May 30, 2009

Convenient Separation

Photo found here.
I sat up the other night and watched the preview for Google Wave. Like many people, I'm looking forward to trying it out. But as I watched, it dawned on me that the biggest attraction is it's convenience. We love convenience. Convenience can be a good thing. But there are times when it clearly distorts our perception. This last week, San Diego County officials ruffled a lot of folks feathers. A county representative visited a local pastor's home and informed his wife that they could not continue having bible studies in their home without a permit. Supposedly, these bible studies had only 15 to 20 people in attendance. My friend Aaron Klinefelter brought it to my attention first. Here's a clip of local news reporting on it. And it also showed up on Fox News.

It seems clear from the conversation online that this has raised concern in the hearts of many. "What if they shut down my home meeting?" "What about the separation of church and state?!" To say that the county of San Diego is taking away the religious rights of Christians is a bit of an exageration. This particular incident has brought such a public "black eye" to the county that I would think that it will back off of this practice of shutting down bible studies. That said, the reaction amongst some Christians about "religious rights" concerns me much more than this particular incident. This incident in our county should spark conversation amongst Christians, however, I don't think that it should be a conversation about our rights.

Throughout history and around the globe, Christians have not had permission from the state to practice their faith. Many governments have had trouble with religion in general and Christianity in particular. All that to say, that this is nothing new. While we can debate the intent of Jesus' words about Caeser's coin and Paul's words about respect for the government, no Scripture comes to mind that implies that the church should receive it's authority from the state, or be an authority over the state. The church–nor any other religious institution–is to be above or under the state (though, our general posture is to be "power under" as Greg Boyd puts it or "domination-free" as Walter Wink puts it). The church is simply something other. Because of that, we can respect the law but the law does not have authority over God and what God asks of us.

In this particular situation in San Diego, the county is saying that religious practices must be limited to buildings designated for that. Residential homes do not typically have this designation. I can not speak for other religions, but for Christianity this is not feasible. Every act of Jesus, whom we consider our Lord and King (or "president" as Shane Claiborn and Chris Haw have put it), leads towards a faith that is found and practiced in the most ordinary of places by all people who choose to. When Jesus was crucified, the temple veil was torn–a symbol of the presence of God moving beyond the confinement of a building designated for religious practices. All I am intending to say is that if we were to follow the letter of law, we would need to file for permits to meet for almost everything and everywhere. We believe that the presence of God is everywhere. We believe that anytime two or more followers of Jesus meet to confess their sin, share a burden, pray for each other, discuss a Scripture passage, or just have coffee that God's Spirit is their with them.

When it comes to rights, it does not seem evident to me that Jesus or the NT church was concerned about their own rights. In fact, there is an appreciation of being punished for practicing their faith and getting caught (the lack of rights) evident in the New Testament. Rather than a concern for their own rights, it does seem that the early church intended to love and care for others that did not have rights (immigrants, widows, poor, terminally ill, prostitutes, etc.). Not only did Jesus model this, but it follows the God-given values of Israel in the OT.

This bible study incident has been a situation in which many Christians are holding up their separation of church and state card. While when it comes to the issue of Proposition 8 here in California, they quietly tuck the same card back in their pocket. I do not understand why many Christians would applaud the upholding of Proposition 8 here in California. Proposition 8 upholds that marriage is between a man and woman only. Quite frankly, I don't understand why Christians would care how or why or for whom the state sanctions marriage. It has historically been our conviction that marriage is a bond made before God. It doesn't matter what the state says about marriage. It matters what God says about it. What seems to be the issue, is what some Christians believe the Bible to say about homosexuality. I agree with Walter Wink's analysis of Scripture and homosexuality.
"... The issue is precisely whether that biblical judgment is correct. The whole tenor of the Bible sanctions slavery as well, and nowhere attacks it as unjust. Are we prepared to argue that slavery today is biblically justified? The overwhelming burden of the biblical message is that women are inferior to men. Are we willing to perpetuate that status? Jesus himself explicitly forbids divorce for any case (Matthew has added “except adultery” to an unqualified statement). Are we willing to forbid divorce, and certainly remarriage, for everyone whose marriage has become intolerable?

The fact is that there is, behind the legal tenor of Scripture, an even deeper tenor, articulated by Israel out of the experience of the Exodus and brought to sublime embodiment in Jesus’ identification with harlots, tax collectors, the diseased and maimed and outcast and poor. It is that God sides with the powerless, God liberates the oppressed, God suffers with the suffering and groans toward the reconciliation of all things. In the light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospel’s imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably clear." (link)
I agree that there are specific passages that can be read to condemn homosexuality. And if a church decides that because of that, they will not marry people of the same gender, so be it. But as is historically clear, the Church has never agreed universally on issues such as this. I agree with Wink and think that coming to the conclusion to exclude gay and lesbian couples goes against one of the over-arching values of Scripture; that we are to–as I said above–love and care for others who do not have rights. With that in mind, whether or not we think a church can marry people of the same gender, we should still expect that they are treated fairly and decently within the culture we participate in. To use another example, while we may not serve communion to a Muslim, we don't think the state should deny food stamps to a Muslim (and if it did I would hope that Christians would stand against such treatment).

There is something new about the sexual orientation civil rights movement. Historically, the fight for rights of the marginalized has been for those with limited economic opportunity and power. The gay and lesbian community has not had the same economic restraints. This does not take away from the importance of this, it simply makes it unique. I applaud my friends Rich, Jay and Alex with MissionGathering for their work on this effort. The Our Hearts Are With You campaign that they have initiated has had a huge impact and bridged the gap for many who love Jesus yet have felt hated by his followers. Christians have given millions of dollars to a campaign that has largely been interpreted by others as hatred. Think about how many hungry mouths could have been fed with those resources! As long as we are known by our hate, rather than our love we are missing the point. Shane Claiborne says it most succinctly in this short video clip:

The bottom line is that the Church in the U.S. needs to fess up to it's approach to separation of church and state. We use it when it's convenient to our convictions and we hide it when it isn't convenient. If we are separate (or other as I said) than let's leave it at that. Either way you interpret that, we've commonly got wrong what our involvement with the larger culture should be: we look out for our rights and ignore and deny those of others. It seems to me, that instead we are to count our rights as worthless and look out for others who do not have rights.


Unknown said...

as always Jason, absolutely brilliant observations. "This incident in our county should spark conversation amongst Christians, however, I don't think that it should be a conversation about our rights."

Spot on!

kevin aka "k rains"

Makeesha said...

very well articulated on all accounts.

Unknown said...

This is great, Jason. Helpful for me. Thank you for your wise, clear words and heart-ful incisive thinking.


Jason Coker said...


You're observation that our ability to practice our faith can never really be "shut down" because it permeates every single facet of our lives is brilliant. It cuts right to the heart of our dualism. Well done.

Therefore, it shouldn't really concern us that we might be facing religious restrictions. We will continue to practice our faith. Perhaps in open protest, perhaps in secret. Interestingly, the biblical precedent is for the latter.

However, the issue of "rights" is a bit thornier in my view. It's very true that the people of God advocate on behalf of the powerless (although I'm not yet convinced that it's always for the sake of any kind of powerlessness; I think it must be for whatever kind of powerlessness inherently denies the intrinsic created worth of humans as the image of God). And I agree that the NT Church doesn't seem concerned with asserting it's own societal rights. But frankly the very idea would have been foreign to them, so to say that they wouldn't have, or that we shouldn't, is a bit of an argument from silence.

Setting up this kind of double rule (we stand for the rights of others, but not for our own) creates a curious dilemma. What if the powerless we're fighting for become part of the people of God? Would we then tell them to stop standing for those same rights, because now they're Christians? Would we tell a gay person, "You should have the right to marry and we'll help you," until they become a disciple, at which point we would say, "Now you can't fight for your own rights, because Christ didn't do that." That would be a strange turn of events. We either believe that a particular freedom is a good thing, or we don't. If it's a good thing, then we should advocate for it no matter who benefits...including us.

I think there's a really important distinction to be made here between "rights" and "privileges." The freedom to gather peacefully for any reason whatsoever is a right guaranteed by the U.S. While it's not necessary for the practice of my faith, it is a good thing that contributes to the potential empowerment of all people. Therefore, I'll stand up for it, because to do so will be to stand as an advocate for everyone who wants to gather - including muslims, wiccans, the poor, and the powerless. Just because I happen to also benefit doesn't mean it's improper to do so.

On the other hand, to stand up for Prop 8 is not to stand for a right that benefits everyone, but to stand for a special privilege that benefits only some (even worse, the majority).

Personally, I've come to the conclusion that it's perfectly appropriate to stand for your own human rights, just not for your own sectarian privileges. The church has no business trying to assert itself over and against the basic freedoms of non-Christians. To do so is to emulate the conquering tactics of the empire, not the "power under" tactics of the kingdom.

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Jason Evans said...

I'm not sure that I agree with this being an "important distinction," Jason. It seems a bit of semantics to me. A bit of splitting hairs in my opinion, but I see what you're saying. Call them "rights" or "privileges", I would argue that people of Scriptures WERE aware that some had them and others didn't. Otherwise, several interactions of Jesus would not have had the potency they do. The distinction of numerical majorities and minorities misses the point as well. Jesus consistently interacted with those often perceived as outside of God's intended order and some of these very well could have been numerically large groups or not. It doesn't seem to matter. What matters is that Jesus makes it clear that all have access to the presence of God. It seems to me that valuing the privilege to gather over the privilege of being treated equally human is a no-brainer. Humanity is of a greater value always.

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