Thursday, May 3, 2018

Missing Church

Lately I have had a falling out with Christianity. Not a falling out with Christians, family or friends, but a grumpy disappointment with the theology of it. This is a not new cycle for me and not especially unique to Christianity. I’ve invested in and then fallen out with Buddhism and the Tarot in the past. It seems like I put a lot of hope into something being the something that makes sense of everything and then, crash, it fails to support the weight I’ve given it. I then resent the philosophy for fooling me about its flaws when I know, to be fair, I fooled myself.

Non-Christian friends have asked me in the past why I put so much effort into understanding Christianity. Part of it is that I am not an ideologue about religion – despite how I may sound at times. When my partners parents are over I like to remember to offer that we say grace before dinner. And in return they have never batted an eyelid when we don’t. I don’t get angry at people who express thanks to God for saving them from a hurricane the way some non-believers do because I don’t think that person is really saying God blessed them and cursed others. I think they’re just grateful –as I would be if a flying car missed my head and my partners head and my kids heads. I also think a lot of religious concepts – even hell – are useful philosophically – even if I don’t think they are physically real. I don’t, as I have said many times, think whether a person believes in God or not matters that much. I don’t think our opinions on God’s existence need to divide us or can meaningfully unite us either.

On top of this I believe in community. I believe our society is stupidly atomized into nuclear families which are themselves disintegrating in favour of the individual. There are positives to individualism, don’t get me wrong. I think certain calls for a return to the glory days of arranged marriages as a fix to individualism are bound up in those speakers blind privilege. Long live individualism in romance. Go for it Jack and Rose (Titanic movie reference). But economic individualism is something else. When you can find families where one sibling is wealthy while another is in crushing debt, what hope do we have of ever reducing the chasm between rich and poor in wider society? Wealth inequality is the worst it has ever been in human history and getting worse. I believe it is, on a structural level, threatening our planet and all life on it. We need to all get in the same boat economically or more and more people will keep drowning.

So when I’m not an ideologue about religion and I believe in community why wouldn’t I go to church? Churches are one of the few remaining non-capitalist spaces left – ignoring for a second the huckster variants with their miracles for sale. In a church you can’t buy anyone’s approval and you can’t not afford to attend. There is a general inclination towards collectivism. When a church holds a lunch its not usually bring your own or sausages for individual sale. The food is on the table for everyone and the costs are covered by donation. If the dishes need doing then everyone can pitch in and while this can lead to women pitching in more than men that’s a charge that can be leveled at any community and it can be challenged at church. In some churches at least, there is a strong desire to tackle decisions collectively, and powerful checks on ego and hierarchy. I don’t bother with churches with a clerical authority. My time in the Catholic tradition is done. But there are those that rotate worship leaders and value discussion over preaching at a congregation. It’s like a commune of like minded people.

The dilemma is, that I am not so like-minded as the rest. Lot’s of churches include a diversity of views. Some church goers were among those who recently voted yes for same sex marriage while others voted no. All Churches with  male only clergy would include some members for women’s ordination.  Not every Christian has the same attitude to the bible. Not every Christian has the same idea of the afterlife or how prayer is supposed to work or what a Christian life should look like. But generally every Christian has a respectful attitude towards the Bible, as a place they want to return to for inspiration, if not instruction. Generally every Christian believes in an afterlife and with that an eternal nature to the soul. Generally every Christian considers Jesus uniquely special, not just part of a pantheon of good guys along with Robin Hood and Jim Henson. Generally every Christian wants to check their life in with a being or at least force they call God so that they can be living on the right track, either through prayer or biblical study or reflecting on God or some combination of these. I don’t.

The one hesitation I feel when writing “I don’t” to the above generalities about Christians is that I would like to  check in with God. And by God I mean a loosely fluid concept representing “goodness”. Checking in with goodness to see if I am doing good in the world is certainly one reason why I have gone to church in the past. I am inclined to laziness and self-importance. I need to check in somehow. But checking in with goodness is fundamentally not the same as checking in with God. Or maybe it could be but while it has felt similar enough in the past to make attending church useful it now feels different enough to make sharing that checking in with Christians not helpful. I’m not so sure God, real or not, is so good.

All of this might change. I might go back to church next week and if I did I know I would be welcomed without question. There would be a morning tea of shared food and if I brought something it would be accepted and if I forgot to bring anything it would not be thought of. A group of people I count as friends would be there, noticing if I was down or bringing their own need to the group. The Bible would be consulted to seek out God’s loving plan to restore a just world. Connected to this there might be a chance to reflect on how to be a part of that plan in relation to refugees, or the environment or the neglected and isolated people in our community. Songs would be sung, lamentations over injustice, or praises of a sacrificial God. Maybe a collection plate would be passed around but without obligation or even pressure. People would ask the group to pray for themselves or for others and the group would do so without haste.

Sometimes I think some of my atheist friends think that church is where Christians go to hang out and loudly judge those who aren’t there, especially atheists. I think some services in some more fundy churches I have attended in the past resembled that but its truly not a common form. The church I have attended till recently (can I still say “my” church?) has never, ever done that. People value their time there, for themselves, as a place to challenge their own flaws, way too much. Likewise it isn’t because I think I am flawless that I haven’t been attending church. I don’t feel that church is currently the best way for me to check those flaws but if you, whatever your beliefs, think joining a church community might be for you, I would definitely recommend St. Matthews in Long Gully, Bendigo. You might see me there, but I currently wouldn’t expect to. Enjoy the morning tea.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Against whom have I sinned? Part 2.

In my last post I presented the problem of how a particular Christian understanding of “sin” can be used to overlook victims. The specific sins I am considering here are those with human victims; murder, assault, unjust incarceration. I claim that it is necessary within Christianity to rationalize God as the sole or primary offended party when people commit such sin, in order to give God, through Jesus, the prerogative to forgive such sin completely. I concluded however with the recognition that many passionate Christians do acknowledge human victims indicating that they have an understanding of sin and of God’s offence that overcomes the problem I outlined.

A recent news event and its discussion is worth mentioning here. Rachael Denhollander was a victim of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse while a young girl. She was also the first to publicly accuse him. At Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing Denhollander gave a powerful impact statement which “went viral” in Christian media circles. Rachael expressed in a follow up interview how she knows first hand the glibness that the Christian doctrine of forgiveness can express towards victims and even how it can be used as a weapon to minimize their abuse. Rachel Denhollander is clear that her own understanding of forgiveness “means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously.”

When I read Denhollander's words and when I learn of her actions in bringing Nassar to justice as well as exposing other abuses and supporting other victims, I feel like its better for anyone to read her words over mine on this matter.

I’ll go on though, because I want to outline very clearly an alternative understanding of the mechanism of sin and forgivenenss that Christians can take up. Denhollander has reinforced for me how relevant this is to changing how churches respond to institutional abuse. Firstly it is not necessary to consider God’s forgiveness as sufficient for all matters. A person who kills another person may be forgiven by God for the pertinent offence to God (harming their creation or disobeying God’s laws), but this does not remove their obligations to the victim, the victim's family or their community. To express this it is important to avoid language suggesting that, through contrition before God, a person “wipes their slate clean” or in any similar metaphor renders their situation as if the sin had not happened. This is not the situation for victims. It could even be stated that a consequence of being right with God would be a desire of a perpetrator to meet their obligations to any victims.

Some objectors to this might raise passages such as Psalm 41 which led me to this topic in my last post, as if they “proved” God is the only offended party to sin. A careful reading however reminds us that Psalm 41 is simply a prayer made by King David. King David’s self-serving belief that God is the only one he has sinned against should come as no surprise from such a flawed character. It is an example of an appeal to cheap grace from someone who consistently tries to play God like a slot machine. In 2 Samuel:12 we see David employing contrition towards God in a frankly cynical way (while sadly God in patriarchal fashion punishes David through his child). David is supposed to be read as a dick and there’s no reason even a biblical fundamentalist has to assume he gets God perfectly. 

No biblical Christian is justified using Psalm 41 as instruction over the more relevant Matthew 5:23-24. Here Jesus separates out making oneself right with God, through temple sacrifices, and making oneself right with another person. Jesus puts the latter first as a requirement of the former, reversing the normal hierarchy of importance. It is presented as if approaching God for forgiveness of sin makes no sense while in conflict with one’s “brother or sister.” This is a position that is radically at odds with David’s God-alone strategy of seeking forgiveness.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

What does this say about the nature of God and sin? I find the idea of a God who refuses to be used to clear someone’s slate while they continue to offend others a powerful one. It is certainly an empowering one for victims.

One of the recommendations of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse is that the Catholic church removes the promise of secrecy from the rite of confession in matters involving child victims. This has been initially rejected by the Church hierarchy in Australia. If we accept that genuine forgiveness of sins requires the victims engagement and in cases of child abuse the community is also the victim, then the position of the Catholic church should be that absolution is always withheld unless a confession of sexual abuse is also made to the police. It follows then that, even if the secrecy of the confession is held to by the church, priests can be prevented from practicing as priests after confessing to sexual abuse. They either accept criminal prosecution or they must be considered unrepentant of a mortal sin by their peers and cannot officiate mass.

This may seem like an unnecessarily convoluted thought process to reach a simple conclusion; You can’t just go to God (or God’s representative), obtain your forgiveness and then your victims must catch up to the new reality of your sinlessness. Any path to atonement with God is rather through a genuine encounter with the reality of your victims and all the resulting consequences of that. Anything else is cheap grace at their expense. At times I have felt that discussing the theology of how this works is more words than needed but I have had the words of Denhollander in mind:

“But often, if not always, people are motivated by poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance and that causes them to handle sexual assault in a way where that (sic) a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades. When you see a theological commitment to handling sexual assault inappropriately, you have the least hope of ever changing it.”

And so we must first change the theologies of sin and forgiveness that don't put victims first.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Against whom have I sinned?

Psalm 51 is a prayer of the Jewish King David. His rule, if such a person existed, would have been about 1000 BCE and is considered a Golden Age of ancient Jewish civilization. This is the same David who, in his most famous legend, slays Goliath with a sling. In Psalm 51 (included below) he prays to God for mercy. As he does so David expresses particular views about sin which I heard quoted by the contemporary theologian D.A. Carson, causing me to revisit this psalm.

D.A. Carson stated that in every occasion of sin, God is the primary (David says only) offended party. As the primary or only offended party (and this distinction in effect isn’t clear)  God has the moral right to punish sinners and the capacity to pardon them independently of any human victims. King David in Psalm 51 asks God to be cleansed of his sin like contemporary Christians are invited to do, with the full confidence that this is God’s prerogative. God could not do this unless they were functionally the only offended party; another could still righteously pass their own judgment.

The first point I want to make about this theology is that much depends on what is meant by “offended” when we say God is an offended party to sin. One way this has been understood is that sin is a breaking of God’s rules and that this offence of disobedience is the way in which God is offended. If this is the way God’s offence is understood then it should raise some questions. How could the person of God be more offended for having their commands disobeyed over the direct victim of an assault for example? If sexual harassment occurred in a workplace would we say that the boss, whose rules for workplace conduct have been transgressed, is the most offended party? Imagine such a boss informing the victim that they have forgiven the perpetrator so everything is good now. We would understandably balk at this. Even though we should recognise that the boss has independently been betrayed by the harassing employee and could independently insist on punishment they are certainly not the only offended party. The victim of the harassment has an independent claim for restitution or punishment.

Another way of understanding God as the offended party is to state that we, along with all creation, are God’s property. Thus any transgression against us is against our author/owner rather than ourselves. If I enter your house and destroy your couch there can be no sense that the couch is an offended party. Only you are. Consistently if a person decides to destroy their own couch then there is no offence at all. To accept this paradigm, where God is the functionally only offended party by virtue of our possession by God, is to deny our personhood. (Moral personhood is a term for how  a person is delineated from a thing in morality.)  I condemn as barbaric when harm to children or wives counts only as harm to their patriarch (and owner) in some cultural circumstances. I insist upon the moral personhood of all. Are we supposed to accept via an analagous patriarchal logic that as children of God we have no independent personhood?

It should be acknowledged that to say we are not people in relation to another human person, is not the same thing as saying we are not a person in relation to God. God is not a citizen and can only symbolically inhabit a human throne. There is a kind of political equality in declaring that all, rather than just some, human beings are not moral persons. It is however a political equality of tenuous security. The offence of killing us is only dependant on God being offended by that killing. Large sections of the human population believe in a Bible that proclaims men who have sex with men, practitioners of witchcraft and children who disrespect their parents as right to be killed according to God. If we accept the paradigm of sin in which we are God’s property then any argument against such murder (even that it should be called murder) can only be an argument over whether that is actually what God wants. Which of us wants to go toe to toe with a fundamentalist to assert our humanity with no avenue to our inalienable personhood?

God as the functionally only offended party to sin is not peripheral to Christianity. The complete forgiveness of sins by the cross depends upon it. We have seen two ways Gods' position can be understood that should disturb us. Neither honours the victim with their full self-worth. It is reasonable to wonder whether these understandings of sin and God contributed to the catastrophic failure in some church institutions of their responsibility to young people in their care. Did they simply forget the victim was an offended party? Did they seek forgiveness from the boss only? It is also pertinent to ask, as a society with largely Christian roots, whether these understandings have expressions in our broader politic. The violence of colonization is sometimes excused by the greater glory of the nation. The cruelty of offshore detention is unseen because its victims are nobody’s property. How do we all under represent the victim in our understanding of wrong doing?

When we look at Christians practicing their faith we find many who recently exposed their churches corruption and have stood up for victims of abuse. We find a great number of the people who condemned and punished the violence of Australia’s colonization in our history were driven by their Christian faith. We find many Christians today at the forefront of trying to inject some compassion into Australia’s immigration debates. This leaves us with our last question, worthy of its own separate discussion; Are these Christians simply avoiding the logic of their own faith or do they have a different understanding of God as the only offended party of sin which doesn’t diminish the human victims? Is it possible that through an understanding of incarnation perhaps, these Christians avoid treating human people and God as separate persons who compete for our attention when addressing sin. Do they conceptually combine God and victim into one? I suspect this is so and I hope to find the opportunity to present this possibility to my Christian friends. I’ll tell you what they say. Hopefully they can give me the language to express their understanding to you.


Psalm 51

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is[b] a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.