Memorial Day and the Christian Crisis of Doctrinal Imagination

Tony Sig

It is perhaps predictable for readers of this blog that at least one of us should write about Memorial Day.  We are not often shy in our youthful enthusiasm and naivity about our conflicted loyalties as American citizens and also of the Church; and of the necessity of radical discipleship in the face of what we, or I at least, perceive as a nation state who has hijacked a Christian soteriology.

I am an American.  My life is pretty good.  I am grateful for the gifts and opportunities that I have had throughout my life, some of which I would not have had in some other countries.  It would be dishonest of me not to note this.  I often hear that these benefits are only possible because of the sacrifices of soldiers who have bravely fought and willingly sacrificed for the United States.  That may in part be true, but it also points to a larger picture that I should like to address.

It would be easy to blame Constantinianism, blame the Enlightenment, blame the rise of atomistic politics for war, but the old adage about pointing your finger seems to ring true: “If you point your finger, you’ve three fingers pointing back at you.”  My life is what it is with reference to these things.  I cannot transcend the history in which my identity is tied up.  So a simple blame game can only implicate myself in those things which I blame.  I am not an island unto myself:  who I am is only as it is in relation to other people and to the past which we narrate into our identities.

I’d like to think through this with reference to a few Christian doctrines:

It is common to hear Augustine blamed for the doctrine of “Original Sin.”  This is, as most such “blame the fathers for a doctrine” schemes are, reductionistic and crude.  Whatever the case though, we can thank Foucault for making the doctrine much more plausible in the contemporary scene.  There seem to be structures of power and violence in place before I even come to be in the world.  They are things over which I have little to no control and are fundamental to my existence, so much so that for most of my life they are invisible.  I am born into a world already organized politically, economically, sociologically, religiously.  This is essentially the doctrine of Original Sin: that structures of oppression, violence and rebellion against God are ‘already in place’ and work to form us as people before we are able to understand  or critically resist them.

Because these structures are there from the beginning, they are easily taken for granted; assumed to be a natural given, something inevitable and often even good, as in being American, or at the very least ethically neutral, as in market economics.  Memorial Day fits in well here.  It is easy to assume that, because we have a relatively good life, the given social structures that we have are ‘how things are’ or ‘how the world works.’  The thought follows, that if we as Americans enjoy “freedom” and “prosperity” then the possibility of war as means to defend this freedom and prosperity are a necessity.

But no sooner is that thought out of my mouth than I realize that this implicates my own well being in a cycle and chain of violence and oppression.  We return again to the fact that our world still operates in a cycle of “Original Sin.”  My life is implicated and intertwined in the lives of others and that life is often manifested in and guaranteed by war.

This is why classical theology is so very important.  Christ enters into this world as one not implicated in this cycle.  His sinlessness means for us that by the power of the Spirit we are brought into the life of a God whose very nature from all eternity is one of perfect peace, perfect mutuality.  We are not merely shown a way to live well, as if Christ was a mere moral exemplar – which is good as we are rather bad at such imitation – rather, by virtue of our baptism and infilling of the Holy Spirit, we are incorporated into that life of peace and given the means to live it.

This is why the Church is a politics and why it can and ought to challenge the givenness of Memorial Day.  In the Church, we are commanded to live reconciled lives to each other, submitting to each other, loving each other, giving to each other even as Christ gives perpetually and without reservation to the Father, a giving we are able to do only on account of the Spirit.  There is no other name by which we might be saved.

This then is what I mean by the crisis of doctrinal imagination; that we have become accustomed to imagining the Christian Gospel as one merely effecting ones personal salvation post-mortem.  Original Sin, Christ’s sinlessness, God as Trinity, the exclusivity of the Church; all of these reduced to crude propositional statements needed to fill a gap in narrative logic become worn out quickly and whither and die.  The Gospel makes a difference as to how we conceive our political allegiances.  This isn’t about some stupid “Right vs Left” thing.  This is an Isaiah 2.1-5 kind of thing:

1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

3 And many people shall go and say , Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4 And he shall judgeamong the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

5 O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD

This raises the problem of the Church’s need to relearn how to read the Old Testament Christologically, but that is for another day.  For now I hope I’ve hinted however poorly at the ways in which the Christian proclamation ought to revise other stories which we tell about ourselves.  I also hope I’ve done it in a way that does not reduce to finger pointing at American soldiers as such essays as this even of mine have been prone to do.


AAF III: To The Text!

Tony SigI Clement: Salutation

“The church of God that lives as an exile* in Rome to the church of God that lives as an exile in Corinth”

*alternative rendering – sojourns (so Holmes), or “as alien” or “temporarily resides”

As noted in the intro, but now here asserted in the text, it is the church corporate in Rome which addresses the church corporate in Corinth. The feel is distinctly different than Paul who consistently draws attention to his apostolicity, or Peter who does likewise, or the psuedonymous writers who draw on apostolic authority (ie-some catholic and pastoral epistles). It is even less assertive than the gentle leader(s) of the Johanine Community, whose leader affectionately goes by the title “The Elder.”

It is more akin to, say Polycarp of Smyrna, who addresses his letter to the Phillipians simply “Polycarp.” Only here we see the focus of appeal made by the whole Roman community rather than focused on a single individual.

As Eusebius notes (EH 4.23.11), this letter has long been thought to have been authored by Clement of Rome. And several of the manuscripts give a title to the work saying variously: “Clement to the Corinthians I”-so Codex Hierosolymitanus (AD1056), similarily the Latin (11thc copy of likely 2nd or 3rdc pieces), Codex Alexandrinus (5thc; missing 57.7-63.4) leaves out the “I”; The Syriac has the letter in the NT and is dated (AD1169-1170), it’s title is a bit more grandiose, “the catholic epistle of Clement the disciple of Peter the apostle to the church of the Corinthians”; similarily the Coptic (incomplete, 4th and 7thc)

Since we do not have enough manuscripts to comprehend the tradition or family tree of the letter, we can observe that it is not until over a thousand years later that we see a title which mentions Peter; where it is not part of the text, and even the title only mentions “discipleship” as being a quality of Clement; there is here no mention of a Petrine or apostolic authority. Though there are several passages in the body of the letter which do give such an impression (ch 42-44), to which in time we will get.

[All info from Holmes 3rd ed]

The Textual Tradition & Homosexuality

I would like to begin this post by insisting upon my humanity over this subject. I have felt a great many emotions concerning the rights and struggles of my gay brothers and sisters. I will not attempt to deny my anger or sadness, as this subject is one I have great difficulty simply intellectualizing – not taking personally.

exodus_internationalThere are a few passages in the Hebrew and Greek testaments that give reference to same sex relations. As I will attempt to show here, many of these interactions can be reasoned not as negative due to their same-sex status but rather an interaction that is either taboo or destructive socially. While assessing each of these scenarios keep in mind a couple of questions: Do the historical ramifications translate to our culture? Do these actions in themselves merit condemnation or simply understanding? Third, why does this matter to me?

The Abominable Act
Every sin and law mentioned in the scriptures has a qualitative rationale for its impartation. Laws against marrying cousins and siblings seem to us quite reasonable, almost unnecessary. For a culture such as the early Hebrew nation, exogamy and exclusionary tactics made interfamilial courtship and matrimony a viable solution. We are quite removed from this backdrop. We believe exogamous marriage to such an extreme is culturally taboo. Even more, we realize now the genetic disorders we are now predisposed to, many disorders that were not in existence during the early times of the Hebrew nation. Taking this in mind, we do not culturally recognize such acts as sin in the way our predecessors did. Take this in stride with laws against wearing multi-textile clothing, shaving your face at the sides , even having foreskin upon ones genitals. We are disconnected culturally from many of these sins/laws.

Take these into account in the writings of Leviticus 18. A culture straining to maintain equanimity as well as cultural identity among their Babylonian captors sought any way of weeding out those who would not assist in the populating of the culture; hence the word abomination – against culture.

Leviticus 18.22

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. (NASB)

One must ask the question “why” in reading this verse. I believe the question is not ‘what happens’ in terms of being gay but rather ‘what does not happen’. If one is sleeping with a man as they would sleep with a woman, a woman is NOT being slept with – not propagating the culture and not assisting in the development (numerically) of the people. If you read through this chapter it has a lot to say about nakedness, marriage and the act of “laying/knowing”. It should be taken into account, however, the scriptural ramifications address the act:

18.29 – “For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people.” (NASB)

A reasonable translation to this (yes from English to English) would be as such: “If you perform an act against our culture, you will be removed from our culture.”

Fast-forward several thousand years to the USA in the 21st century. Are we worried about the depletion of our population? Do we believe men sleeping with other men (ladies likewise) will propagate some sort of sterility in our world? I believe the answer to be “no”. We obviously no longer live in an exogamous society, the message of the redemption of Yahweh is no longer confined to Israel (please know I mean this historically, not theologically), we are not in captivity – fearing our race (religious as well as ethnic) to be obliterated. One should ask themselves, does the word abomination apply?

The word homosexual has been a term of major dispute in the interpretation of the scriptures. Words such as malakoi, arsenokoitai, andrapodostai, have gone through significant typological and culturally influenced misinterpretation. Since the distribution of the scriptures “malakoi” itself has been translated as ‘masturbators’, ‘morally weak persons’, ‘catamites’, ‘sodomites’, ‘effeminate men’ etc. Notice each of these phrases have specific and different meanings dependent on their culture and interpretation.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV)

The passage in itself seems to be a bit redundant (male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders (malakoi oute arsenokoitai ) unless a little context is put in place. It was common in Greek culture for a young man to gain cultural and political esteem by sexual means. In these times a boy aged 14-18 would receive gifts, learn from and even sexually please an elder in their city in order to gain access to the social network of Greek city-states. This passage speaks specifically against actions of sexual promiscuity; more specifically acts of sex not performed in the proper ground of love and commitment. It is quite plausible to assume from this historical understanding, the boys performing sexual acts to gain esteem may be the malakoi. Likewise the older men soliciting sex the arsenokoitai.

There is no reference to acts of sex, between same sex nor opposite sex partners in this passage that are in the cradle of mutual love, affection or commitment. It is irresponsible to conclude from this passage that an act of love between two men expressed sexually can be construed as immoral.

Romans 1:24-27

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (NIV)

As before, this passage refers not to loving acts of sexual exchange but rather lustful acts. Take in mind the real sin in this passage was misdirected worship (idolatry) as sighted above.

I would also like to note, passages concerning love are not limited to heterosexual relationships. Many scriptures refer to men who loved each other deeply. The scriptures do not paint sexual acts as ‘good’ solely because they are heterosexual. Sex must be loving to be good. Acts of lust, same sex and opposite, are sinful. Concerning this, I perceive an equation stirring in conservatives’ heads that I do not understand:

Straight + Lust = Bad
Gay + Lust = Bad
Straight + Love = Good
Gay + Love = Bad?

Is loving someone of the same sex bad inherently? Is it not plausible for a woman to love another woman or a man to love another man in a way sexually expressed? Where does the scripture dictate this as wrong action when done so in love? The scriptures say:

Proverbs 3:3

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. (NIV)

John 13:34-35

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (NIV)

1 Samuel 18:1-3

After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return to his father’s house. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. (NIV)

and most importantly …

1 John 4:7-8

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (NIV)

What boundary then does love have?

The church has been (and I mean this only from experiences I have had and those familiar to me) horrendous in teaching proper sexual interactions between even committed heterosexual couples. Many cite verses like Genesis 38 as completely logical rationale for oral and other types of non-life producing intercourse to be considered immoral in today’s culture. This takes scriptures such as these out of context. What form does sex have to take to be holy?

Here are a couple assumptions I have about the assumptions other people make who take an anti-gay position in theology:gay_church-thumb

1. A gay relationship can never be loving or committed
2. Gay individuals do not know god
3. God hates homosexuality
4. Gay people are sexually promiscuous
5. Being gay is weird
6. Homosexuality is effeminate/de-womanizing

Let me say, I believe anyone who acts unloving and noncommittal or is promiscuous is not following the redeemer-god. And I do not believe homosexuality is inherently promiscuous or lustful.

I would agree the Christian tradition has looked unfavorably on homosexuality. I would argue however, homosexuality as a practice became wrapped up with prostitution and promiscuity (et al) and was not treated as an issue of love.

Gay individuals and marriage
While meeting with a pastor, whom I love and adore, several months ago I heard him say (and I am crassly paraphrasing) “Why do homosexuals have to get into marriage? Why do they have to affect the institution of marriage?”

I think this is an excellent question. Initially I would respond by saying, I don’t believe gay men and women are ruining marriage by getting married. While learning about Christian marriage I was under the impression marriage was the responsibility of my spouse, my Lord and me. When the man down the street beat his wife to a bloody pulp, I didn’t think my marriage was at risk of loosing some inherent value.

My marriage and its institution was and is locked tightly in the fortress of love and commitment.

When the divorce rates rise, my marriage doesn’t cheapen, it remains my personal commitment to my wife and my creator. Simply put, I believe anyone who chooses love and commitment may get married.

If one is worried about marriage somehow being ruined as an institution (and I believe this issue is more politically motivated than interpersonally) one should begin teaching couples about the importance of finance, require marriage counseling for church members, try to legalize a divorce ban (with obvious exceptions). I don’t think this is ever going to happen, though, because I don’t believe the issue has anything to do with ‘marriage’. If I may squeeze this out a bit more, I have never heard a minister (nor a politician for that matter) speak of the institution of marriage as being attacked when they hear of domestic abuse. Could this issue possibly be more about the taboo of homosexuality than us worrying about marriage?

Homosexuality and the Church
In the end what does ones view of homosexuality have to do with the church? One of my mentors asked me a few months ago, “Do you believe it’s okay to be gay?” My response to her was, “It doesn’t matter what I think.” I think the Church must answer likewise. If you think it’s wrong to be a glutton do you allow gluttons membership in your church? When searching about denominational beliefs, do you ask if they allow individuals who are financially irresponsible to take communion? This point can, as you know, go on for days. Our goal is love.

If homosexuality is wrong, a gay person will enter the church, fall in love with Jesus and be convicted of their sin – the triumph goes to our Lord. If homosexuality is right, a gay person will enter the church and fall in love with Jesus and be convicted by their sin – the triumph goes to the Lord. I am not worried because I trust my Lord.

Ultimately, I believe our reaction should be faith in love. I would urge church leadership to insist upon continuity in church theology. If you really do believe (enter sin here) is wrong then distribute judgment and consequence equally. It is upon this ground all Christians can gather, we seek after love, conviction and community.
1 Peter 4:8

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (NIV)