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Friday, 1 January 2016

Beyond tribalism, patriarchy and scapegoating

The sermon that I recently preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields, entitled ‘The Revolutionary Magnificat’, suggested that the subversion of the patriarchal system achieved through the Virgin Birth and the removal of the necessity for procreation through the resurrection opens up space in which to re-imagine marriage, including the possibility of a greater diversity of relational and family structures in society characterised by faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness.

Having been asked to say more about this suggestion and having read the recent interview with Jeremy Davies in which he said, ”I began to look again at the marriage service. And I thought the theology of marriage is not about a man and a woman,” I thought I would set out here some of the ideas that, in my view, support this suggestion.

The marriage vows, Davies says, are about mutual society, human relationships. “And why shouldn’t two men or two women, who love each other and want to commit their lives to each other for ever, say these things? When the bishops said that clergy who enter into same-sex marriages are not modelling the teaching of the church – yes we are. It is embodied in that vow.”’

The result for the church of our refusal to accept Davies’ perspective, as Jeffrey John has said in an interview with The Times, is that: “In the Church of England we readily bless the second, and even third marriages of couples who never darken our doors, yet we reject hundreds of our own faithful clergy and lay people who long to bring their love and commitment before God and ask his blessing ... Many ... people of goodwill who instinctively expect the Church to uphold justice and truth are scandalised when it so obviously does not."

In a memorable phrase Desmond Tutu spoke of post-apartheid South Africa as being “the rainbow people of God.” That phrase can and should be applied also to the Christian Church in the diversity of those who come together within it to form the Body of Christ.

For the Church to be seen as a rainbow people of God, the full range of its diversity of views and voices need to be heard. Specifically, in the current debate over the definition of marriage, it is essential that the Church, as well as hearing the views and voices of those opposed to same-sex marriage, also hear the views and voices of Christians in favour.

I am thinking of those who see a strong Biblical case for arguing that definitions of marriage are socially determined and not divinely ordained. Those who see Jesus as being the ultimate scapegoat signalling, by his death, the folly and fallacy of all scapegoating of those different from ourselves. Those who see a key aspect of Jesus’ ministry as being to include in the kingdom of God those excluded from the religious structures of his day, with inclusion and equality then being a central facet of Christianity. The voices and views of those who see the institution of marriage being broadened and strengthened by its expansion to include people who value the institution and wish to marry but are currently excluded from doing so.

The Biblical picture of God’s people is of difference and diversity united by our common commitment to Christ. We are not and will not be united by our particular theologies, traditions, or views on particular topics. In this current debate, as in all such debates, we need to hear and respect different perspectives while recognising that our particular views will only divide if they are prioritised. It is only when, acknowledging our differences, we recognise that, despite our differences, we are united by Christ that the Christian Church holds together as the rainbow people of God who, therefore, become the Body of Christ in the world today.

Steve Chalke is among those who have made a significant call for "a new Christian understanding of homosexual relationships" which, in his context, means a revision to Evangelical thinking on the issue. A recent Independent article highlighted Evangelicals who have moved from what has been the traditional position on the issue and Chalke is the most high profile member of this group.

He writes that he felt both compelled and afraid to write his recent article in Christianity: "Compelled because, in my understanding, the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message. Afraid because I recognise the Bible is understood by many to teach that the practice of homosexuality, in any circumstance, is ‘a grotesque and sinful subversion’, an ‘objective disorder’ or, perhaps slightly more liberally, ‘less than God’s best’."

Chalke describes the Bible, as I would too, as "the account of an ancient and ongoing conversation where various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, voices contribute to the gradually growing picture of the character of Yahweh; fully revealed only in Jesus."

For more insight on this, he recommends reading Having Words with God: The Bible as Conversation by Karl Allan Kuhn, endorsed by Walter Brueggemann. Chalke describes Kuhn’s work as introducing "an approach that regards Scripture as a sacred dialogue between God and humanity. Together, he explains, the task of the Church is then to discern and express the character of God, God's will, and what it means to be God's people."

Having Words with God wasn't a book that I had come across previously at the time of Chalke’s article but having read it, it is a book that has significant synergy with my own thinking on the topic of the Bible as conversation as set out in a number of posts on this blog including:

Chalke, in my view, rightly concludes on the issue of Biblical interpretation that:

"The Bible does not always speak with one voice. It is a very diverse collection of books, written in many different times and cultures, containing an array of perspectives, not a few tensions, and even some apparent contradictions. Instead of pretending that this diversity does not exist, our task is to do justice to all these components as well as holding them together with a coherent theological approach ...

The process of understanding the character and will of Yahweh – as revealed through Jesus – is the continuing task for every generation. Therefore, biblical interpretation is not finished, but is the endless, open-ended project of all those who take its text seriously and authoritatively."

Kuhn explains, Chalke says, that Scripture is best understood "as a ‘sacred dialogue’ between God and humanity, as well as among humanity about God, his creation and our role as his image partners; an on-going conversation which God initiates, inspires and participates in among humanity, as his people struggle to discern and express the character of God, God’s will and what it means to be God’s people now and in the future."

As a result, he sees that the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message and it is on this basis that he asks: "Rather than condemn and exclude, can we dare to create an environment for homosexual people where issues of self-esteem and wellbeing can be talked about; where the virtues of loyalty, respect, interdependence and faithfulness can be nurtured, and where exclusive and permanent same-sex relationships can be supported?"

Renato Lings' Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible also seems to me to be a substantial contribution to this issue, around which substantial debate could occur. Lings has posted a summary of the main findings of the book on his website but the detail and thoroughness of his Biblical analysis mean that this is a book that must be read and not simply read about:

'For decades, a painful controversy about same-sex relationships has rocked Christian churches, and no solution is in sight. Frequently the Bible is quoted. In response to this crisis, this exciting new book systematically examines the biblical stories and passages that are generally assumed to deal with, or comment on, homoerotic relationships: Noah and Ham, Sodom and Gomorrah, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Deuteronomy 23:17–18, Judges 19, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and the letter of Jude.

Love Lost in Translation documents how mistranslations of these texts into Greek, Latin and other languages occurred early, and how serious errors are committed by translators today. Biased translations make biased theology. The book proposes a fresh approach to translating the Bible by means of linguistic and literary criteria. The method enables readers to discover the amazing literary sophistication, psychological insights and spiritual depth of the Bible. The final chapter of Love Lost in Translation provides a detailed discussion of biblical texts with life-affirming visions of same-sex love.'

The narratives in the Bible seem to me essentially to accept whatever model of marriage was common in society at the time as normative. So, when polygamy was normal and accepted in society, this was not critiqued by those writing what has since been understood as scripture and similarly when monogamy became the dominant model that was also accepted and not critiqued. On this basis, it seems to me, to be an entirely Biblical position to suggest that the definition of marriage is something which is socially determined and something which can and does change.

The history of approaches to marriage within Church history is similar as all marriages were civil contracts until part-way through the medieval period, only becoming predominantly church ceremonies at the Reformation. Affirmation of the nuclear family is much more recent phenomenon within the Church. The Church has, therefore, viewed a spectrum of relationships – some formal, some informal – as marriage across its history, with celibacy often being the primary stance recommended.

Genesis 2. 24, which is often cited as a divine warrant for the traditional definition of marriage in our culture and within the Church, does not define the nature of marriage at all and thereby leaves completely open the nature of the relationship between the man and the woman beyond the man leaving his parents and having sex with the woman. When this verse is cited as giving the divine warrant to marriage being only between a man and a woman (particularly because of procreation) that view is being read into the text by those who are assuming that that is what God thinks and wants. The text, as text, simply does not say that. In fact, the context for the passage, rather than emphasising procreation, is one of the man and woman as suitable helpers for one another. The reason for the relationship is mutuality of help and support.

We also claim, as Christians, to follow someone who poses some very significant challenges to our understanding of the place of family (Luke 9. 51 - 62). "The obligation to bury one’s father was regarded by many Jews of Jesus’ time as the most holy and binding duty of a son; but Jesus says that that is secondary to the call to follow him and announce God’s kingdom." This call cuts across family life and our traditional understandings of family. Here, even saying goodbye to your family before you leave seems to be criticised by Jesus!

In Matthew 12, when Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were nearby, we read that he said: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? … Whoever does what my Father in heaven wants is my brother, my sister, and my mother." Then in Matthew 10 we read of Jesus saying: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I came to set sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law; your worst enemies will be the members of your own family."

Tom Wright notes in his commentary on this passage that Jesus is quoting from the prophet Micah (Micah 7.6) who predicts the terrible divisions that will always occur when God does a new thing. "Jesus came to bring and establish the new way of being God’s people, and not surprisingly those who were quite happy with the old one, thank you very much, didn’t like it being disturbed." "He didn’t want to bring division within households for the sake of it," Wright says, but "he knew that, if people followed his way, division was bound to follow."

So what is this new way of being God’s people which challenges our more traditional understandings of family life? A recent book by Peter Rollins called The Idolatry of God is very helpful on this question:

"There are so many divisions in society, divisions between political parties, religious traditions and social groups. This is perfectly natural, of course. From birth, we experience a pre-existing matrix of beliefs and practices that differentiate us from others.

We discover early on that we have been given a mantle, that we are part of a tribe, one with a rich history, deep hopes and a variety of fears. The world is full of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Some of these divisions have deep histories that span multiple generations, while others are very new. Some are serious and others border on the ridiculous. But, at their most extreme, these divisions can result in local and global conflicts."

Rollins argues that to leave these divisions behind we need to transcend our given identities: "Whether we are Conservative or Labour, rich or poor, male or female, these various bearers of our identification do not fully contain or constrain us and all too often prevent us from truly experiencing our own humanity."

He suggests that that is what St Paul teaches when he writes to the Galatians saying, "there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3. 28). "Here Paul mentions six distinct tribal identities that were ubiquitous in his time; six identities that can be further subdivided into three, namely the religious (Jew and Gentile), the political (slave and free) and the biological (male and female).

It was not that these different groupings were totally isolated from each other, but the way that each of these groups related to the others was clearly defined and carefully regulated.

These distinctions were justified by the authorities either in terms of a natural law or a divine plan; thus the difference in roles and responsibilities were non-negotiable and were required to maintain social stability."

In Jesus’ ministry though "we find a multitude of references to one who challenged the divisions that were seen as sacred, divisions between Jew and Gentile, male and female, and slave and free. Jesus spoke to tax collectors, engaged with Samaritans and treated women as equals in a world where these were outrageous acts." Jesus, for example, refused to perpetuate the divisions between Jews and Samaritans when his own disciples want to see revenge enacted on a Samaritan village for rejecting them.

More than this, though, in the incarnation we are presented with a picture of God coming down to earth as Jesus and being progressively stripped of all his prior identity as God’s Son. In Philippians 2 we read that he "made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!" (2.6-8).

Rollins writes that, "This is called kenosis and describes the act of self-emptying. This is most vividly expressed in the crucifixion, where we see Christ occupying the place of the complete outsider, embracing the life of one who is excluded from the political system, the religious community, and the cultural network."

To do this is to cut through the divisions which exist in society because of our different tribal identities. This is what Jesus means when he says he brings a sword into the world. He cuts into "the very heart of all tribal allegiances, bringing unity to what was previously divided":

"There is no change biologically (male or female), religiously (Jew or Greek) or politically (slave or free). Yet nothing remains the same, for these identities are now drained of their operative power and no longer hold us in the way that they once did. These identities no longer need to separate us from each other."

Our "concrete identity continues to exist, but it is now held differently and does not dictate the scope and limitations of one’s being. Paul expresses this powerfully when he writes:

What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7.29-31)

What we witness here are concrete references to three different categories: (1) relationships, (2) the things that happen to us, and (3) the things we own. For Paul, these continue to exist, but we are to hold them differently from the way we previously did. We are no longer to act as though we are defined by the things we own, the things that happen to us, or the relationships we have. While these continue to be important, we must hold them in a way that ensures they do not have an inescapable grasp upon us.

Paul understands this radical cut as emanating directly from one’s identity with Christ, for Paul understands participation in the life of Christ as involving the loss of power that our various tribal identities once held for us."

At the Eucharist we commemorate the act in which Jesus let go of every identity by which he was known, becoming nothing, in order that we might come into a new life within the family or kingdom of God where all are one and where there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.

Our traditional understandings of marriage and the tribalism and identities it brings are also subverted by the Virgin Birth. The primary purpose of patriarchy is to assure the man of the legitimacy of his offspring. “Patriarchy's investment in systems that ensure proof of authorial possession results from the necessity of overcoming male anxiety over the ultimate uncertainty of biological paternity. Although the woman always knows she is the mother - through her physical connection with the developing foetus - the man never knows for sure that he is the father, and thus has a high stake in maintaining a system by which he can claim paternal ‘ownership’.” (Amelia Jones, quoted in Re-Enchantment)

But, as we know, in the Nativity story Joseph is not the father of Jesus and does not know whether Mary has slept with another man or not. A different role is asked of Joseph from that of the Patriarch; that of being the guardian and foster-father of Jesus. So, Jesus' birth occurs outside of or at a tangent to patriarchal systems or structures. Jesus, himself, is a man who doesn’t marry and who has no physical offspring - the furtherance of his 'seed' is of no interest to him. His emphasis is on his followers as his family, rather than his blood and adoptive relatives. His death is for the entire family of God - all people everywhere – and he teaches that after the resurrection people will neither marry or be given in marriage.

As a result, the philosopher Thierry De Duve has suggested that the: “great invention, the great coup of Christianity”, resulting from the Virgin Birth, “is to short-circuit” patriarchal ownership and a “production line that fabricates sons” (Re-Enchantment). Similarly, Robert Song has argued that the advent of Christ changes our understandings of sexuality because there is a “fundamental shift in horizons brought about the resurrection.” In the resurrection life there will be no marrying or giving in marriage, Jesus says, and behind his thinking is the idea that where there is no death, there will be no need for birth or marriage. Subverting the patriarchal system through the Virgin Birth and removing the necessity for procreation through the resurrection opens up space in which to re-imagine marriage, including the possibility of a greater diversity of relational and family structures in society characterised by faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness. Robert Song calls these “faithful covenanted relationships”; committed relationships which are sexually active but non-procreative.

As Peter Rollins noted God's revelation in Jesus continues a subversion of the human story of violence that actually began in the Old Testament. René Girard suggests that the story of Cain and Abel reveals the way in which we consistently act as human beings. We desire something that is possessed by someone else and become disturbed through our longing for what we don’t have. We resolve our disturbance by creating a scapegoat of the person or people who appear to have or prevent us from having what it is we desire. When the scapegoat is killed we can gain what we desire and also release the sense of disturbance that we feel.

This pattern becomes expressed in religions involving human sacrifices as scapegoats to appease their gods. It is out of such religions that Abraham is called to form a people who do not sacrifice other human beings, but instead use animals as their scapegoats and sacrifices. Jesus is later born into this people who have subverted the existing practice of scapegoating and he further subverts this practice because, as he is crucified, God becomes the scapegoat that is killed.

The crucifixion is, therefore, the logical outcome of the incarnation. Sam Wells explores in Nazareth Manifesto that God is not simply 'for' victims. God is 'with' victims, because God is a victim. God is not simply 'for' the excluded. God is 'with' the excluded, because God is excluded. God is not simply 'for' those who are scapegoated. God is 'with' scapegoats, because God is a scapegoat. When God is scapegoated, there is no longer any god to appease and the necessity for scapegoating is superceded, subverted and eradicated.

This is the reality in which Christianity calls us to live. A world beyond scapegoating, beyond victimisation and beyond exclusion. A world in which the mechanisms for justifying and acting out our violent desires have been dismantled and rendered null and void. A world, as Barbara Brown Taylor has said, in which we ‘keep deciding not to hate the haters, … keep risking the fatal wound of love and teaching others to do the same — because that is how we prepare the ground around us to receive the seeds of heaven when they come.’

Within this new reality a greater diversity of relational and family structures in society characterised by faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness, including same-sex marriages, is, I think, biblically warranted.  

Some of this is also expressed in more meditative and poetic form in my Alternative Nine Lessons and Carols post.


U2 - Ordinary Love.

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