Saturday Night Theologian
28 January 2007

Jeremiah 1:4-10 (first published 22 August 2004)

The 14 May issue of the New York Times reported the following: "The Roman Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs has issued a pastoral letter saying that American Catholics should not receive communion if they vote for politicians who defy church teaching by supporting abortion rights, same-sex marriage, euthanasia or stem-cell research." Bishop Michael J. Sheridan, in a pastoral letter, wrote that abortion in particular "trumps all other issues." There are two issues here of relevance to Christians in general, not just Catholics. First, does abortion indeed "trump all other issues"? That is, if a politician holds the "wrong" view on this single issue, should Christians automatically shun that person in the voting booth? Second, is the theological case against abortion so definite that there is no room for Christians to disagree? On the first question, I think it is extremely dangerous that any thinking person would make political decisions based on a candidate's professed position on a single issue, unless that issue truly defines a candidate's politics. For example, Christians in South Africa in years past rightly opposed candidates who stood for apartheid, because the apartheid system was so detrimental to the health of society in general and of non-whites in particular. While opponents of abortion can argue that legalized abortion is detrimental to society in various ways, they cannot honestly compare its impact to apartheid (interestingly, some people who are most opposed to abortion were perfectly happy to let apartheid go on its merry way, but that's a different matter). Concerning the second question, opponents of abortion often quote a verse from today's reading in making their case that life begins at conception: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you." However, one could also argue from the passage that God knew Jeremiah before he was conceived ("before I formed you in the womb"), so that the verse refers to the eternality of God rather than the point in time at which life begins. Another relevant issue in the debate is that restrictions on abortion affect women rather than men in regard to health, economics, and social stigma. I struggle with the issue myself, because I value the sanctity of human life, but I see the negative impact that unwanted pregnancies have on women, especially poor women and teenage girls. I have no problem whatsoever with "morning after pills" and "Plan B," but I cringe at the idea of late-term abortions, unless the mother's life or health are endangered. If I feel this conflicted about the issue, I know many other people do as well. At the same time, there are lots of Christians on both sides of the issue who are absolutely certain of their own positions. That's fine, as long as one side doesn't stigmatize the other or, even worse, attempt to criminalize the other. Following God invites opposition, as Jeremiah discovered throughout his life. Disagreement on important issues is not bad, and healthy debate is even better, but there is no place in Christianity for anathematizing those with whom we disagree.

Psalm 71:1-6 (first published 1 February 2004)

According to paleoanthropologists, modern human beings first entered the continent of Europe about 35,000 years ago. Within a couple of thousand years they had spread throughout Europe, seeing such natural wonders as the Alps for the first time. As the millennia passed, features of the land changed. The great ice sheet that covered much of the continent melted, flora and fauna adapted to their new surroundings or became extinct, and humans moved further north. A little over 5,000 years ago a lone hunter traversing the Alps froze to death, and his body was discovered in 1991 by hikers. His clothes show the extent to which humans have changed over time, yet to the hikers, to Otzi the Ice Man, and to the earliest humans in Europe, the Alps looked pretty much the same. When the psalmist describes God as a rock of refuge, perhaps he had in mind a particularly striking mountain in the land of Israel. As wars raged and empires rose and fell, the mountain stayed the same, just as God stays the same. The world today is changing faster than ever before. Technologies that are commonplace today--the World Wide Web, cell phones, DVDs, laptop computers--were not available thirty years ago. Whereas the typical American man often worked in one job for his entire career a few decades ago, men and women today change jobs--and even careers--several times during their working lives. In the midst of all this change, where can we find stability? The simple answer is God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That's partially right, but also partially wrong. Our understanding of God certainly changes over time, and it's right that it should. Our spiritual forebears held ideas of God that we today reject, such as the necessity of women being subordinate to men, the legitimacy of slavery, the divine right of kings, or God as male rather than female. We can't confuse our understanding of God with the reality of God. It is that reality that is our rock and refuge, not our conceptualization of God. It is appropriate for God's children to question the conceptual constructs of our predecessors, or even of our younger selves. Doing so reminds us that all who seek God will not have the same ideas about God. However, we can all cling with certainty to the idea that God is our refuge, a rock that never changes. In a maddeningly evolving world, there's comfort in that thought.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

One wonders why no one in church history has ever been considered a heretic for being unloving. People were anathematized and often tortured and killed for disagreeing on matters of doctrine or on the authority of the church. But no one on record has ever been so much as rebuked for not living as Christ loved (Gregory Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation).
Paul devoted a whole chapter to the topic. The author of 1 John admonishes his readers to "love one another, because everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 John 4:7). The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus looked at the rich man who asked him about eternal life and loved him (Mark 10:21). On another occasion Jesus wept because of the strong love he felt for Lazarus, who had just died (John 11:35-36). The second century theologian Tertullian said that even Christianity's harshest opponents had to admit of Christians, "See how they love each other!" But does love characterize Christians today? Not nearly often enough, unfortunately. Major wars between Christian nations of different denominations ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but conflict between Christians has continued to the present. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are still not far from a relationship of love and mutual respect. Catholics in some areas of Latin America denigrate Protestants as less than Christian, and Protestants return the compliment in their attitudes toward Catholics, even in the U.S. Conservative Christians often publicly deny that more liberal Christians are Christian at all, and liberal Christians question the honesty and sincerity of the conservatives. In the early church, Christians began developing creeds that both encapsulated their understanding of the faith and served to separate the "orthodox" from the "heretics." The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, "I believe." What would have happened had the church put more emphasis on the word amo, "I love." When there are two billion Christians in the world, there is no way we will all agree on matters of doctrine. Disagreement is fine, as long as it is accompanied by love. While we can't all agree, we can all love one another, just as Jesus commanded us to do, and as he showed us.

Luke 4:21-30 (first published 1 February 2004)

"Physician, heal yourself!" No, this is not advice for presidential contender Howard Dean (though it could be!) but a proverb that Jesus said that the residents of Nazareth were muttering among themselves concerning him. People seem to have a love-hate relationship with their fellow citizens. On the one hand, voters can often be counted on to vote for a "favorite son" (or daughter) candidate. On the other hand, people often don't want to hear the advice of those who are close at hand. Do you know what the definition of an expert is? Someone from out of town. I remember an occasion in a former job where a couple of bigwigs asked the advice of their staff concerning a particular technology matter. The staff replied with sound advice, but the executives weren't convinced, so they decided to fly outside consultants in to address the issue. The consultants met for two days, discussed the issues with executives and staff, and talked among themselves for several hours. The results? You guessed it: they agreed completely with the advice that the staff had originally given! One could argue that the primary problem with this scenario is that we don't trust those we know to give good advice. That may be, but I think an equally important issue is that we're far too gullible in accepting the word of outside experts (so-called). Don't get me wrong; it's often important to get the advice of outside consultants, especially when they have expertise that local people don't have. However, we need to be cautious about accepting the word of people with whom we have no long-term relationship as gospel truth. Whether advice comes from those close to us or from outsiders, we need to learn to make critical judgments on our own. Why are many fundamentalist churches with authoritarian leaders growing? Because too many people are happy to be told what to believe, because it relieves them of having to think for themselves. As progressive Christians, we need to resist the temptation to do the same from our own perspective. The people to whom we minister need to hear our advice, but they also need to learn how to exercise their own critical thinking skills to evaluate the advice that we offer in the light of their own context and understanding. We should be open to prophets who arise from our midst, as well as those from other places. At the same time, we must feel free to use our best judgment concerning the advice we hear from others. Sometimes we'll make the wrong decisions, but we'll do so as free moral agents, doing our best to follow our understanding of God.