Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Can Christians Be Interreligious?

Too late. We already are. 

You have a brother- or sister-in-law who is Buddhist. An uncle who is Muslim. An auntie and some cousins who are Jewish. You work with a Sikh. Three of your neighbors are Hindu. The rest of your cousins are not religiously affiliated, while your grandparents and parents are Anglican and Baptist Christians.

If this doesn’t describe you, give it a couple years. The U.S. has been religiously diverse for a long time, and we’re all starting to see and experience it in very real ways. When I officiated my brother’s wedding, I was a Christian minister in front of a group of “nones,” Muslims, secular Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants. If I were to write up the experience as a case study for budding religious leaders, it would be titled: “How to make 99 mistakes and still enjoy a gracious and joyful event.”

My church doesn’t have a stance on interfaith or interreligious relationships. This, from a denomination that has many papers and policies and Authoritative Interpretations and a constitution. But now we’re in the midst of very practical needs for a stance. What guidance or resources might our congregations and members need for relating to people of other religions, including no religion at all? Religious diversity is right up against all of us in some way or another. Workplaces are inclusive of other faith traditions. Our families include people who belong to other religious traditions.

Last week, I was part of the PC(USA) General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations consultation on creating an interreligious stance (more about this event here). I sat in a small group with a certain head of communion, the president of a seminary, a retired parish pastor, and a mission co-worker. Many of us have significant professional experience working with practitioners of other religions. We shared stories of religiously diverse families. One of us lives as a religious minority.

The consultation findings and conversations will be written into a proposed policy. What follows are my own reflections.

As a Christian, we are called to do and be many things. The Gospel of Matthew calls us to make disciples of all nations. The Pauline letters urge a gospel of accommodation and hospitality, rather than assimilation into one way of being Christian.

There are multiple contemporary approaches to religious diversity. One believes that Christianity is the only true religion. There are plenty of Christian traditions that believe their strand is the only way for a person to be assured of their salvation. A very different approach assumes that at their core, all religions are the same; dig deeply enough, and you find a philosophy of loving one’s god and one’s neighbor. Another holds that regardless of belief, it is behavior that matters; you just have to be a good person. Karl Rahner believed that even though people may not have been exposed to Christianity, they act in ways that demonstrate they have accepted Christ, and are therefore saved through Christ. A pluralist attitude is to hold that all religions are valid in their own ways, and believes in the importance of engaging across religious traditions with respect and hospitality. 

Within my church, you would see people who hold to each one of the approaches described above. I lean pluralist, guided in part by a desire to remain in relationship with members of my family, and in part due to what I have learned by being in relationship with people of other religious traditions. I would never evangelize to one of my family members who is a committed member of another religious tradition. That means the Muslims who go to Friday prayers, the Jewish Unitarian atheists who faithfully attend their local UU church on Sundays, the Buddhists who belong to a temple and attend weekly, the “nones” who have great reasons for believing what they believe. I do and have evangelized family members who show interest in the Christian faith, and are not committed to one religion or another.

You may think my approach makes me a terrible Christian. Since I don’t know the mind of God, it might. But I think we of different religious traditions can hear each other better because we let our lives speak, to add onto a book title by Parker Palmer. I have long since ceased to be worried about the salvation of anyone. It’s a delight to be a Reformed Christian. Reformed Christians are those in the tradition mainly shaped by John Calvin and the like. A major tenet of Reformed theology is the sovereignty of God. God does whatever God wants to do, regardless of what we want God to do. Calvin wrote about predestination, a doctrine that upset me until I actually read Calvin’s Institutes. There are churches that believe you just have to work harder to ensure your own salvation, and exploit people’s desperation to be saved. I understand predestination as a way to comfort an anxious people. God has already decided on our salvation, and we can’t do anything to change it. So stop worrying already! Live your life!

Because I have stopped worrying, I believe I can relate to people of other religions without the urgency of needing to ensure their salvation (because it’s not up to me). I believe there is gracious space to witness to my faith and learn about theirs. I think of “witness” as a way of living my life so people think that I make being a Christian look good. Not because I’m so good, but because Christians have a lot of recover from. Our history of cultural domination, religious intolerance, aggressive missionizing resulting in the decimation of cultures, tearing families apart, Christian theological rationales for invasion of other people’s lands and theft of resources, theological rationales for the mass trafficking and enslavement of human beings, and a lot of other really terrible un-Jesus-like things might make it hard for people who are not Christian to trust us. (A friend once said he was surprised to learn that despite my status as a Christian minister, I’m not an a***hole.)

We have much to gain by relating to people of other religious traditions. We who are Christians can be Christian and can also listen well, offer and receive hospitality, and work for a world in which no religious person is persecuted for her or his difference. We can disagree with integrity, engage in dialogue, and learn from the wisdom of other traditions, while offering what is the wisdom of our own faith. We can work together for a better world, with less hunger, less oppression, and less hate.

And if you, like me, believe Christians have more to learn, here are some places to start:

Your local mosque, temple, gurdwara, synagogue.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sex Happens. Even Among Christians.

It’s hard to figure out how to write a blog post on sexuality, when you work for the church.

Here goes.

Most humans are sexual beings. And in my experience, the church is mostly terrible at being honest about sex and sexuality. I did an informal social media poll of Christians, asking what messages they received from church growing up. Here are a few examples:
“<crickets chirping>”
“I was going to hell” (from a gay man)
“Not to do it until you’re married”
“That it was shameful… all of it”
“Sex is bad – save it for the one you love”
 “If I had relied on church teachings, instead of the streets/cars/books, I still wouldn’t understand where my children came from”
“Nothing, except sex waited until marriage!”
“Evangelical youth group: No sex, no Disco (b/c it’s all about sex), sex is the DARK side, and: don’t talk abt it”

Here’s a great characterization of this stream of responses.

Plenty of respondents had other experiences to report. Several mentioned the PC(USA)’s (contentious) curriculum called “God’s Gift of Sexuality,” or the joint United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist Association curriculum called “Our Whole Lives.” Some attended churches where sexuality was discussed insofar as gay and lesbian inclusion was a part of the church’s work.

Here are a few other responses:
“Personal sex/sexuality: Nothing shaming or empowering. LGBTQ community was mentioned in sermons in a ‘stop oppression’ context”
“We had a class… Taught us to be ‘good stewards of our bodies,’ allowed us to ask questions safely, the teachers were open and not awkward”
“Actually had best sex ed class at church”

A few #facepalm moments cropped up, with one friend’s church showing Dr. Dobson videos, and a friend whose church had a progressive, sex-positive class, but whose evangelical summer camp included this ringer: “Masturbation is sinful because it sets up unrealistic expectations for your husband.”

Growing up, I learned from church that sexuality was to be contained to marriage (one man and one woman, of course), and sex in that context was great. I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn anything about masturbation. Once my dad preached about humans as sexual beings in a non-shaming way, but that’s all I remember.

My parents were pretty open about bodies, sex, and sexuality. They also wanted to impress upon my brother and me the importance of waiting to have sex until marriage. They did a pretty good job of explaining why. They told us that sex was a gift. They never used the words “pure” or “purity,” instead using “covenant.” We didn’t follow all of what my parents taught us, although I think my brother and I held onto the spirit of their teachings about healthy sexual expression.

And then I went to college. My understanding of sex and sexuality took a leap in a direction you might not anticipate.

I volunteered with the county health department doing harm reduction work. I handed out condoms in area bars and to people in the downtown area, as well as bleach kits for needle users. I distributed information about STD and HIV testing, and had conversations with people who needed information or resources in regards to their sexual health. Every bar night, I was on the receiving end of some older men joking they would like to try out the condoms with me (reinforcing my commitment to work against public gendered harassment, but that’s another post). I got involved in harm reduction work through a service learning trip in college, where we worked with Father River Sims, a priest committed to serving the people of the Tenderloin District of San Francisco with love, not judgment. (You can support his work here.)

I developed quite the disgust for germs and diseases, and plenty of appreciation for sex-positive messages: Bodies are beautiful! Sex is awesome! Sexuality is a fact of life! Humans are sexual beings! There are lots of different ways to respect sexuality and bodies! There are many ways to get a disease! The easiest way to avoid getting a disease is not having sex! Use protection! Communicate with your partner! These messages did not hinge on marriage conventions or the overbearing attachment between sexual activity and procreation. I learned that the conversation about sex workers and sex work is far more complicated than the narrative that sex work is (and therefore sex workers are) sinful, or the equally reductive narrative that all sex workers are engaged in this work because they are victims.

As a young adult, just when I was hanging around sex-positive public health educators, my denomination newly committed itself to restricting ordination to faithfully married straight people or completely celibate unmarried people. This was meant to target gay and lesbian people in ministry. The phrase “self-affirming practicing homosexuals,” often used by proponents of this particular ordination restriction, still makes me chuckle.

I was a member of a certain judicatory committee’s oversight of people on the ordination track. One person in this process was living with his partner. They were engaged to be married. They were heterosexual. I didn’t see how this person’s life could be an issue. But because of the regulations on the books, the committee decided they had to discuss his living arrangements. Three rather uncharitable thoughts popped into my head. The first was: “These two are smart! It costs way less for one household than for two separate households that are planning on merging anyway.” Theological education is expensive these days. The second was, “This generation doesn’t usually get married at 21. Welcome to the 21st century.” The third was: “Don’t they know that as many as 94% of all young adults have had some kind of pre-marital sexual experience? Do they really expect all people called to ministry are in the 6%?”

That regulation is no longer a part of my church’s polity. But somewhere along the line I had the revelation that church discussions about sexuality and gender identity were in part contentious because of genuinely faithful differences of belief, but also because much of the information held by church people was inaccurate and outdated, and certainly not based on the diverse messages about sexuality and marriage presented in the Bible.

I have a list of messages I wish Christians would hear at church:
-Masturbation is awesome.
-Sex is not necessarily about procreation. Each can happen without the other!
-Sex can be funny. Laugh-out-loud funny.
-Boys and men are just as responsible for their sexuality as are girls and women.
-Good sex involves respect for yourself and for the other person.
-Playing “hard to get” isn’t a real thing. It’s a rape culture lie. (And rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power.)
-Your pastor probably has sex. No need to fixate on that fact, please.
-More people than you know have had bad sexual experiences. Tread lightly and gracefully.
-Please don’t get married just because you want to have sex. Get married because you really want to be with this person FOREVER in this particular kind of relationship, even when your partner gets on your last nerve. Marriage is about respect, joint assets, combining family systems and creating a new one.
-Don’t judge or dismiss sex workers. This discussion is plenty complicated.

(Do you have any to add?)

For too long, the church has often placed limits around sex and sexuality that do not empower us to make good, healthy decisions about relationships, or leave too many of us clueless and insecure about our bodies. In a child sexual abuse prevention training, I was horrified to hear that children who do not know very much about their own bodies are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Knowledge really can be power.

I want the next generations’ conversations about sexuality, sex, gender identity, and relationships to resemble the second list of social media responses. The family and the church are the de facto locations where values around sex and sexuality are formed, and I want these communities to have the capacity for discussions based on accurate information, and theologically grounded values. The church can equip parents to approach conversations about sex and sexuality with children in healthy, honest, accurate, and appropriate ways.

Where shall we begin?

A few resources:

Thursday, September 5, 2013


I do not like that I’m writing this post.

I just had a lovely few weeks. I was in the office for a week, excited about upcoming publications. I had great conversations with colleagues. Then after some work time at home, I had a long weekend in California celebrating the marriage of two friends, catching up with friends and family, and throwing a baby shower for my brother and sister-in-law. Instead of blogging about family, babies, weddings, wine, and beauty, I’m writing this blog. As one of my uncles once told me, I’m just so focused on suffering: human suffering, animal suffering, suffering-suffering.

The nagging sense I had over the past week over the state of the world is caused not only by my focus on suffering, but by the very real drumbeats for war from within the U.S.

I don’t know enough about current international policy, and specifically about the civil war in Syria, to provide a well-reasoned opinion. I do not believe I hold a particularly unique perspective. I’m writing this because I don’t know what to do, but I do know the current discourse nags at me.

I am of the opinion that war is, as the bumper sticker says, bad for children and other living things. War leaves a swath of ecological, cultural and psychological damage. War is good for others who are markedly less vulnerable. I know war is profitable for arms dealers, defense companies, and many U.S. government contractors. I know war can be positive for politicians.

Policy-makers who are pushing for military action against the government of Syria cite the use of chemical weapons as the reason to impede on that country’s sovereignty now, as opposed to when the first million refugees were displaced, or when the first group of protestors was slaughtered.  As President Obama said in 2012, and again on September 4th, the world set this “red line” over which the government of Syria stepped. On this international stage, chemical weapons use is more horrific than killing children through hunger or bullets or bombs or drones. There is an international treaty (of which Syria is not a signatory) declaring the use of chemical weapons illegal.

Here is what I do not understand. How is it that some kinds of violence are worse than others? Dying by gunfire appears to be more acceptable than dying by chemical or biological warfare. Dying of a shortened lifespan due to hunger and oppression appears to be more acceptable than death by terrorist.

We in the U.S. have a spotty human rights record, at best. At worst, we are known for toppling democratically elected governments, propping up dictatorships, turning a blind eye to crimes against women in other countries by our own troops, and interfering in the lives of sovereign nations on a regular basis. We have a culture that enables high rates of sexual assault, and policies that allow hunger to flourish. Why is it that we get to be the human rights police?

I could speculate on the answers to these (mostly rhetorical) questions. I have lots of theories. No matter. It is a fact that chemical weapons are considered to be more heinous. It is a fact that the U.S. often steps into situations in other sovereign nations.

My religious tradition has room for what is known as the “just war theory.” The Allied cause in what became known as the First World War was believed to be just. Certainly World War II provided plenty of reasons to think the cause of war could be just. By the end of World War II, my denominational tradition moved away from just war theory, supporting instead an international body for conflict mediation. Instead of looking for reasons to justify going to war, or supporting war, Presbyterians began to work towards a proactive theology of peace (“Peace” entry from the Westminster Handbook to ReformedTheology by Donald McKim).

This bent toward peacemaking shows up particularly when it appears we as a country might head toward military actions. The head of communion for the Presbyterian Church (USA), known as the Stated Clerk, has sent letters to elected officials cautioning against rushing into the use of military tactics. The most recent statements urged the use of other (non-military) tools against Iran (in 2012) and Syria (in 2013).

Some people scoff at these statements. I am so grateful we as a church are taking a stand, and communicating that stand to our international partners. Words do sometimes matter. The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon wrote a letter expressing gratitude for the words of the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA).

What accompanies these statements and amplifies their power are all the Christians who are taking action, who are calling their elected officials asking them to oppose military action against the government of Syria, holding vigils, and educating themselves. More information about asking your representatives to support an alternative solution is here.

I do not like war anywhere. I know this national and international conversation is more complicated than I understand. I want to know what it means to be a Christian in these moments. I do not like that I am writing this blog post.