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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christians Can Be Grateful For Gay Marriage

Last week Illinois became the 16th state to allow same-sex marriage. And promptly joined the previous 15 in their devolved, anarchic state of a post-apocalyptic society and broken families. ...Just kidding.

But you might think all of that if you were following Christian responses. The simplest way I can say it is that these responses were largely disappointing.

Most of them talk of gay marriage "destroying the family." One Illinois Catholic bishop even performed an exorcism on the State of Illinois for its sins just 30 minutes after Governor Pat Quinn signed gay marriage into law. Afterward, His Excellency told reporters he wasn't trying to single out any one issue. This is doubly tragic - first that His Excellency would think such an exorcism was appropriate and second that he would not say with courage, "Yes, this is about gay marriage. Yes, I'm opposed to it. Yes, I stand by the actions I performed just minutes ago." However you feel about gay marriage, honesty is admirable.

I have remained indifferent to the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage. I have opinions but I don't feel I have a horse in that race. But many Christians think they do.

So why should we Christians be grateful that gay marriage can be legalized? Because the government still has no interest in defining the spiritual realities of sacramental marriage. And it doesn't claim to.

There's a reason that when you are married in church you still have to register your marriage with the state. The church will recognize your marriage from the moment you say, "I do." The state only cares about the legal framework being followed and that you've signed a piece of paper.

What's happening with gay marriage is a legal action. I normally champion holistic seeing - that we can't separate spiritual from emotional from physical. But when it comes to governments, they have a very specific purpose and function, and it is not a spiritual one. They are interested in structuring a productive, healthy, society and, in our very fortunate case, allowing citizens to pursue their own happiness.

American Christians love the separation of Church and state, and I mean absolutely love it. We go bananas for it, especially when something like universal healthcare comes to the fore. We want the government to stay out of our religion! But then we turn around and expect that our religious beliefs should be the basis for governing on the issues that we actually do care about. Like gay marriage.

But here's the truth: Christians don't realize how lucky they are that the issue of gay marriage has developed the way it has. We aren't facing the issue of people wanting marriages between three people or with minors or to loosen divorce entitlements to make "marriage" a somewhat fluid definition. We aren't looking at an assault on the structure or seriousness of marriage. We're looking at a group who wants to keep the structure but just be a part of it. Our biggest issue is that gay couples want to affirm marriage's importance as-is.

The issue of our time is that gay couples want to buy into our system: they want monogamous, lifelong relationships, a house in the suburbs, two kids, holidays gathered with their families, and on and on and on. It looks exactly like the image of marriage Christians hold up except for the couple being gay. Some Christians understandably think that that part does matter though others don't. What I'm trying to say is that this image is not so scary. It's not foreign. And since our Constitution is a legal (and not spiritual) document, it's hard to argue they don't have that right.

"But society will break down! Children need a mother and father." Granted, it's hard to argue that by natural design children don't need a mother and a father because, after all, every human has required them for his/her existence. But since gay couples understandably won't be naturally producing their own children, this means there will be more stable couples in society willing to adopt. This is huge! The world has so many children in desperate need of loving homes.

And before you condemn gay couples who want to adopt children you need to answer the question, "Am I willing to adopt a child in need? When I'm married and/or financially stable, do I plan on doing it then?" If the honest answer is no, then you have lost any right to deny adoption to them. People who condemn gay couples adopting but refuse to do so themselves are like the Levite passing the robbed man on the road and then saying the (good) Samaritan shouldn't be allowed to help. Do you think a child in search of a forever home is going to care that their parents are gay? No, no they won't. This particular principle of help and love coming from outcasts is such an offensive theme in the gospels that even today Christians deny its application in our lives.

I see a difference between asking "do you approve of gay marriage" and "should gay marriage be legalized," not because of the answers necessarily but because the questions get at two fundamentally different things.

Our government is designed to not govern based on religious conviction. And the legalization of gay marriage affirms that. For that reason I can say, "Thank God."

Related Posts:
When the Church Fails Homosexuals
Where is God, the Right or the Left?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Catholic in Wheaton: Who Owns C.S. Lewis?

It's been 50 years since C.S. Lewis' passing. I have a profound respect and admiration for the man. The fact that I'm one of thousands writing about him this week is a testament to his influence and legacy.

There's nothing wrong with Lewis, humanly imperfect as I'm sure he was. I love him. But here comes the honest part: part of me is sick of how we see and talk about him. Part of me is sick of how Evangelicals see and talk about him.

Living in Wheaton, there's a joke that Lewis is called, "St. Jack." The joke is somewhat obvious - that Lewis is held in such high regard he's practically a saint. But the joke, though everyone in Wheaton seems to be in on it, has a surprising non-effect. Wheaties appear to like to joke about how much they overly esteem Lewis with one breath and then continue praising him with the next.

The articles and posts I've seen written about Lewis in the past few weeks are smart. They know their stuff. They know that Lewis is an apologist who didn't have degrees in theology or religion nor did he claim such credentials. They know that Jack's strengths lie in his imagination and storytelling.

But like Relevant Magazine's recent post on Lewis, while admitting Lewis never claimed to be a theologian, Evangelicals continue specifically calling him "theologian." Religious fields - ethics, apologetics, theology, biblical studies - can all overlap and be connected to one another but they're not interchangeable. Lewis was an utterly fantastic apologist. He understood love perhaps as well as anyone. And the writings we know and cherish from him cover the realm of spirituality. But spirituality is not theology any more than general mathematics is advanced calculus. And Evangelicals regularly don't seem to know the difference.

"Big deal. Aren't you being pretty nitpicky?" you might ask. No, I'm not, and I'll tell you why.

Because Evangelicals claim Lewis as one of their own. Rather than say, "we greatly admire Lewis for his unique contributions," Evangelicals seem to want to say, "Here's our man! He's just like us. He stands for us. And what he did reflects and represents us." And if you identify with him and believe he speaks for your group, then inflating his resume is a matter of self-interest.

Now, I completely admit this is just one man's opinion. There's a danger of projecting too much onto any one group when you start generalizing. But as someone who lives in arguably the most Evangelically dominated community in America, when you're close to but not necessarily a card-carrying member of that community, you notice exclusion. You notice being left out. And this view of Lewis is a prime example.

In Dale Fincher's blog post from Soulation he does call Lewis a theologian but more importantly he claims that it's fairly obvious Lewis' influence on Christianity is greater than anyone else in the 20th century. Think about that claim for a second and at first glance, do you disagree? If you're Evangelical, chances are higher that you don't.

I know someone who personally knows the aforementioned blogger, and certainly nothing ill was meant by that statement. He has a great voice and this claim wasn't even the main point of the post. But that's also kind of the point: a certain view of (Evangelical) Lewis-as-most-important is simply and subtly assumed. The truth is such a claim is not obvious to "Christians," it only seems obvious to Evangelical Christians.

I, for one, could point out that whereas Lewis understands love like no one else, J.R.R. Tolkien perhaps understands the subtle nature of evil better than anyone I've ever read. I could point out that Thomas Merton's writings contain as much spiritual depth as Lewis'. I could call to mind that Mother Teresa's legacy has more widespread recognition, reach, and teaching than Lewis' works (wildly popular as they are within Evangelicalism). Or I could give the example of Pope John Paul II - the leader of 1 billion Christians - who not only could claim supreme spiritual sway over 1/6 of the world's population but was also one of the main forces causing the fall of communism, a legacy whose practical, moral, and spiritual effects will be felt for centuries.

In my more generous moments this Evangelical view that Lewis is something like the most influential Christian of the 20th century seems simply due to the fact that his writings prove so accessible and universal. In my more cynical moments, I conclude that Evangelicals assume their sphere is the only Christian one and that all of the above figures aren't considered equally influential Christians because, well, they're Catholic.

I'm struggling with myself. I don't know exactly why I have such a strong knee-jerk reaction to all of the "C.S.-Lewis-is-the-best" craze. I think it's partly the inaccuracy of the "theologian" and "ethicist" labels for him. Part of it is wanting to turn a critical eye to the bandwagon that most people seem to be jumping on this week. But part of it is a feeling of exclusion.

I don't get the sense that Evangelicals feel they share Lewis or need to. I get the sense that they claim ownership of him. It's frustrating to feel that some of Lewis' other beliefs are flat-out ignored for the sake of convenience, like, say, the ones in affirmation of purgatory, the communion of the saints, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. (Of course, any claims that Lewis was 'practically Catholic' are also inaccurate.)

It's this sense of exclusion I feel from the way Lewis is talked about that eventually starts to get under my skin. It's the same frustration I experience when I hear people talk about "Christians" (meaning Protestants or Evangelicals) vs. "Catholics" (who somehow aren't Christian?). It's the same frustration I feel when I hear that Evangelical missionaries are "taking the gospel to Latin America," all predominantly Catholic countries where missionaries are needed but not because the gospel failed to arrive almost 500 years ago with Catholicism. And it's the same frustration I experience with the simple title of Christianity Today magazine*. As well-intentioned as I believe Billy Graham's magazine title to be, it's a little insulting to every Christian outside of Evangelicalism. Imagine being a woman and picking up a copy of Americans Today only to find its content was exclusively catered to men and male-specific issues. It would be difficult not to feel excluded. If one is to use an inclusive label like "Christian" one shouldn't do so exclusive-ly.

I suppose my plea to Wheaties, to Evangelicals is to honor his legacy but to not be possessive of Lewis. He's not one of you and your group. He's one of us and our larger, Christian group. And maybe that's healthier. Maybe that's more than enough. Maybe you don't have to claim, "Wheaton is the Harvard of Christian schools," but broaden your mind to be more inclusive. Say, "Wheaton is the Harvard of Evangelical Christian schools," if that sort of claim is necessary or important to you. If you don't already, maybe give some thought to how you, like any Christian group, don't represent the whole but are only part of it. An important part! A wonderful part! A truly beautiful part! But just a part and not the "everything." It's quite necessary to recognize important voices and vital contributions but equally important is viewing them in their proper context. Just as we should with Lewis.

*Christianity Today is a publication I read regularly and greatly appreciate. They do absolutely wonderful work and apart from the small matter of what I think is a very poor title, I am a great fan of the magazine as well as its message and mission. I hope it goes without saying that I am also a great fan of Evangelicalism and of Wheaton, my home.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Should Christians Feel Guilty About Being Rich?

Last week, Jen Pollack Michel of Christianity Today wrote a piece entitled, "Fellow Christians: I'm Rich and I'm Sorry," partly in response to the media controversy surrounding Evangelical Elevation Church pastor, Steve Furtick, and the 1.7 million dollar home he is building which the church owns and he isn't paying taxes on with his undisclosed salary. Furtick is a megachurch pastor in North Carolina who has written a popular book he claims primarily paid for his home. The Furtick affair brings to light an important question: how should Christians regard real wealth, what many of us call being "rich"?

With a great deal of sincerity, Michel discloses that she too has, at times, felt guilty about being rich. She describes feeling guilty for having nice things or for splurging for a higher-priced item at the store that is admittedly a luxury and not a necessity. Michel's take is refreshing and sheds light on an important conversation to have about Christians and money. But she misses a few points and I think in reading the article it's easy to gloss over some principles about wealth.

As Michel points out, "wealthy" is a relative term and that always needs to be kept in mind. Ultimately Michel concludes being rich isn't a sin (one might read, "never" a sin). But I really don't see that echoed in our faith.

Exorbitant wealth, i.e. so much money you wouldn't know what to do with it, actually is a sin if hoarded, the same way a single person keeping a refrigerator full of steaks would be wasteful since one person couldn't reasonably go through them before they went bad. And even if they did, that person would be a glutton (another serious and convenient sin we Americans like to forget about). And that's kind of the point of the controversy around pastor Furtick and other leaders. We don't want gluttons representing God.

The German Catholic Bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, has been in the news in the past couple weeks and he puts Furtick to shame. He's been dubbed the "bishop of bling" for his extravagant and unseemly lifestyle as a Christian shepherd. He spent $42 million on the renovation of his residence alone, including lavish home decor like bathtubs and tables costing tens of thousands of dollars each.

There have been a lot of conversations about income inequality in this country and how it has recently grown. Many Americans think that CEOs' income should be somehow tied to the lowest-earning employee at the company, say as a percentage of that lowest salary (for example, a CEO could not earn greater than 20 times the mail room worker). Being neither economist nor ethicist, I can't say if this is a good idea. But if that's the prevailing attitude toward CEOs, what do we think the attitude toward pastors and spiritual leaders is, especially outside our churches? As Catholic blogger Kevin O'Brien said of abuse within the Catholic Church, It is not surprising that our shepherds fall short of the high standards of the Christian Faith. It is surprising that they don’t even rise to the low standards of the secular world.”

For better or worse (I tend to think the former), pastors are held up as examples of the Christian life. As lay Christians we are all called to be an example of the Gospel and Christ's love but some of us can do that more visibly than others. Furtick may have some very wealthy congregants who are also building lavish homes. But that doesn't make the news. Instead, a pastor does, one who mixes personal finances with church finances, refuses to disclose salary, and whose defense for his 1.7 million dollar home included, "It's not that great of a house!" and the explanation that other people have nicer homes than his rather than saying with honesty as Jen Pollack Michel did, "I'm rich" and that she sometimes does, sometimes doesn't feel guilty about that.

Often the point of Scripture's references to wealth isn't that having it is a sin but that it is a danger to right relationship with God. It really is. We know it's an obstacle for our own salvation when we have it (see Matthew 19:24) and we know how we use it can be a scandal to others.

It's tricky to say if being wealthy is wrong. I think the answer is, "it depends." And it doesn't depend on an income threshold but on how you regard and care for your wealth. If it makes you complicit in the exploitation of others, yes I do think wealth is a sin. If it draws you into even greater care and concern for the poor, no I don't think it's wrong.

Perhaps our model should be Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a wealthy man and a tax collector. Jesus doesn't encounter Zacchaeus and tell him his profession is wrong or criticize his income. Jesus doesn't criticize anything about him actually. But Zacchaeus' encounter with Christ results in the right attitude toward wealth when he responds: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 

If we have more than we could ever reasonably need then yes, I do think that kind of wealth is a sin if hoarded. In this case, it's especially important for Christians to be charitable and not hold onto 90% of their income. Give freely! It's not a numbers or percentages game but keep in mind that Zaccheaus only keeps half and that's before he makes restitution to those he's exploited. 

More importantly, when we have wealth we need to say, "have I gained wealth through defrauding anyone?" "Is my wealth the result of injustice and privilege?" (Unlike Michel, I don't think 'privilege' simply means 'blessing.') "Have I gained because others have lost?" And if that's the case then we are to make amends as Zacchaeus undoubtedly did. Only in that sort of encounter with God can wealth become relegated to its proper position as a mere part of our story rather than an obstacle we push along in front of us.