#ChurchToo, and Church Especially: Purity Culture Doesn’t Protect Women from Abuse; It Prepares Them for It

A few days ago, some amazing women I know–Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch–started the #ChurchToo hashtag on Twitter. It’s picking up steam fairly quickly and has already been featured on Time, Vox, and Bustle–to name just a few places. The campaign is, obviously, a riff off the #MeToo movement with the intent of showing that sexual harassment and assault are as prevalent in religious communities as they are in entertainment, media, and politics–and precisely for the same reason: men are in positions of power over women who are dependent on them.

The difference, however, is that in these fundamentalist patriarchal religious communities, women being in subjection to men isn’t just a matter of the way things have played out culturally; it’s explicitly built into the very doctrine of these churches. Imagine it being a matter of official policy in these production companies, news rooms, and state houses that women have to submit to the authority of men–how much easier it would be than it already is for these women to be taken advantage of. Well, that is precisely the way it is in these fundamentalist Evangelical Churches.

Read through the hashtag and you’ll find some truly heartbreaking stories and startling remarks. Many of us have been taught to see the church as a warm and welcoming place. For many girls growing up in Evangelical Christianity, though, it is a prison for shame and abuse. Here are just a few that I think are worthy of calling out…

Setting aside the heterosexist implications of this ideology, this culture has disastrous effects on how boys and girls come to see each other (and themselves). Girls grow up seeing themselves as objects of desire for boys, and that they are responsible for not tempting those boys to give into those desires–thereby managing to save themselves for their future husbands who will come along to provide for and take care of them after marriage. Boys grow up seeing themselves as lustful beasts who can only restrain themselves by controlling the appearance and behavior of females–who they see as beings put in their charge by God to rule over.

It isn’t very difficult to see how this culture can lead to the systematic exploitation of women in these circles–attracting men in particular who are prone to predatory behavior. The culture is structured in such a way that, if a woman is sexually abused in any way, it is almost always her fault. She caused the man to stumble and, while the man may have transgressed as well, she is fundamentally responsible and still needs to seek forgiveness from her abuser.

This kind of thinking lies behind the argument that following the “Mike Pence rule” (aka “Billy Graham rule”) can reduce the likelihood that men and women would end up in compromising situations that lead to sexual abuse. If men just determine not to meet alone with women, unless their wives are present, then they will never be tempted to take advantage of women, right?

Well, there are a few problems with this. First and foremost is a fundamental misconception about why men sexually abuse women. Rape, assault, harassment, and sexual exploitation of any kind are not about sexual desire; they’re about sexual dominance. Men in positions of power don’t take advantage of women because they’re seductive; they take advantage of them because they’re vulnerable. It has nothing to do with what women are wearing; it has everything to do with how dependent they are on these men for the success of their careers, their validity as human beings, or the salvation of their souls. Predatory men don’t lust after women’s bodies; they lust after the power they can have over women’s bodies. As a great leader once said, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…”

Another problem with relying on the “Mike Pence rule,” is that it completely disregards the possibility of sexual abuse occurring within marriage. Many fundamentalist Christian leaders either discourage or downright forbid wives from refusing the sexual advances of their husbands. Add that to the fact that, since divorce is typically forbidden, Evangelical women in abusive marriages have no way of getting out of those harmful relationships.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to this: there is simply no discussion on consent in sexuality within conservative Evangelical culture. A friend of mine recently called my attention to this post (including the image above) that makes a profound distinction in the sexual ethics of Evangelical Christians as compared to broader society. For fundamentalist Christians, there are no limits to sex as long as they are within the confines of heterosexual marriage. This means that, as long as a man is married, he technically owns the body of his wife. To the rest of humanity, sexual activity is wrong to the extent that it is non-consensual–whether the people engaging in it are married or not.

Here’s the bottom line: purity culture does not protect women from abuse; it prepares them for it. It sets them up to become objects for men to possess. Yes, sexual abuse happens in Evangelical churches. Of course it happens in Evangelical churches. The system is structured in such a way that it is almost guaranteed to happen. So, if we want to save the girls from abuse in the churches, we can’t reinforce the system that set them up for abuse in the first place.

The system has got to change.

The theology has got to change.

We have got to change.

Who we truly are as a church will depend upon how we answer these charges going forward. This is our defining moment, church. If only for once in our entire history of existence, let’s own our crap. Let’s own the sin of patriarchy…so we can finally set about on the hard work of repentance.

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There Are Prophets in Our Midst…

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about prophets.

Not the kind that predict the future; the kind that critique the present

Not the kind that tell of fortune; the kind that tell of lament

Not the kind that appease those in power; the kind who enter boldly into a corrupt society to bring a fiery, divinely inspired message that upsets the comfort of the complacent.

These are the prophets of the Scriptures. In the canonical Hebrew Scriptures, there are 15 of these divinely sanctioned truth tellers. These prophets of old did not mince words. In a nation that was perfectly content saying, “this is fine,” these prophets stood up and spoke out against the injustices that others chose to ignore.

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

Jesus was a prophet too. Christians have come to see him as much more but, fundamentally, that’s exactly what he was. He brought a message of repentance in preparation for a new kingdom he claimed was coming. He wowed people with his words and confirmed the validity of them with his deeds. And ultimately, like so many prophets before him, he was executed for bringing a subversive message that the powerful did not want people to hear.

In the famous “Road to Emmaus” story recorded in Luke 24, Jesus appears to two of his disciples post-resurrection, disguised as a stranger. He asks them what they’re talking about, and they proceed to tell him about himself: 

“He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.”

If you read between the lines, you can sense a great deal of disillusionment in these disciples. They had believed deeply in Jesus, not just in the man but also in the message. They believed that a new kingdom was coming, that a better world was being ushered in. They had staked their lives on this belief, and then they watched as it crumbled before their eyes.

Their hero was killed, executed by the very empire from which he was to liberate them. But even though they knew of his crucifixion, they simply could not believe it was over. It just couldn’t be. Even death could not contain that prophetic message of Jesus, could it?

Three days later, though, they were starting to worry. Was their prophet really gone forever? Was the mission a complete failure after all? Was the new kingdom nothing but an empty dream?

Little did they know, as they despaired over these doubts and feared for their future, their prophet was standing there in their midst–just waiting for them to recognize him.

Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

I’m one of the many people in America who have become disillusioned with the state of humanity in the 21st Century. As an able-bodied, heterosexual, white male, I’ve become increasingly aware of my privilege and the ways in which our political, social, religious, and economic systems work against people in these marginalized, oppressed groups. 

The rise of Donald Trump is just a symptom. The disease has been with us a long time, and it really feels like the cure is beyond our grasp.

For me, the awakening to these systems of oppression started with Pulse. Following the unspeakable tragedy, I started listening to the heartbreaking stories of shame and abuse from within the LGBT+ community. 

Then, shortly after, I followed the back-to-back shootings of Anton Sterling and Philando Castile. I began listening to the outcry from people in communities of color fighting for their right to exist. 

Then, somewhere along the lines, I stumbled into stories of women who have been caught up in systems of patriarchy manifesting itself in rape culture and discrimination of all kinds.

I heard so many stories, and they completely broke me.

My heart began crying out with that ancient plea of desperation, “How long, oh Lord, how long?”

Are there any prophets for our time? Is there anyone bringing a message of liberation for the oppressed? Is there still hope for a better world?

As soon as began asking these questions, I quickly discovered the answer was an emphatic, “Yes!” 

There were prophets all around me, but I didn’t recognize them because they had appeared to me as strangers on the road. It wasn’t until I had sat down and broken bread with them that my eyes were opened and I realized that there were prophets in my midst…

Cindy Brandt is a prophet. She operates a powerful blog teaching parents how to raise children in the faith without incorporating the toxic elements of fundamentalism that often end up traumatizing their kids. Follow her prophecies @cindy_w_brandt.

Dorothy Charles is a prophet. She actively promotes black voices on Twitter, speaks out against white supremacy, and works within the medical community to advocate for black lives in her work. Follow her prophecies @dn_charles.

Crystal Cheatham is a prophet. She is spearheading the development of Our Bible App, an open-source Bible commentary and devotional serving queer people and others whose voices have been historically excluded from readings of scripture. Follow her prophecies @crystalcheatham.

Tori Douglass is a prophet. She is outspoken proponent of the Black Lives Matter Movement and critic of white privilege. Her sermon for the white church is something every white Christian in America needs to read. Follow her prophecies @toriglass.

Samantha Field is a prophet. She has been outspoken against sexual abuse and misogyny in the church, coming out of an extremely fundamentalist environment to work on developing more liberating theologies. Follow her prophecies @samanthapfield.

Kevin Garcia is a prophet. He uses his blog, podcast, and YouTube channel not only to provide a safe space of spiritual development for gay Christians but also to help cisgender, heterosexual Christians understand how to be better allies. Follow his prophecies @thekevingarcia_.

Karen Gonzalez is a prophet. She works tirelessly with communities of immigrants and refugees, embodying the imperative to “welcome the stranger.” Follow her prophecies @_karengonzalez.

Megan Hamlin is a prophet. She pushes back fiercely against transphobia and advocates for the full acceptance of transgender people in the Christian community. Follow her prophecies @stormsmaycome.

Emily Joy is a prophet. She uses her poetry and her powerful way with words to educate churches, colleges, and other organizations on the dangers of purity culture and its threat against advancement of women in broader society. Follow her prophecies @emilyjoypoetry.

Emmy Kegler is a prophet. She started Queer Grace, an online resource for Queer Christians, and continues to advocate for Queer people of faith by serving as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Follow her prophecies @emmykegler.

Kenji Keone is a prophet. He is a student of theology and an activist who advocates for the queer community as well as for people of color. His first book, A Book of Uncommon Prayer consists of a collection of prayers to orient Christians toward action, particularly within the Black Lives Matter movement. Follow his prophecies @afreshmind.

Deborah Jian Lee is a prophet. In her amazing book Rescuing Jesus, she chronicles how people of color, women, and LGBT Christians are reclaiming Jesus in the American church despite the generations of abuse they’ve encountered. Follow her prophecies @deborahjianlee.

Matthias Roberts is a prophet. He hosts an amazing podcast called Queerology, inviting queer people of faith into fascinating and important conversations on “belief and being.” Follow his prophecies @matthiasroberts.

Caitlin Stout is a prophet. She uses her amazing blog, her Twitter feed, and her wonderful sense of humor to lobby for gay Christians, especially those stuck in hostile environments such as conservative college campuses. Follow her prophecies @caitlinjstout.

Laura Jean Truman is a prophet. She uses her powerful writing to encourage Christians of all stripes to find strength in ambiguity and to reclaim Jesus from the clutches of fundamentalism. Her words are like fire; no one can make me excited about Jesus again quite as much as she can. Follow her prophecies @laurajeantruman.

The Future of the Church

As I listened to these voices and countless others like them, a single question kept coming to the surface: why did it take me so long to discover these revolutionary leaders of the Christian faith? 

Reflecting on the ways in which these amazing people resemble the prophetic voices of the scriptures, I soon received a sobering answer. It’s because I wasn’t on their side.

I wasn’t part of the divinely sanctioned group of prophetic people sent out to call a wayward faith to repentance. I was part of the group that needed to repent

I was the oppressor, the cultivator of systems of injustice. I was guilty, both individually and communally and through both direct involvement and passive complicity, of some of the most egregious sins imaginable: white supremacy, racism, Islamophobia, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classicism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, to name a few.

I’m still repenting of those sins today.

But this isn’t about my guilt. This is about a shift in the balance of power. I and those like me, who have been the norm in Christianity for so long, are no longer where the kingdom of God is found. The Kingdom of God is not being ushered by those in power; as it as always been, it’s being ushered in by the subversive, the rebellious, and the prophetic. 

God is always on the side of the oppressed.

God’s prophets are, therefore, not the agents of the empire or the citizens living in the comfort of the empires spoils. God’s prophets are those speaking out against the empire and seeking to liberate the oppressed from its clutches.

The future of the church is non-white.

The future of the church is female.

The future of the church is queer

And this is a beautiful thing, not just for marginalized communities but for the church as a whole. God is not simple, bland,  or conventional. God is complex. God is diverse. God is the ultimate “other.” It only stands to reason that the people of God should follow suit.

As my favorite prophet Laura Jean Truman has written:

The gift of queerness for the Body of Christ is a constant invitation to see the world, the Other, and our God, as bigger, stranger, more beautiful, more diverse.

So where, then, does that leave people like me? Is there room for straight white guys to play a role in what God is doing? 

Sure, there is.

But only if we heed the voice of the prophets.

These communities that have been shut out of the church for so long aren’t just getting a seat at the table; they’re getting seats at the head of the table, and we’re only allowed to join if they’re gracious enough to invite us.

Lucky for us, these prophets don’t want to shut us out of the kingdom. They want us to return to the ways of justice. They want us to right our wrongs. They want us to give back all that we’ve stolen. And so they have the same message for us that Jesus has had for the powerful all along:

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.

So, let’s do it. Let’s repent. 

Because a better world is coming, and we want to be a part of it too.

NOTE: Pictured in this post are, in sequence, Laura Jean Truman, Tori Douglass, and Kenji Keone.

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We Need to Talk About Sin…

I internalized the concept of sin at a very young age. When I first started attending Sunday school at 7 or 8 years old, right and wrong took on a whole new meaning for me. Of course, I had already known that there were “bad” things, things I shouldn’t do. I wasn’t supposed to take what wasn’t mine. I wasn’t supposed to hit my sister. I wasn’t supposed to talk back to my parents. I knew the basics, but “sin” was something else entirely.

“Sin” taught me that the bad wasn’t just something I did; it’s something I was. It was a destructive force festering inside me. It wasn’t so much about my public behavior so much as it was about my private thoughts and internal worth. Actually, I was taught, it really didn’t matter if I never stole, never hit my sister, and never talked back to my parents. I was still a sinner. I was still rotten to the core.

When I became a teenager and really began to formulate my theology, I received a particular definition of sin that was reinforced to me over and over again: “Sin is anything that separates you from God.” It was just like when I was younger, an internal sense of dissonance that made me feel shame for my thoughts and feelings. Only, as a teenager, I was “saved.” So, when I gave in to impure thoughts, I was also responsible for ruining my relationship with God.

I must have been 13 or so when I read the book Every Young Man’s Battle, learning about how evil pornography was and how I needed to not think sexual thoughts about girls if I wanted my relationship with God to remain intact. At the same time, I was attending youth retreats with themes on “fleeing the evil desires of your youth,” “guarding your heart,” and “saving sex for marriage.” Most of it, yes, was about sexual purity. But there was also stuff about not listening to secular music, making sure I spent enough “quiet time” with God in Bible study, not drinking or doing drugs, and so on and so forth.

This is what sin was to me: anything that made me look disgusting to God on the inside. That’s it. And it never occurred to me that it could be anything else…

I got off easy.

Many of the kids that grew up in the same culture I did were introduced to the same concept of sin. Their internal sense of worth and value before God was continually called into question, just like mine. Only, I’m a cisgender heterosexual male, so there are all kinds of things that I did not have to deal with. I did not have to conform to the social norms of a body I didn’t belong in. I did not have to go through conversion therapy. I did not have to apologize to my rapist. I was a sinner because of my thoughts and feelings. There are many I know who were sinners because of their biology.

They told us “sin was anything that separates you from God,” but what it really translated to was, “sin is anything that unites you with pleasure.” Sin was anything that made you feel good. And feeling good was a bad thing. We were made for God’s pleasure, not for our own. If we did something we liked because it felt good, even if it didn’t hurt anyone, it was a sin. Because it was selfish. And we weren’t supposed to live for ourselves; we were supposed to live for God.

Needless to say, this conception of sin led myself and many others to develop a poor self image. We could not do anything that made us happy without experiencing feelings of guilt and shame. God could only be honored through our self-deprivation. If there was something that we really wanted, if there was something we desperately needed, we sacrificed it for the sake of our holiness. It made us miserable. It crushed our spirits. It drove some of us to depression and even to the brink of suicide. But it was our cross to bear, so we made the sacrifices. After all, if we could just stick it out, we had heaven to look forward to, didn’t we?

Redeeming Sin

It’s not surprising to me that many who come out of the Evangelical Christian culture in which I was raised want to get rid of the idea of sin entirely. They associate it with “purity culture,” with ideas of shame and self-hatred. They associate it with personal piety and private salvation. It’s because of this idea of sin that many of the people I know have spent years in therapy, trying desperately to construct a workable self-image and get on with their lives. I understand the desire to do away with sin.

But I don’t think we should get rid of sin; I think we should reinvent it.

Actually, it’s not really a reinvention. It’s more of a reclamation. Because, you see, sin in the Bible isn’t merely about personal piety; it’s also about social justice. Sin is failing to “do justice and love mercy” (Micah 6:8). Sin is “cheating widows out of their property” (Luke 20:47). Sin is “doing violence to the stranger” (Jeremiah 22:3). Sin is neglecting the people with whom Jesus identified himself in Matthew 25.

In other words, sin isn’t merely personal; sin is relational. Sin is what we call the harm we bring to other people.

We were taught that “sin is anything that separates us from God.” We could say instead that “sin is anything that separates us from our neighbors,” but I don’t even think that’s quite right. It’s not about us being united with our neighbors; it’s about us seeking good for our neighbors, regardless of what we get out of it. So, if I may offer a revised definition of sin that I hope we can all get behind: “Sin is anything that separates our neighbors from themselves.”

Again, I understand the desire to throw out sin altogether. It has been used in such destructive ways, that I completely understand the revulsion. But, if you can think of sin in terms of the harm we do to others instead of in terms of some arbitrary form of personal piety, it can be quite liberating. For those who grew up like I did, internalizing sin as something that was inherently wrong with us, think of it this way: the sadistic theology of raising kids to believe they’re inherently evil is itself sinful. We weren’t the ones who were sinning; it is they who were sinning against us.

If we are broken, it is only because they broke us.

Sin isn’t something we did; it’s something that was done to us. And we don’t need to be saved from our sins; we need to be saved from theirs.

I need the word “sin.” I need it as a label to convey the intensity of cruelty I see in the world. I need it as a label for white supremacy. I need it as a label for misogyny. I need it as a label for the contempt shown against those in the LGBTQ+ community. And I need it as a label for the shame that was induced in me throughout my childhood.

“Bad” isn’t good enough. It’s just not sufficient to say that some behavior is bad. I need the religious language, because it packs a punch. Cruelty toward human beings isn’t just impolite or untoward. It’s blasphemous. It’s profane. It’s evil. It’s sin.

If you’re reading this and you grew up like I did, seeing yourself as a sinner just for being you, I want to be clear: you are not a sinner. You have nothing to repent of. You are already pure. You are already perfect. You are already whole.

Sin is a word for the agents of Empire. It’s a word for the oppressors, not for the oppressed. So, yes, we could just get rid of the idea of sin entirely. Or, we could reclaim it as a means to fight back against those who have destroyed us. 

We need sin. Not because we’re sinners, but because we were sinned against. What they did to us is not okay, and we need a name for it. We could call it bad. We could call it wrong. We could call it evil. Or, we could call it precisely what I believe it is:

It. Is. Sin.

Image licensed via Creative Commons.

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Born Again: An Ode to Conversion

I have a confession to make.

Just short of two months ago, I got saved.

On July 12, 2017, I was born again. Would you like to hear my testimony?

I’d been hanging around these people for a while. They seemed strange to me at first, so I kept them at an arm’s length. Eventually though, after months of tottering on the fence, I finally opened myself up to hearing their Gospel–and it changed my life forever.

When I heard the message, it broke me. I realized that I was a sinner, and I was humbled by the grace extended to me. I asked for forgiveness, yes. But I also made up my mind to repent. I turned away from my former way of being and oriented myself toward walking in newness of life.

I also sought out community, a good church home where I could hear this beautiful, life-giving Gospel preached again and again and again. About a month ago, I found one.

We aren’t perfect, but we know one another’s struggles. We hold each other when we’re hurting and push each other when we need challenged. I’m just glad that they’ve been gracious enough to welcome me, the chief of sinners, with opens arms.

So that’s it, really. It’s official. I’ve been converted. I’ve been baptized. I’ve been born again. And now, I want everyone I know to hear the good news that I’ve been blessed enough to receive.

Let Me Explain…

If you don’t know me, you’re probably thinking one of two things right now:

  1. If you’re an Evangelical Christian (or familiar with the mindset), you’re probably thinking that I’m talking about asking Jesus into my heart and becoming a Christian.
  2. If you’re unfamiliar with Evangelical Christianity, you’re probably thinking that I’ve just joined some weird cult.

Let me assure you: I am speaking of neither of these things.

It’s a long story, but I did the Evangelical Christian thing a long time ago, got away from it after high school, sort of started circling back to it a few years ago, and then officially made my break from it when this atrocity was released.

I also haven’t joined a cult. Not living in a bunker. Still married. Still have a job and a mortgage. Still go grocery shopping. Still watch Netflix. Still “normal.”

I started going to a new church a year and a half ago, that’s true. This Disciples of Christ church has transformed me in a number of ways and I love being part of the community, but that’s not the conversion I’m talking about. And this real, actual church is not the “church” to which I’m referring.

Nope, it was something else that happened just a few months ago…

Rescuing Jesus

If you know me at all, you won’t be surprised to discover that the conversion experience to which I’m referring centers around a book. But first, the “weird people.”

When I said that I had been hanging around “strange” people for a while, watching from a distance, I wasn’t referring to Evangelical Christians. Well, many of them were Christians, but they weren’t Evangelicals. Basically, the people I’m referring to are people who aren’t like me–people who aren’t able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgender, heterosexual, white males.

I started lingering outside communities of color who were speaking out against racial injustices in the church and in the country, absorbing the teachings of people like Wil Gafney, Broderick Greer, Tori Douglass, Solomon Missouri, and Delores Charles.

I started listening to stories of women who wanted to do crazy things like preach sermons in church and wear shorts without getting raped, absorbing the teachings of people like Jory Micah, Rachel Held Evans, Samantha Field, and Jordan and Luci from Two FAB.

I started slowly approaching people from the LGBTQ community who were arguing that they could keep their faith while still remaining true to their identities, absorbing teachings of people like Dianna Anderson, Kevin Garcia, Austen Hartke, Emmy Kegler, and Matthias Roberts.

There were many others from these communities, people who crossed between these communities, and people from other marginalized communities. But it was the “big three,” people of color, women, and queer people, who eventually led me to my encounter with the Gospel. And the Gospel in this metaphor was a book called Rescuing Jesus by Deborah Jian Lee.

I started reading this book on July 9th and finished it three days later. Basically, as the subtitle suggests, the book is about how people of color from predominantly white communities, women growing up in purity culture, and LGBTQ people persecuted by the church for their sexuality all find ways to break free from their fundamentalist roots and reclaim the message of Jesus as something bigger, broader, and more beautiful.

The book opened my eyes in a profound way. It helped me see how I had been complicit in systems of oppression and abuse. It helped me see that Jesus was bigger than the box I had been raised to put him in. It helped me see that I had had it all backwards. I wasn’t standing at the gates of Heaven deliberating about whether I should let them into the kingdom of God. They WERE the kingdom of God, and the only question was whether or not I wanted to participate in it.

This Gospel gave me a new “Great Commission.” My goal is no longer to convert those different from me to my way of thinking but, rather, to allow myself to be converted to theirs.

I don’t wish to create an environment within the faith in which there is “space at the table” for women, LGBTQ people, and people of color. My mission is to create an environment within the faith in which women, LGBTQ people, and people of color are sitting at the head of the table and are in the position of offering a “seat at the table” as a grace to me.

So, that’s how I was converted. I was transformed by the renewing of my mind. I was baptized into the wisdom of those whose voices have long been ignored by white, heteronormative patriarchy. I was saved from my ignorance and sense of entitlement. I once was blind, but now I see.

But what about my church? What’s the community I’m referring to? About a month ago, I was invited into a private Facebook group called “Exvangelical,” launched by Blake Chastain and recently built up by Chris Stroop. It may be a digital space of relative strangers, but it’s nevertheless a community of agape love like I’ve never known. It’s a church in the truest, most meaningful sense of the word–and I’m proud to be a part of it.

We share our songs and discuss our many sacred texts. We worship the Holy Trinity of freedom, tolerance, and healing. We “mourn with those mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice.” This is my church away from church, and I have no trouble thinking of it in that way.

Because I don’t believe that the Holy can only be found in the church. I think it’s actually the other way around; the church can only be found in the Holy, the sacred, the magical, the meaningful, and the life affirming.

Many Conversions

Right now in Sunday School at my real world my mainline Protestant church, we’re going through a podcast interview with Diana Butler Bass. At one point in the conversation, Diana talks about her “many conversions.” She went from being an Evangelical Christian to an Episcopalian to a Quaker, taking something from each phase and building on it to move toward a more constructive vision for her spiritual life. I think she’s got the right idea.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this post talking about my recent conversion experience, but this post isn’t really about that experience in particular. Yeah, it’s true. I wanted an excuse to talk about some thinkers, a book, and a community that have all recently been highly influential in my life. But my purpose here is not to tout the virtues of my recent conversion; my purpose is to tout the virtues of conversion as a concept in and of itself.

Many of the people in my new Exvangelical community are extremely turned off, even traumatized, by the idea of conversion. This is understandable. We’re people who have been proselytized, manipulated, and coerced into believing things that are intellectually indefensible and morally repugnant. And I just want to be clear that I’m perfectly fine if anyone is uncomfortable appropriating this kind of language.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think the problem lies with the expectation of conversion. Rather, the problem lies with the expectation of a single conversion. It’s the finality of being born again just once that truly imprisons us.

We’re taught to open our minds once and then lock them up and throw away the key. We’re taught to open our hearts once and then force them into stone. We’re taught that we can be baptized once and somehow remain clean forever.

We’re doing conversion wrong.

Once is not enough.

I’m reminded of the Apostle Peter in the Gospels, and his journey of faith that we see woven throughout. He had many conversions. First, he dropped what he was doing to follow Jesus. Then, he got to the point where he could make his great confession. Then, he denied Jesus and had to be reinstated. And then, even after Jesus was gone, he changed his mind about allowing gentiles to participate in the community. Guess what, y’all? “Many conversions” is Biblical.

Conversion is a beautiful human experience. It happens when we fall in love, when we discover an illuminating idea, and when we develop a new passion. Why do we limit ourselves to being converted just once? We’ve got to allow ourselves the freedom of multiple conversions. We’ve got to permit ourselves to embrace those moments in which we come alive again as we’re swept into new ways of being.

I loved this recent conversion experience, but I sincerely hope it isn’t the last. I want to be born again. And again. And again. And again.

Don’t you?

Think about your life. Do you feel yourself being pulled into something new? Are you experiencing resistance, a staunch immovable force within you chaining you to your current state of being. Here’s my advice: break the chains and embrace the beckoning. That’s your Jesus standing at the door and knocking. Let him in and watch your life transform. Again. And again. And again.

Never stop converting.

Never stop being born again.

Never stop rising from the dead.

Stay curious.

Photo courtesy of Dave Skinner Photography, licensed via Creative Commons.

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To Do Good or to Do Evil: A Christian Reflection on Moral Foundations

Note: this post is ended up being much longer (~4800 words) than I had intended for it to be. What can I say? This is a fascinating subject, and I couldn’t help myself. So, because it’s so long, I’ve divided it into chapters based on the sub-headings. Click on the bullet point below to skip ahead to the desired section. If you want to get my final say on the matter, feel free to skip to the last section. Thanks for stopping by!

I first stumbled upon Moral Foundations Theory when I read psychologist Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind at the beginning of 2013. I’ve revisited it a few times over the years, and it has really helped me in understanding the cultural foundations of where our notions of morality come from. In the last two years, I’ve experienced a renewed interest in my faith, and this got me thinking…what are the most important moral foundations for a Christian? As a Christian, what is the standard by which I should measure right and wrong?

Of course, the obvious Sunday school answer is, “The Bible!” But, as we’ll soon see, that answer is not so simple as it seems. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt makes a compelling argument about how we make moral judgments. He says that we have gut reactions, or what he calls “moral intuitions,” that determine our positions on right and wrong. Then, we use our reason to rationalize and justify why those positions make sense. “Our moral thinking,” says Haidt, “is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”

As Christians, I think we do the same thing with The Bible. We tell ourselves that we’re merely being faithful to the Word, but the truth is that there are deep-seated unconscious reasons for our moral convictions–and we tend to go to the Scriptures only so that we might find evidence to support them. And, sure enough, there is Biblical evidence for every single one of these moral foundations–even the ones that often conflict with one another.

In this post, I would like to go through each of these five “moral foundations,” and discuss how appropriate it is for a professing Christian to hold them. What does the Bible say in support of each foundation? In what ways does a Biblical worldview challenge each foundation? How does the sociopolitical climate of today influence the moral foundation to which we as Christians are likely to gravitate? And, finally, which foundation–if any–should take precedence for the Christian over all the others? Let’s dig into it…

Care/Harm Foundation

The care/harm moral foundation suggests that behavior is wrong to the extent that it causes harm. If it doesn’t hurt anyone or anything, then it can’t be said to be wrong. Conversely, its positive character would be revealed in helping, or caring for, others. Right behavior is behavior that contributes to the well-being of others.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

In Luke 10:25-28, Jesus affirms that love is the key to inheriting eternal life–love of God and love of neighbor. The implication, I think, is not that these are two separate loves but that they are really one in the same. We love God by loving our neighbor, for “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Jesus reiterates this dual command in Mark 12:28-34 and Matthew 22:34-40.

In Luke, Jesus goes on to tell a very famous story about what it means to be a good neighbor. A Samaritan, an outsider to the community, sees an Israelite in distress and goes out of his way to help him–even though other Israelites had simply passed by and ignored him (Luke 10:29-37). In this story, Jesus puts it simply: right behavior is helping people; wrong behavior is failing to do so. He proposes a similar moral injunction in his “least of these” illustration in Matthew 25:31-46–suggesting we will be judged based on how well we treat those who we tend to think of as “less” than us.

The Apostle Paul has a great deal to say regarding the care/harm foundation as well. “For the entire law,” he says–reiterating Jesus, “is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”” (Galatians 5:14). So, he promotes the “care” part of this foundation, and then he also repudiates the “harm” part of this foundation. “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

These texts, of course, merely scratch the surface of references to the Christian ethic of love pervasive in the Scriptures. Few would deny that love should be a key motivating force in Christian morality. And yet, there are circumstances in which Christians feel justified in causing harm. This is done not by denying the obligation to love but, rather, by reinventing the meaning of love.

We may deal harshly with people if we deem the treatment to be “for their own good.” This is manifest in the idea of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) or in the idea that “the Lord disciplines those He loves” (Hebrews 12:6). This interpretation of “true love” can be seen in such contemporary acts as protesting at the funerals of gay soldiers. If we think that our behavior can bring about in the person a state that we believe will make them “better off,” we can easily justify it as love–even if it harms them in a direct and concrete way.

Fairness/Cheating Foundation

The fair/cheating foundation suggests that behavior is wrong to the extent that it causes inequity. If the behavior causes someone to be treated favorably to the detriment of another, then it is considered wrong. If the behavior treats all parties equally, then it’s right. In other words, from this perspective, morality is justice.

On the one hand, this moral foundation may be considered the backbone of liberation theology, or the “social justice” strain in contemporary Christian thought–perhaps embodied most strongly in the admonition from Micah 6:8…

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly[a] with your God.

Similar principles can be found in other prophetic texts, such as Isaiah 1:17, “ learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” And, let’s not forget Jesus’s reclamation of the prophetic passage in Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” Clearly, a moral imperative in Christian thought is to bring about justice through righting wrongs and restoring balance of power.

There is another side to this notion of justice, though, that tends to find its place on the other end of the modern political spectrum. We mete out justice by “giving people what they deserve.” For example, Christians feel justified in advocating capital punishment, because they see it is fair. If we do not respond to the crime with an equitable punishment, we are being immoral.

The belief in justice among Christians can also take the form of buying into the “just world hypothesis,” assuming that society is already just because “God is in control” and God is a god of justice. If something is wrong in our lives, then, we must actually deserve it. A recent Washing Post article reported that “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” Part of the justification for this comes from 2 Thessalonians 3:10, where Paul makes the passing remark, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

“Do not be deceived,” Paul writes in Galatians 6:7, “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Passages like these can be used to blame people for their own suffering. If God is just and you are suffering, then you must have done something to deserve it. If this sounds familiar, it’s because there is an entire book written on it. In the Book of Job, Job’s friends blame him for his predicament–although he is clearly innocent. They do this precisely because they believe that God is just and, therefore, Job must be receiving a punishment (Job 34:10-12).

“So listen to me, you men of understanding.
    Far be it from God to do evil,
    from the Almighty to do wrong.
11 He repays everyone for what they have done;
    he brings on them what their conduct deserves.
12 It is unthinkable that God would do wrong,
    that the Almighty would pervert justice.

Although most Christians read Job as an indication that temporal suffering and distress is not necessarily indicative of God’s punishment, Christians still use this kind of thinking to explain away negative events in the world–from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Human suffering is often still seen as God’s punishment for our sins.

Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation

The loyalty/betrayal moral foundation suggests that behavior is wrong if it somehow breaks the trust of the group. Doing something to benefit outsiders to the determinant of someone within our own tribe would be considered immoral. This type of moral motivation is seen in sports (rooting for the home team), in Patriotism (putting America first), and–yes–even in Christianity.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

The passage above from 1 Peter 2:9 embodies an important Christian ethic: that we are a “called out,” special people in God’s eyes. The church is considered the sacred “body of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 12:27) and there are many Scriptural admonitions to protect it against the encroachment of outsiders and the false doctrine they might bring in (2 Peter 2:1-3, 2 Timothy 4:3-4, Jude 3-5).

Furthermore, there is the exclusivity present in Jesus being “the only way to Heaven,” as supported by texts such as Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved,” and Jesus’s famous proclamation in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Passages such as these reinforce ideas of tribalism and in-group morality, discounting those who fall outside of the umbrella of Christianity. We find justification in this kind of thinking for going to war against Islam, for spewing vile insults at atheists, and even for opposing immigration into America.

Of course, this disposition is awfully ironic given the nature of Jesus’s own ministry. From the story of the woman at the well (John 4) to his habit of dining with the “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:10-17, Mark 2:15-22, Luke 5:29-39), Jesus was all about spending time with outsiders. He regularly interacted with the Samaritans (John 4:9), women (Luke 8:2-3), tax collectors (Matt. 9:10), lepers (Mark 14:3), the blind, the lame, the deaf, and the poor (Luke 7:22). In the parable of the banquet (Luke 14:15-24), Jesus seems to suggest that it’s the dregs of society who will be welcome in his kingdom:

‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

Of course, there are also the passages about showing hospitality to strangers (Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:1, Leviticus 19:34); it can be really hard to reconcile these texts with tribalism and in-group loyalty. Does Jesus break down barriers between us, or does he raise them up?

Authority/Subversion Foundation

The authority/subversion moral foundation suggests that a behavior is wrong to the extent that it is disobedient to authority and right to the extent that it is submissive to authority. For Christians, this moral intuition is perhaps most understood in the mantra, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4)

“If you love me,” says Jesus, “keep my commands” (John 14:15). “All Scripture is God-breathed,” writes the Apostle Paul, “and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Believing that the Bible is absolutely and exclusively authoritative means that any behavior can be justified as moral as long as we can cite a Biblical reference to back it up. The Bible is the Word of God and God defines what morality is so, as long as we’re following the Bible, we are good to go.

In broader circles of human thought, this kind of thinking is known as “Divine Command Theory,” or the notion that an action is right because it is decreed by some divine authority. On the face of it, this seems perfectly reasonable. However, it can give us pause when we read about things in the Scriptures such as God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22), the Israelites to commit genocide (1 Samuel 15:3), and rapists to marry their victims as a punishment for the act (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). We can (and often do) rationalize such things away by saying to ourselves, “Well, God knows best. So, if God did or said something, it must have been okay–because God sets the standard for what’s right and wrong.”

When we really think about this, though, it doesn’t really make sense. In his dialogue with Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask a very interesting question on this matter.

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?

In other words, “Is any given activity right because God says it is right, or does God say it’s right, because it’s right?” This is an important distinction, because it tells us which comes first. Does morality come from the Bible, or is the Bible built upon a moral foundation that already existed before it was written? Of course, the answer is quite obvious from the Biblical narrative itself. Before there was any kind of written or oral code that we are aware of, God says to Cain in Genesis 4:

If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

Cain doesn’t say to God, “But how will I know what’s right unless you tell me?” Presumably, he already knows intuitively something about what’s right and wrong.

But the idea of morality not existing apart from God also just doesn’t make sense with regard to how we describe God. Christians believe that God is love (1 John 4:8), God is just (Psalm 25:8), and God is truthful (Numbers 23:19). By this, we mean that these are attributes of God. These characteristics exist apart from God and prior to our imposition of them on God. God is love, because God demonstrates behavior we deem as loving. God is just, because God demonstrates behavior we deem to be fair. God is truthful, because we see that God keeps God’s promises. We could not call God loving, just, or truthful unless we had some idea about what these words meant prior to ascribing them to God.

Despite this logical objection, many Christians still cling to the idea that following authority is the ultimate aim of morality. It sounds simple, but there’s always  the matter of interpretation. For example, obedience to God has been used as a justification for everything from slavery to war. If we want to do something badly enough, we can almost always find something in the Bible to support it.

But it’s not just the logical incongruity and the potential for misinterpretation that makes the authority foundation dangerous. It’s also that there are times in the Bible when God appears to reward insubordination. For example, Moses argues God down at one point from entirely wiping out the Israelites–and God listens to him (Exodus 32:9-14). And then there’s that story of Jesus changing his mind about healing a woman’s daughter when she talks back to him (Mark 7:24-30). In her thoughtful reflection on the subject, seminarian Laura Jean Truman writes:

Well, maybe I’ll break my hip in the process of wrestling for justice with my God.

But my Scripture tells me that when we talk back to God, God saves cities, and God heals little girls, and God passes out blessings in the night.

Sanctity/Degradation Foundation

The sanctity/degradation moral foundation suggests that behavior is wrong when it breaks some code of purity or violates some cultural taboo.

Undoubtedly, there is a purity ethic in Christianity—we are to “keep ourselves from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27), try not to “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:14, and make an attempt to only even think about “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8). And, of course, much discussion on purity centers around rules regarding sexuality (Hebrews 13:4, 1 Corinthians 6:18, etc.).

Certainly, there is something to be said for creating an environment within the community that is pure, holy, and sacred. If the church is to be the dwelling place of God and God is holy, then the church must be holy as well. So, we have the tendency to frown on things we see as impure: profanity, tattoos, certain kinds of clothing, and deviations from sexual norms. It’s perfectly understandable—even honorable—that we would want to guard the sanctity of God’s house.

There is also a danger, though, to holding so tightly to a purity ethic in the church. Perhaps most significantly, doing so resembles almost precisely the moral motivation of the Pharisees—the great enemies of the Gospel. Time and time again, Jesus rejected ritual purity in favor of treating others with love and decency.

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.

Not only did Jesus condemn prioritizing ritual purity, he also lived that condemnation. As mentioned earlier, he regularly interacted with the impure of society—the disabled, the leprous, foreigners, and “sinners.” In a fascinating podcast on the subject, psychologist Richard Beck makes an interesting point regarding the fear we often have in the church of being corrupted by the impure. He says it stems from the idea of negativity dominance—that something good can be corrupted but the contaminant cannot be purified. (Think about cockroaches getting into your food. No matter how great the food is, it isn’t going to “purify” the cockroaches enough for you to stomach it). Beck argues that this idea is inconsistent with the Jesus we see in the Gospels. Jesus actually manages to purify the contaminant so that we really have no reason to be afraid of being corrupted.

And, finally, there are also the teachings of Paul that suggest we shouldn’t be held to arbitrary standards of ritual purity. Most of these have to do with eating certain kinds of foods (1 Corinthians 8:8), but some have to do with circumcision (Galatians 2:3-5) and others have to do with celebrating holy days (Colossians 2:16). It’s not too much of a stretch to see how these ideas can be applied to contemporary circumstances of issues regarding moral purity. In his letters, Paul frequently emphasizes the idea of liberty, for “it was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1).

“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if is received with thanksgiving.” – 1 Timothy 4:4

So, Whats’s the Bottom Line?

So, I’ve gone through each of these “moral foundations” and shown how they may be working in complex ways to drive which Scriptures we gravitate to as Christians. Hopefully, this will give you a greater appreciation for the rich diversity that exists within the Christian faith. The Christian ideas of right and wrong are multitudinous. It can come from all kinds of directions. So, hopefully you can see why Southern Baptists may hold such starkly different views from Episcopalians; it’s not necessarily that one is faithful and the other is heretical. Rather, different moral foundations are under-girding their interpretations of Scripture, tradition, history, and culture.

It’s nice to understand something about where our moral motivations come from. But, once we recognize these root drives, there’s still a practical matter. When different moral dispositions collide, we still have to make a choice about which one will take precedence. I don’t think any of these moral foundations is wrong to hold in certain contexts but, as a Christian, is there any one that should take precedence over all the others? As Christians, which foundation should be the bedrock for our moral judgments? To make actual judgments about right and wrong in the real world, we do need some sort of ethical hermeneutic. So, what should it be?

Obviously, I’m revealing my bias on this one. So, you can judge for yourself as to whether or not it makes sense. But, here’s the thing: I’m a follower of Jesus. Before I believe in the integrity of the Bible, before I study Paul, before I hold to the teachings of the church, before all other tests of religious identity, I consider myself a follower of Jesus. So, when I ask myself, what is the bottom line for me when it comes to judging whether or not something is right or wrong, I can’t help but look to the life of Jesus.

So, let’s look to the Gospel narratives and ask a simple question: “what kind of moral foundation did Jesus have?” Well, just like us, it appears to be all over the place. He encouraged us to love our neighbors, approved of reparations, privileged the Jew over the gentile, submitted to God’s authority, and retreated by himself to pray. But, in the end, the question we’re really interested in is: “what kind of moral foundation did Jesus place above all the others?” What was Jesus’s bottom line? When different moral dispositions came into conflict, which one took precedence for Jesus?

Interestingly, we have this scenario take place on multiple occasions in the Gospels–and it always has to do with the same thing: Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Jesus encounters someone on the Sabbath who is in need of healing, and the question is raised regarding whether or not he will do it–since it would mean violating the moral norm of his religious contemporaries. To provide some context regarding the moral framework in which people were operating, it’s important to read the following passage from Numbers 15:32-36:

32 Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. 34 They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him.

35 Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.

We can see a number of the moral foundations present in this text. Most obvious is the “authority/subversion” foundation–picking up sticks on the Sabbath is a crime punishable by death because God says it is. But, given the fundamental conviction that the Sabbath is holy, picking up sticks on the Sabbath is also in violation of the “sanctity/degradation” foundation. Weaker arguments can be made for the loyalty/betrayal foundation (the Sabbath is a community-specific ritual) and the fairness/cheating foundation (getting ahead of others by working on the Sabbath), but it’s really difficult to make an argument that the “care/harm” foundation is being violated here. Clearly, the people weren’t harmed by this man, because they express confusion about what should be done with him.

So, back to Jesus. Judging by the text from Numbers, the Pharisees are completely justified in expecting Jesus to cease his ministry on the Sabbath. When confronted with the dilemma of honoring the Sabbath but leaving people in their suffering or breaking the Sabbath but making people well, what did Jesus do? Let’s read–first from the story in Luke 13:10-13:

10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

Jesus clearly places the well-being of the woman he heals over the constraints of the Sabbath law. He even calls out the hypocrisy of those who question him. They wouldn’t have an issue getting their oxen and donkeys something to drink on the Sabbath, but they’re going to complain about one of their own women being healed from decades of suffering? “Doesn’t she deserve to be made well?” Asks Jesus, “Doesn’t she deserve to be set free?”

A similar story occurs in Mark 3:1-6 (with parallel passages in Matthew 12:1-14 and Luke 6:1-11, as well as two additional stories in John 5 and John 9):

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

I want to call out just two things about this passage. First, Jesus makes a very explicit statement about, when it comes down to it, what is really right and wrong:

Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?

To do good, Jesus says, is to save life. To do evil is to kill. In this proclamation, Jesus is very overtly arguing for the “care/harm” foundation above all others.

Secondly, it’s important to know the consequences that ensue from Jesus making this statement. The passage ends by saying, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” In other words, this act of defiantly placing the importance of caring for people over the importance of anything else sets into motion a chain of events that will eventually land him on the cross. Let this sink in for a moment:

Jesus was executed because he placed the law of love above the love of law.

Can you grasp the gravity of this statement? Arguing for the preferential treatment of the “care/harm” foundation was worth Jesus giving up his own life. In a very concrete sense, Jesus died for the sake of love.

So, at the end of the day, I side with Jesus in in my preference for the “care/harm” foundation of morality. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in people being treated fairly, being loyal to those close to me, obeying authority when appropriate, and showing respect for the sacred. But, if ever any of these should come into conflict with upholding the dignity of my fellow human beings, I have a moral imperative to err on the side of love.

My hermeneutic of ethics is found in Galatians 5:14, which bears repeating:

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

You may come to a different conclusion on where to draw the line on moral issues but, for me, this is it. Everything is funneled through this.

If it’s not love, then it’s not right.


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“I affirm a Biblical view of everything,” but not in the way you think…

I love the Bible.

I never tire of excavating the scriptures for new theological insights, provocative challenges for more ethical behavior, and soul-nourishing inspiration for grappling with the human condition. The sacred texts are beautiful. Although I read the same passages over and over again, I am continually amazed by how simultaneously heart-wrenching and thought-provoking they can be.

It’s worth repeating: I love the Bible.

While I now have no trouble admitting my affinity for the Bible, I wasn’t so sure about it just a few years ago. At the time, I was undergoing a crisis of faith. It was a culmination of many things. I had recently developed a more open-minded posture in my professional and personal life. When I tried to apply this to my spiritual life, things got tricky. First, I questioned my theology–beginning my journey with John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology. Then, I questioned my church–reading a history of the denomination that transformed my view of it. Finally, I listened to a lecture series on the development of the Christian Bible…and that’s where things really got interesting.

This lecture series completely decimated my faith in the Bible as the “Word of God,” and it took me a while to reconstruct my understanding of the scriptures into something meaningful again. As I went through Luke Timothy Johnson’s Great Courses series, The Story of the Bible, and did some corresponding research and fact-checking, I learned that before becoming the “Word of God” as I was raised to understand it, the Bible had to be:

  • Written. I was raised to believe that the Bible was “revealed” to its writers in a straightforward manner and written down verbatim according to the utterances of the Holy Spirit. It turns out, that’s not how it happened. It was actually written over centuries by a bunch of different people in a bunch of different places. And there are internal inconsistencies (alternate Creation/Noah’s ark stories, the Synoptic Gospels, etc.) precisely for this reason. Although some of the Bible writers claim some sort of divine inspiration, others simply write the text without comment on the justification. Still others are blatant expressions of human feelings (perhaps divinely “inspired” but likely not divinely dictated) in the form of poems, prayers, and songs (Psalms). Two books (Esther and Songs of Solomon) say nothing of God whatsoever. The author of Luke (who also writes the Acts of the Apostles) explicitly says that he’s writing his Gospel, not because the Holy Spirit told him to, but rather because he’s seen many others do it and just thought he’d give it a go. Paul admits that some of his thoughts are from God while others are his own opinions (1 Corinthians 7:10-12). One Bible writer criticizes the writing style of another Bible writer (2 Peter 3:16). I could go on and on, but the point is this: in whatever way the writings of the Bible are “inspired by God,” they are much more human compositions than I was raised to believe.
  • Canonized. This revelation was perhaps the most jarring: that the Bible (66 books; 39 OT and 27 NT) I was raised to accept as the complete and final authority of God was not agreed upon as such until 397 AD. That’s over 350 years following the death of Jesus–more than a century longer than the United States has been a nation. That means that the first several generations of the early church did not have a Bible. What they did have was miscellaneous letters, books, and collections of letters of books–some which are in our Bible today and some which are not. The first proposal for a fixed canon of books wasn’t even suggested until the end of the second century–150 years after the death of Jesus. The debate over which books should and shouldn’t be included proceeded in a haphazard fashion across nearly two centuries. Some of the writings of early church fathers even reference scriptures that didn’t make the cut. Even today, different texts are used in the Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern churches. What all this tells me is that, as beneficial as the scriptures are to the church, there is something more fundamental to its existence. The story of Jesus and the experience of the Holy Spirit in the community preceded the existence of a codified document spelling out the right doctrines and practices for Christians.
  • Copied. Here’s another shocking revelation: we don’t have the original Bible. All the manuscripts we have of every text are copies (or, more frequently, copies of copies). Not only that, but no two manuscripts of the same text are precisely identical. As you would expect from ancient people hand-copying lengthy texts onto parchment, there are countless errors. Some have words missing. Others have words added. Still others leave out entire passages. Most striking, perhaps, is that the earliest manuscripts do not contain the end of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20), the story of the Woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), or the explicit statement on the Trinity (1 John 5:7). These were later additions that were used by the church for over a thousand years before people realized it. This begs the question: which passages are “inspired?” Which words did God want left out? Which words did God want added? Chances are, the Bible you’re reading today has a vast array of footnotes informing you of the textual variants in different manuscripts. If the Bible was to be God’s direct and infallible revelation to mankind, why do these variants exist?
  • Translated. The Christian Bible was originally written in Greek. In Western Christianity, it was then translated into Latin–a version used by most of Christendom for nearly a thousand years. Then, it was translated into German, English, and so on. Of course, the problem is that words lose some of their original meaning when they’re translated. Some words are overly simplified in the new language (like “love”); others don’t easily translate, because the concept doesn’t quite exist in the language they’re translated into (like “Apostle”). There are many translation issues that have caused a stir in the history of the Bible. Perhaps the most egregious is the word translated as “virgin” in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used by the writers of the New Testament). In the original Hebrew, the term simply meant “young woman.” Ordinarily, this would not have been a big deal–except that it came to be believed that the Messiah would have to be born of a virgin, as opposed to simply a young woman. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin. But, scripturally speaking, it means that he actually didn’t have to be.
  • Read. The problem with believing that the Bible is to be a literal, word-for-word judge for an individual’s proper belief and conduct is that, for most of Christian history, the vast majority of Christians did not have access to the Bible. Today, there is approximately one printed Bible (based only on those printed in a single year, plus there’s digital Bibles, smartphone apps, and the Internet) for every 200 people. At the time of the printing press, however, there was approximately one Bible for every 20,000 people. (Note: my math may be sketchy on this. I basically divided the population at the time by the number of extant manuscripts; but, it’s close enough). And, if a community was even lucky enough to have a Bible, few could read it. Expecting people to be personally responsible for properly understanding and following the text presupposes the privileges of access and literacy. Most Christians throughout history have had neither.
  • Interpreted. After everything, the Bible still must be interpreted. If you grew up understanding the Bible in a fixed, inflexible way–that’s just because someone else did the hard work of interpreting for you, and you simply accepted it. How much of Revelation is literal and how much is figurative? Was the world really made in six 24-hour days? Does the sun revolve around the earth? How important is speaking in tongues? Are we saved by faith, works, or both? Is God okay with slavery? What about genocide? What happens to us when we die? What is the meaning of baptism? Should we “allow” women in ministry? Is “homosexuality” a sin? Is God in control of everything and, if so, how can we still have free will? Different people have answered these questions in different ways at different times. That’s why there have been so many movements, denominations, and sects within the church throughout history. At the end of the day, everyone brings to bear on the text their own personal and cultural biases. We’re all interpreters.

After you’ve investigated all this yourself, you may go through a period of doubt and deconstruction just like I did. When you face the reality of how the Bible came to be, it’s kind of hard to avoid. If God is not a God of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), then it seems pretty clear to me that the Bible cannot be God’s exclusive means of communication.

My “Biblical View of Everything”

“Now, wait a second,” you say, “I thought this was going to be an article in support of the Bible!” Well, actually, I think that it is. Let me explain…

Just last week, celebrated Christian pastor and Bible translator Eugene Peterson revealed to a reporter that his views had evolved on the subject of same-sex relationships–affirming the sanctity of same-sex marriage. Just a day later, however, he recanted the affirmation–making the following statement.

To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.

My initial response, as was that of many others, was, “What does ‘a Biblical view of everything’ even mean?” Let’s just, for the moment, consider the hard-line stance of a ‘Biblical view of marriage.’ Which Biblical view of marriage was he referring to?

  • The one that allows men to have multiple wives? (Exodus 21:10)
  • The one that commands the rapist to marry his victim? (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
  • The one that suggests marriage is just a temporary arrangement and that we are all ultimately bound to be asexual? (Matthew 22:23-33)
  • The one that condemns those who forbid marriage? (1 Timothy 4:3)
  • The one that affirms those who have a natural, same-sex orientation as people created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)?

I affirm the Biblical view of marriage too, just a different one than Peterson does. Some might find it scandalous to suggest that the Bible holds contradictory perspectives on any given issue. But when you really look at it, it’s hard to get around this reality. Some examples?

  • Jesus said both “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30) and “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).
  • Jesus said both that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34) and that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52).
  • The Bible says that God does not change his mind (Numbers 23:19), but Moses changes God’s mind about destroying the Israelites (Numbers 14), God “regrets” making mankind and decides to destroy it with a flood (Genesis 6), and a woman changes Jesus’s mind about healing her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28).
  • Paul says that Jesus existed in the form of God and merely took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8), while Peter says that Jesus was a human being “made Lord and Christ” by God (Acts 2:36).
  • Slaves are encouraged to obey their masters (Colossians 3:22), but the dichotomy between master and slave is also supposed to be abolished (Galatians 3:28).

There are countless other examples of “contradictions,” (I prefer the term “variations”) and these probably aren’t even the best ones. The point I’m trying to make is this: that we all have a certain hermeneutic when we read the Bible; we all have a lens through which we funnel texts so that we can alleviate the discomfort of our cognitive dissonance. No one takes the Bible “as is,” or uses a “plain reading.” There is no such thing.

So, what we do is this: we pick out the scripture that aligns with our worldview and then reconcile the other scriptures to it. Of course, this is a simplistic observation. Sometimes, the scriptures do actually change us and we come to see things in a new light. More often than not, though, we already have our minds made up–and we go to the scriptures to simply reinforce what we already believe.

  • If we want to exclude people from the community, we’ll say that Jesus meant the thing about “whoever is not for me is against me,” while the other saying must have been specific to the context.
  • If we’re pacifists, we say that Jesus meant the thing about not living by the sword, but the idea that he did not come to bring peace must be some kind of metaphor.
  • If we want to believe that God does not change, then we’ll say that God didn’t really change his mind; that’s just how it appeared.
  • If we want to believe in a more human Jesus, we’ll argue that the Philippian passage is referring to the Spirit of God being emptied into the human Jesus.
  • If we want to justify exploiting an entire race of people and using their slave labor to build our country and fatten our wallets, we’ll say that the freedom in Galatians refers to “salvation” but not to temporal reality on this earth.

I’m not saying that I don’t do this. Of course I do. Everyone does. The Bible is a complicated book and, if you’re looking to it for moral guidance, you’ve got to decide what kind of direction you want to be headed in. Personally, I have an ethical hermeneutic (how I use the Bible to help me adjudicate right from wrong) based on Galatians 5:14, which says, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.

I funnel everything through love. If following a principle is inconsistent with love, then I must be reading it wrong. It’s all about how I treat people. Of course, there are moral ideas that are not inherently relational–prayer, worship, aesthetic purity, sacred spaces, spiritual rituals, etc. As a follower of Jesus, however, I think the relational should always take precedence over the ritualistic. This, I believe is what Jesus was saying when he broke the Sabbath in order to heal a crippled man (Mark 3:4):

“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

The Magic of Messy

When I say that I affirm a “Biblical view of everything,” what I mean is that I affirm a complex, nuanced, diverse, dialectical, and radically human view of everything. Because the Bible, like life on this giant spinning rock, is complicated.

There are no easy answers. There is paradox and uncertainty. There is violence and cruelty. There is sin and frailty and failure. There is death and destruction and evil and hell.

But there is also faith, hope, and love. There is grace and mercy and compassion and empathy. There is inspiration and community and redemption and restoration. There is life and reconstruction and goodness and heaven.

Just like life, the Bible is messy–but that’s exactly what gives it its magic. I love the Bible, not in spite of its complexity, but because of it. The Bible is a microcosm of the human experience. That’s why I love the Bible. Not because it’s simplistic and straightforward and easily manageable. I love the Bible, because it cannot be contained–because it’s bigger and deeper and wider than any of us could ever imagine. In that sense, yes, I believe the Bible is absolutely inspired by God.

I’ll say this, though: if you’re looking for a rule book, you probably want to avoid the Bible. It will just confuse you. Instead, you should just ask your church or pastor what you should believe and/or do. You can go to the scriptures that are pointed out to you, and interpret them in the way you are told to read them. And, if you don’t think too hard or ask too many questions, you’ll be satisfied. If that’s what you’re into, go for it.

But that’s not the Bible. If you read the Bible, you won’t be getting a simple explanation for what to believe or a clear direction for what to do. The Bible will not serve as a surrogate for your critical thinking or your moral agency. If you approach the Bible for what it is, it will challenge you. It will confuse you. It will take you all over the place and back again. Because, despite what you may have been told, when you read the Bible, you are not reading a single story; you are reading an anthology.

And it may just be the greatest anthology ever compiled.

(Image licensed via Creative Commons)

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Does Intermittent Fasting Really Help You Eat Less?

I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting since September 2015. At first, I experimented with a few different methods, but I quickly landed on the 16/8 method–which means that I fasted everyday for 16 hours and left myself an 8 hour window in which to eat. In reality, I often stretched my window to 10 hours for a late night snack but–with the rare exception for a special occasion–I completely stopped eating breakfast. I simply waited until lunchtime (between 11am and 1pm) to start eating everyday.

Prior to starting intermittent fasting, I had completed a “Biggest Loser” challenge at work in which I dropped 40 pounds. I did it pretty much by calorie restriction–eating only 1000 to 1500 calories per day for a few months. I decided to try my hand at fasting in order to maintain weight. Over time, it has worked. I gained back maybe 5-10 pounds and then plateaued at a solid 155.

Well, you know me. After a few years on the same old boring eating regiment, I had to try another experiment…

Although the research is still developing, fasting has proven to be an extremely helpful exercise for many in losing weight–despite the misconceptions some people have. Nevertheless, there has been some research indicating that certain methods of fasting don’t really work, because people simply overcompensate by eating more during the periods when they aren’t fasting. Anecdotally, it is for this reason that some have observed Muslims actually gaining weight during the month of Ramadan.

The Fasting Project

So, which is it? Does fasting actually help you eat less or does the increased calorie intake during non-fasting periods cancel out the amount you don’t eat while you’re fasting?

Well, science to the rescue! Or, at least a science-y like personal data project. Obviously, I can’t generalize this to anyone else but, at least for me, I think I’ve found an answer to the question. To determine whether fasting actually works, I alternated fasting each day at three different intervals for a period of 6 weeks:

  • 14 days fasting 19 hours a day and only eating within a 5 hour window (skipped breakfast and lunch)
  • 14 days fasting 14 hours a day and only eating within a 10 hour window (skipped breakfast but ate lunch and dinner)
  • 14 days fasting 9 hours a day and only eating within a 15 hour window (didn’t fast at all–except when I was sleeping; ate breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any other time during the day that I felt like it)

To cancel out any effects of variation in eating based on the day of the week (maybe I would eat more on weekends?), I was sure to fast twice on each day of the week for each fasting method.

Also, I know there tends to be a bias in calorie counting. People tend to eat less when they’re paying attention to how much they’re eating. As they see the calories add up, we either explicitly or subconsciously start to refuse more food. To mitigate this effect, I did not count up my calories until the end of each day; I just kept track of all the food I ate in my notepad app and waited until the day ended to see how many calories it added up to.

The Results

Above, you can see a table showing a statistical summary of the project’s results. All in all, I consumed an average of 1300 calories on days when I skipped breakfast and lunch, 2000 calories on days when I skipped only breakfast, and a whopping 3000 calories on days when I did not fast at all. Interestingly, the average per hour calorie intake only increased when I skipped both breakfast and lunch. Just a guess, but I’m betting that’s because my body was already used to skipping breakfast and so I only felt compelled to eat more when I skipped lunch as well.

One thing I wanted to make sure of was that there wasn’t a huge difference in how much I consumed based on the day of the week in which I was eating. Looking at the bar graph above, nothing in particular jumps out. I ate the least on Saturday when I wasn’t fasting at all (15 hour window), on Wednesday when I skipped breakfast (10 hour window), and by a small margin on Thursday when I skipped both breakfast and lunch (5 hour window).

In the bar graph, you can also see the averages for each window pretty clearly–and there does seem to be a consistent difference. Above, you can see a scatter plot of my daily calorie intake as well. The different colored points and lines represent the daily intake and moving average trend, respectively, for each method. Just by looking at the scatter plot, it seems pretty clear that there are significant differences between the three fasting windows.

When looking at differences like this, though, you can’t just look at the averages; you have to look at the entire distributions. In each method of the summary table, you can see that the maximum of the method with the smaller window slightly exceeds the minimum of the method with the next larger window. So, the real question isn’t whether the averages are different but, rather, whether the entire distributions are different. That’s what a histogram is for. When you look at the distributions above, it seems fairly obvious that there are significant differences between each method.

To be sure, though, you’ve got to perform a statistical test. Above is the R output for an analysis of variance on the data set. Without going into an explanation of what the results mean, suffice it to say that there is indeed a difference between the three methods. But, how much of a difference is there between each method? There’s another statistical test for that, Tukey’s honest significant difference

In this table, the “p_adj” shows that the relationship between each fasting method does have a statistically significant difference. The “difference” column shows how many more calories are consumed using the fasting method to the left side of the hyphen in the “methods” column vs the fasting method on the right side of the hyphen. For example, I on average consume 1,749 fewer calories on days when I skip breakfast and lunch than on days when I eat all day (don’t fast at all).

Another way to look at the distributions for each method is by using a box plot. The boxes represent the interquartile range (where 25-75% of the data fall) for each method. The line going through the middle of the box is the average. The lines extending from the boxes represent the extreme ends of the data–with the points being the outliers. This visual clearly shows the differences between the methods. But it also shows this: the larger the window I give myself, the more varied my calorie intake is.

During my project, I didn’t only track calories; I also tracked 5 other key nutrients. I’m not going to bother with doing the statistical tests but, just looking at the box plots, there seem to be significant differences in at least some of the methods for every nutrient. And, as for the carbs and the fat, the trend seems to be identical to that of the calories–with there being a clear difference between each method.

The real question about this project was whether or not I overeat on days that I’m not fasting to overcompensate for the days that I am. To test this, I looked at the “calories per hour” and compared them across the different methods. In this case, there only seems to be a difference on the days that I skip both breakfast and lunch. When I just skip breakfast (versus not fasting at all), I tend to consume the same amount of calories per hour and only eat less because I have a shorter window. When I skip breakfast and lunch, though, I consume about 50 more calories per hour. It’s still not enough to overcompensate for the amount I eat when I’m not fasting, but there is a difference.

You can see this difference more clearly in the box plot. When you look at my calories per hour, there is virtually no difference whatsoever in eating all day versus skipping breakfast. I don’t eat any more to compensate for missing breakfast. However, when I skip both breakfast and lunch, I eat significantly more calories to compensate for not eating all day.

That being said, the additional 50 calories per hour doesn’t really matter when I’m only eating within a 5 hour window. Take a look at the comparison of the box plots above. Eating the extra 50 calories per hour with the narrowest window adds up to eating about 1,250 calories versus 2,000 on days when I skip only breakfast and 3,000 calories on days when I don’t fast at all.

So, after all of that, the answer for me at least is a resounding: YES! Fasting works. And so, after 6 weeks of data collection and analysis, here’s my conclusion: I’m pretty much going to keep doing what I’m doing…

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