bad) that the church is going to have to come to terms with  and eventually apologize for.  Sort of like slavery, the inquisition, and the crusades.  Though I will say that taking away a person’s right to marry is nowhere near as bad as taking away his or her life or freedom.  Society is making progress; we’ve decided that it’s not okay to kill or enslave people and now are discussing if it’s okay to let them marry.

Anyway, here are some No On Prop 8 ads that imitate Apple’s “I’m a PC/I’m a Mac” ads.  Even if you disagree with the points raised, you may find them amusing.  I especially like the second one which features the Constitution of California, who’s a lot more attractive than I thought she’d be, given that she’s one of the longest state constitutions in the country, albeit nowhere near as long as the monstrosity that Alabama uses.

California polls close at 8:00 pm local time, 11:00 pm eastern time.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens with this initiative.

Praying for peace in Jerusalem

Since 2004, the first Sunday in October has been observed by some Christians as a day to specifically pray for the peace of Jerusalem, something specifically enjoined by the psalmist:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
“May peace be within your walls,
And prosperity within your palaces.”
For the sake of my brothers and my friends,
I will now say, “May peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.
— Psalm 122:6-9

The Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem (official site), first organized by a pair of Pentecostal evangelists, Jack W. Hayford and Robert Stearns, day is mostly observed by evangelical Christians and it’s date was selected to fall near Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement and repentence. While many involved with the day may be as concerned with politics as with God, we should never require much convincing before we pray for and contemplate peace and how we can promote its realization on earth, as it is in heaven.

Beating swords into plowshares, a well-known biblical image of peace

Beating swords into plowshares, a well-known biblical image of peace

Jerusalem, and the entire conflict that centers on it, certainly needs peace; entirely too much blood is shed over the city and the region—and a single drop constitutes too much. But if we simply say “peace, peace” there will be no peace: peace is more than just the absence of violence; it requires the existence of a just system wherein everybody is free from harm and free to be who they are and who they can be. Such a system cannot be established until there is healing for the enormous amounts of hatred and anger that exist on both sides of the present conflict. That conflict, which effects not just Jew and Moslem, and not just Israeli and Palestinian, but the larger world as well, has gone on for far too long. One need not be a Christian or a Jew, or even religious at all, to desire and pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the region.

Those who are within the Judeo-Christian tradition have as their heritage some of the most beautiful passages on peace in all of world literature, and perhaps sharing some selections might be appropriate on this day. One image of peace used frequently in the Hebrew Bible, albeit not very much today, is the hope that

Every man will sit under his own vine
and under his own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
— Micah 4:4

Vines and trees were beyond the means of the poor to own, so a society where each person had his or her own fig tree is one where poverty has been eliminated; and since they take a long time to grow, this image implies a stability and permanence to the situation, not just a temporary cease-fire. It speaks to the point that it is difficult to eliminate anger and hatred if you have not yet eliminated deprivation, a theme often emphasized by people who are especially interested in social justice.

Many of the Bible’s other passages about peace are still commonly used today, often by those unaware of their origins. From the prophet Isaiah we read:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
— Isaiah 11:6-9

From the same source we get one of the best known images of peace:

He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
— Isaiah 2:4

In the Christian New Testament peace is also an emphasis. One of Jesus’s epithets is Prince of Peace (though the phrase itself occurs only in the Old Testament) and, of course, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Paul of Tarsus, the second most important figure in early Christianity, wrote in his epistle to the Romans that “so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” and that “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” So, let us “pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.”

This brief listing is by no means exhaustive, even of the Judeo-Christian tradition; all of the world’s enduring religions, in their best forms, emphasize peace. And, of course, many people who consider themselves nonreligious also seek peace and pursue it.

In an ecumenical spirit, here is a prayer for peace in the Middle East written by Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, former Secretary General of the Islamic Society of North America:

O God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad! Bring peace and tranquility to the people of Middle East who have been plagued with pain and suffering.

O God! We appeal to you bring our soldiers back safe and help our nation to be one that is given to truth and justice.

O God! We call you with your beautiful names: the One, the Holy, the Sovereign, the Just, and the Peace. We call with love and sincerity to bring peace to our world and guide our steps to do what is right and what pleases You.

O God! You are the Source of Good, the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Supreme: All Glory belongs to you! Help us to see our glory in serving you and upholding the values of compassion and justice on earth.

O God we beg you to forgive our sins and ask you not to hold us accountable for mistakes and missteps we did or were done in our names. Our Lord give us the humility to recognize our mistakes and limitations, and the strength and courage to choose right over wrong and justice over pride.

O the Eternal and Compassionate Lord! Fill our hearts with your Love, and help us to love one another, and show compassion to your servants throughout the world and your creation.

O God! We ask you in submission and humility to allow wisdom to triumph over vanity, truth over falsehood, and love over hate.

Amen.

Amen.

Dag Hammarskjöld

“Never measure the height of a mountain, until you have reached the top.  Then you will see how low it was.”  Thus wrote Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat who died on this date, September 18th, 47 years ago (Wikipedia bio). He served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, heavily shaping the office and according to many, including Kofi Annan, he is the greatest person to have held the post; John F. Kennedy praised him as “the greatest statesman of our century” and he remains the only person to win the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously, having been nominated prior to his death.

U.N. Secretary-General and Christian mystic Dag Hammarskjöld at his desk

U.N. Secretary-General and Christian mystic Dag Hammarskjöld at his desk

Hammarskjöld died in 1961 while on a mission to negotiate a cease-fire between warring factions in the Congo and his plane crashed. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories have grown up surrounding this event, but it appears likely to have been nothing more than an unfortunate accident.

A Christian mystic in the tradition of Thomas à Kempis, Hammarskjöld is remembered now not just for his diplomatic accomplishments but for a thin volume of writings that he contributed to throughout his life which was published posthumously under the title Markings.  I find the book remarkable, and would describe it as a cross between the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Thoreau’s Walden.  Like the former, it was not intended for publication but merely to collect his thoughts for his own purposes.  Here are a few excerpts.

From 1955:

Sun and stillness. Looking down through the jade-green water, you see the monsters of the deep playing on the reef.  Is this a reason to be afraid?  Do you feel safer when scudding waves hide what lies beneath the surface?

On Christmas Eve, 1956:

Your own efforts “did not bring it to pass,” only God–but rejoice if God found a use for your efforts in His work.  Rejoice if you feel that whast you did was “necessary,” but remember, even so, that you were simply the instrument by means of which He added one tiny grain to the Universe He has created for His own purposes.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has placed Hammarskjöld on their calendar of saints, recognizing him annually on this date as a “renewer of society,” a designation he shares with Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Florence Nightingale, among others.  He is in very good company.

As a young man he penned the following poem:

Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I–
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.

But in the meantime how grievous the memory
Of hours frittered away.

Hammarskjöld’s tomorrow did not come for decades after that, but ours may come at any time.  May Death not find us frittering away the hours.

Church of England apologizes to Charles Darwin

The Rev. Malcolm Brown, the head of the Church of England’s public affairs department, has said that the Church owes Charles Darwin an apology, “for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still.” He said that in a larger essay, “Good religion needs good science,” which itself if part of an excellent series of articles and essays, found at here, on Darwin that the Church of England is releasing in advance of 2009, which is both the bicentennial of the scientist’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the first publication of On the Origin of Species.

Charles Darwin, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle

Charles Darwin in the late 1830s, shortly after returning from the Beagle's historic voyage

They compare hostility to Darwin and evolution to the opposition that Galileo faced for saying the Earth moved around the Sun. Pope John Paul II officially apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in putting Galileo on trial and stifling his ideas. Some have criticized the apology, calling it “ludicrous” or “pointless,” the latter being the characterization of Darwin’s great-great-grandson.

I think it is appropriate to admit fault where it is real, but care should be taken to not distort the history of the church’s reaction to the theory of evolution which is certainly not the story of universal rejection. Indeed, the publication of The Origin of Species in North America was organized by Darwin’s confidante, Asa Gray, professor of natural history at Harvard and a committed Christian. (Gray later wrote a book titled Darwiniana.) The British historian James Moore writes that “with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution”, and the American sociologist George Marsden reports that “…with the exception of Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s.” And it wasn’t just scientists among Christians who quickly embraced evolution. One Anglican clergyman wrote to Darwin suggesting that evolution was actually a “loftier” conception of God than the old-fashioned idea of God creating humans the easy way, by just molding them out of dust. In other words, there is grandeur in this view of life.

I do very highly recommend the articles published by the Church of England on Darwin and his life, though I have only begun to skim through them myself. They point out that Darwin was raised and always surrounded by Anglicans and even studied briefly for the priesthood as a young man (some Islamic Creationists take this to be proof that evolution is a Christian plot to undermine the morals of good Moslems). His journey away from Christian faith into what he later said was best characterized as agnosticism, not atheism, had nothing to do with his scientific discoveries; it was largely the result of his daughter’s death, which he found difficult to square with the existence of a loving, all-powerful God.

Darwin knew that his research and theories would prove controversial and expected the attacks that he received. However, his fears that his family and friends would reject him were happily unfounded. When he died in 1882, he became one of only five non-royals to be given a state funeral in the 19th century and was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton.

Comments are welcome. And you can check out those aforementioned articles here: http://www.cofe.anglican.org/darwin