Slavery as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll is a short, easy-to-read book that demands to be read slowly. Covering 150 years of American history, I recognized so many parallels to evangelical anti-LGBT rhetoric today, it made my head spin. But that’s not all that stood out to me. It’s pretty common for non-Christians to be accused of having relative morality, yet this brief examination of history shows that Christians are just as guilty of this as anyone.
To say that the Bible lacks clarity on anything feels like a confession of heresy. I struggled with writing this thought down in a private journal, let alone saying it out loud in Bible study, and in response to an acquaintance’s Facebook post that asked, “How do we know God’s truth?”
Because I’ve never met a theological question I couldn’t at least take a stab at, I responded with this:
Had this “discussion” happened in person, I might not have been able to disguise my blatant frustration and disappointment with the answer I was given: “You have to transform your way of thinking so God can show his truth to you.”
To be honest, I knew what I was getting myself into before I commented, and I already knew how it would play out. I know that no Christian, no matter how long they’ve been walking with Jesus, has the answers I’m looking for. I’ve accepted that. But I wasn’t looking to bait anybody; my only objective is to plant a tiny seed of humility. I really just want the assurance that I’m not the only “I don’t know” Christian, and that it’s not a sign of weakened faith.
If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know that I find safety in the community of skeptics. Any time someone pulls out the “God clearly says” card, I get itchy. I thought the gospel message itself was pretty clear, until I realized in seminary that not all Bible scholars believe the atonement theory. There are some scholars who even believe Jesus’ sacrifice is universal. There are enough dissenters to traditional evangelical talking points that prove these are not just outlier views. Admittedly, the things that seem pretty obvious to me in the Bible are probably sources of confusion for others, so it’s not my tendency to automatically put disagreeing Christians into the heresy box.
About the only thing clear to me in the Bible is the example of servanthood set by Jesus. I could go on about loving your neighbor, serving the poor, and forgiving your enemies, but I’ll sum up Jesus this way for simplicity’s sake: he’s basically everything Donald Trump isn’t. I’ve only had one “The Bible clearly says!!” moment I can think of recently, and that is regarding all this evangelical support for the Trump campaign. I can say with every fiber of conviction within me that a man who espouses racism and misogyny without shame, who strips refugees and immigrants (you know, like Mary and Joseph were) of their personhood, and openly mocks the disabled is nothing like Jesus Christ, and resembles nothing of the behavior he expected of his disciples.
Lately, my conviction ends about there.
Getting back to the parallels of Christian support for slavery and erasure of LGBT rights, I want to share this passage from Noll:
This reminds me of God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines. I acquired an advanced copy before it was released, and was surprised by the number of reviews it had already on Amazon and Goodreads. The 1-star reviews were all pretty similar: of course an openly gay man would write a book to justify his lifestyle. Stay away from this book, the author intends to deceive!
I have to admit, a book in favor of the abolitionist movement or of gay rights would be a lot more convincing if written by someone assumed to be against both. It’s the reason that men are encouraged to identify as feminists, because everyone expects women to be in favor of themselves. Sometimes you need voices from “the other team” to get people to really listen.
And yet, who understands the needs, desires, and hopes better than the people being hurt by these viewpoints? This is the underlying reason why the #BlackLivesMatter movement exists. Christians, unfortunately, have a tendency to strive for social change by talking around an issue rather than with those who actually live it.
So, because the social atmosphere of the time believes that X is a sin (interracial marriage, gay marriage, working mothers – take your pick), anyone who disagrees must be coming from an entitled, self-seeking place, hoping to “justify their lifestyle.”
We may not perfectly understand the ways of God, but we understand our fellow humans far less.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I firmly believe that half a century from now, the issue of gay rights will be treated the way issues of racial inequality are treated now by the majority of Christians. Churches in the future will say that Christians interpreted the Bible with a cultural bias regarding gay marriage, not through the lens of Truth. I say this not because I want it to happen, but because it’s a time-tested pattern.
If you were an abolitionist Christian in 1865, a significant portion of your society would have condemned you as a heretic, just as they do today in 2016 with regards to gay rights, no matter how much you insist that Jesus Christ is still your Lord and Savior. At the end of the day, I believe that last part is the only thing that really matters. I’m simply not convinced that “correct belief” matters over the condition of the heart.
For all the historical documents we have that provide context into the times, and all the ancient Greek and Hebrew lexicons at our disposal, “Truth” is not always as evident as we claim it to be. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to to know, but let’s just be realistic about how we engage with it. We all are biased, every one of us.
Like this post? Check out Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, now available on Amazon.