Redeeming the Curse of Work through Charity: A Maximum Moral Income

What follows is not a radical proposal. I am confident that Mr. Wesley, let alone Jesus, considers that it does not go far enough, but it is a start. The proposal is not original with me. It comes from A. Q. Smith in the March 30, 2017, edition of Current Affairs, entitled, “It’s Basically Just Immoral to Be Rich.” Anyone who has read Holy Scripture knows that Smith and Jesus are on the same page. Smith wrote, “Here is a simple statement of principle that doesn’t get repeated enough: if you possess billions of dollars, in a world where many people struggle because they do not have much money, you are an immoral person.” He goes on to note that white families in the US have sixteen times the wealth as black families. How is that justifiable? Of course, there are economists, think tanks, politicians, and even theologians who will justify it, but in the end reasonable people, and especially reasonable people of faith, should know it is not justifiable. We can do better.

Smith’s essay avoids some vexing questions. He does not advocate a socialist revolution where the workers of the world unite and take over the means of production. He does not side with capitalists against socialists or socialists against capitalists. He does not address the structural issues that social justice advocates frequently address. He appeals to charity, to giving away our excess to make the lives of others bearable. He knows that for some reason many people today on the left and right reject appeals to charity. We have all heard the tired phrase, “If you give someone a fish they eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, they eat for a life time.” Having lived in a fishing village in Honduras, I’m not convinced that teaching people to fish gets them out of poverty. Smith makes a moral argument, avoiding the important question of how we earn our income and addressing something that should be recognizable, especially to Methodists, as a key aspect of faith – how much of it you keep. Even if we somehow deserved earning 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 times more than our neighbor, are we justified in keeping it? He says no, and advocates moral shaming for those who do – something we know none of our current political parties would dare attempt. He suggests a simple, non-radical proposal. We develop a moral culture where we establish a “maximum moral income.” Anyone who keeps over $250,000 annual income for a family of four (with all the necessary adjustments for real income factored in) should be considered immoral. If we cannot learn to live on $250,000, then we are an immoral people. Keeping more than $250,000 should be treated like having sex in public, watching pornography in front of children, or preparing and eating endangered species at the church potluck. It should be met with the “yuck factor” in moral deliberation.

When I read Smith’s interesting piece, I immediately had two thoughts. First, this proposal cannot be recognized as anything but fantasy in the US where billionaires are treated like royalty, as if they are super intelligent persons who deserve our respect for being billionaires despite how they earned their money or how much or little they give away. Second, this proposal should be recognized by Methodists as eminently sound, because one of our normative doctrinal standards is Wesley’s sermon “On Riches.” Wesley is much more rigorous than Smith. He states, “What a hindrance are riches to the very first fruit of faith, namely, the love of God.” He defines the rich person as “anyone who possesses more than the necessaries and conveniences of life.” Smith’s proposal is much more lenient on us than Wesley. In another sermon, “On the Use of Money,” he gives practical counsel to gain all we can, save all we can, and then give all we can. It is the latter that we have abandoned. Paul tells us that the reason we are sick and dying is due to income inequality where the rich humiliate those who have nothing by showing off what they have. To continue in this way is to have “contempt for the church” (1 Cor 11:22). Similarly, the first use of the term “church” in Acts is when “great fear” came upon it because Ananias and Sapphira refused to be accountable with their possessions. If we took up Smith’s number of $250,000, a very high number that the vast majority of people of the world would consider exceedingly wealthy, as to what it is faithful to keep annually of one’s income and create a church expectation that the remainder must be given away, then we could do something concrete about income inequality in our churches and in society.

Although I think Smith’s proposal has no chance in US society, I think there might be a church someday, one steeped in Scripture and attentive to the Holy Spirit, who could hear it – a church where at each annual charge conference every member is required to report what they earned that year and what they gave away. That money could go into a treasury to be dispensed by the whole church after discerning true needs in the local community. It could create structures of charity and/or microloans so people could do something enjoyable with their lives. It could break the power of wage labor that deadens the soul, turns people to addiction, and destroys families. We do not have that church now, largely because the church has been absorbed by the US society and its market discipline. Yet this should not prevent us from asking how to begin to lay foundations for that other church, one where this very modest proposal could be taken seriously; where church membership would be a function of a willingness to live on a “moral maximum income” and everything else would be given to the poor, to mental and physical health, to the arts, to education, and in the process, hopefully, we could overcome the curse of work. For we should remember that hard and difficult labor, the kind of work most people do in the world today, is not rewarding; it is not a vocation. It is a curse (Gen 3:17-19). Taking those curses on himself, Jesus has redeemed us, even now, from those curses. We must find ways to show that redemption in our everyday lives by refusing to bow to cursed work. Recovering charity not as sentimental giving, but as a social practice that redeems people from the curse of work through creating a culture of a “moral maximum income” is not radical, but it is a start.

(For a good discussion on the problem associating work and dignity, see Joathan Malesic, “America Must Divorce Dignity from Work.”)

The Church and the New Nationalism

Since November 2016, my faith in the church has been rattled more than usual. The complicity of the church in the US presidential election and the current administration’s call for an intensified nationalism leaves me saddened and filled with doubt about the place of liturgy, worship, and active church attendance in the Christian life. According to exit polls, Protestant Christians sided for the current administration by 20 percentage points, Catholics by 7, and white, self-proclaimed evangelicals by nearly 70. These statistics are now well known and have been thoroughly discussed. What troubles me, what shakes my faith, is that these statistics do not reflect nominal, or what Mr. Wesley would have called “almost,” Christians; the more regular and active you are in church, the more likely you are to support the administration’s nationalism. Those who attend church weekly support the new nationalism by 16 percentage points more than those who do not. Those who consider themselves Christian and never attend church (a performative contradiction for sure), did not support the administration by 30 percentage points. I find these statistics troubling, difficult to understand.

I have no desire to interject partisan politics into my theological reflections. I am not defending any alternative candidate or party. Unlike the current administration, I have no desire to overturn the Johnson Amendment that prohibits the church from endorsing specific candidates. The last thing I want to do is to show up in church and be given a list of candidates or issues for which the leadership thinks I should vote. I have never thought that voting would bring about a Messiah, a “Christian” government, or the kingdom of God. St. Augustine recognized in the 390s that governments and nations had limited roles to play in God’s economy, contrary to those who thought a “Christian” emperor meant the kingdom had been realized, and that meant one’s allegiance to them likewise had to be limited. I have no faith in states or governments in the same way I do the church, so I am seldom surprised when the former lets me down, but I regularly confess my faith in the church, and this is the cause of my deep disappointment.

Each week in worship I stand with others and confess, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” If you also make this confession, you too recognize that the church is an object of faith. The church that is so divided is one. The church that is, and has been, so fallible, faithless, and immoral, is holy. The church that loses its way by finding its bearings only from its contemporary moment is apostolic. And the church that is divided by race, class, and nation is catholic – universal, found in every time and place, creating a communion that transcends these divisions. Please do not get me wrong. I have no romantic illusions about what the church is. I do not expect a pure church of saints; the church is a hospital for sinners more than it is a haven for saints – and I’m in need of its healing as much as anyone. Yet to confess faith in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church should have some influence on those of us who do it. Not to be able to recognize the deep tension between “America First” and the call to be the church is an abysmal failure on the part of US Christianity. What have we been doing in church? On what has our gaze been directed in worship?

Perhaps the problem is that our faith is misplaced, that it is directed to the wrong object. Perhaps we have been convinced that the “city set on a hill” that Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount, a city that is to be a light to the nations, is not the disciples he gathered and instructed with his beatitudes but the modern nation-state that promises security and deliverance from all our enemies with walls, militarized policing, more prisons, increased surveillance, and other authoritarian practices. To be seduced by this misplaced faith is to fail to see the tension present in our confession of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and other objects that compete with it. It is a lesson that we must learn again and again and again. Whoever would tell us that we have no king but Caesar is an enemy of the priest-king who triumphed through his cross, resurrection, and ascension. Walter Miller, the novelist who served as a solider in World War II and saw firsthand real carnage, wrote a novel about this misplaced faith in an imagined dystopian future. He tells the story of a priest who tried to warn his parishioners and all people of good will of the dangers of the State and an impending nuclear holocaust.

“Whoever exalts a race or a State or a particular form of State or the depositories of power. . . whoever raises these notions above their standard values and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God . . . .” Where had that come from? Eleventh Pius, he thought, without certainty – eighteen centuries ago. But when Caesar got the means to destroy the world, wasn’t he already divinized? Only by the consent of the people, same rabble that shouted, “We have no king but Caesar” when confronted by Him – God Incarnate, mocked and spat upon . . . Caesar’s divinity is showing itself again. (Canticle for Leibowitz, 260).

Faith matters. To put faith in “America first” is to place faith in something finite, something that will not deliver, something that has a limited role in God’s economy. All nations are like grass and eventually wither away; they have limited goods that we should support, but our current nationalistic fervor far exceeds those genuine goods, and in fact puts them at risk. Nonetheless, God will preserve the church – and not because any government gives it false promises of support.

My faith in the church is not rattled because so many people with whom I confess faith in the church voted Republican rather than Democrat or Independent. My faith in the church is not rattled because the church, once again, failed miserably to tear down the dividing wall of hostility. My faith in the church is rattled because we seem to have lost the tension between the church as it is – divided, faithless, nationalistic, momentary – and what it should be – one, holy, catholic, apostolic. It has become controversial even to point that out, so most clergy are not free to be faithful in their own church and speak the truth. Losing the tension is a sign we have lost the answer to the question “Are you saved?” – which is why I wrote the previous installment reminding myself and others of Mr. Wesley’s words, “Christianity is essentially a social religion.” We need to return to basics, to remind ourselves that what God is doing with the church is not creating a warehouse for individual souls to be saved through sentimentality, but producing the first fruits of a new creation that ends with the New Jerusalem.

Christian Salvation: Communal, Political

Are you saved?
No, not yet.

John Wesley said Christianity is essentially a social religion. By that term he didn’t mean that Christianity must be concerned with social justice along with personal holiness. He meant something more profound: Christian salvation is neither personal nor individual; it only occurs in communion with others.

Wesley pointed in the direction of something significant, something I think is necessary for contemporary Christians to consider. Too much Christianity is more akin to heretical Gnosticism or Platonism that the social religion Wesley referred to. In the former, the body was viewed as the problem. It weighed down the soul and the soul sought release from the body. Death, then, was one solution to the soul’s predicament; at death the soul is free to rise and return to its origin. Coupled with modern forms of individualism, especially allied with capitalist commodification, this theology creates a debased form of modern, gnostic Christianity, which becomes more like a contractual exchange that takes place with a “personal” banker than communion with the living God. A person enters into an individual exchange, giving their heart or soul to Christ in return for eternal salvation. It is a quid pro quo, a power relationship that binds two parties in a mutually useful agreement. I give God my soul. God gives me eternal life.

This reductionist understanding of Christianity contributes to the deformation of faith all too evident today. It contributes to a vicious “Christian” politics in which being a Christion becomes an act of power against others. We say “Merry Christmas” to threaten those who say “Happy Holidays.” It also leads to this vicious sentiment: by entering into this contractual relation, the individual escapes the fate that awaits all those others. That fate only makes the individual more grateful for his or her new contractual relationship with God.

It also leads, I think, to the following paradox. On the one hand, the redeemed individual seeks to get others saved by entering into the same contractual relationship. On the other, the redeemed needs the unsaved in order for her or his contractual relationship to be unique, personal, individualized. If they were not facing a judgment that the individual escapes, that escape would be less meaningful to the individual. Perhaps this paradox is why so many people bristle when a stranger asks them, “Are you saved?” They are correct to bristle. The only proper answer to the question. “Are you saved?” is with the response, “Not yet.”

Salvation is not an individual contract to escape judgment. Biblical expressions of salvation are much more communal and political. Salvation is understood as participating in the Risen Body of Christ, of being a member of the household of God, the communion of saints, or belonging to the city Christ establishes. It is not for individuals, but for “all the nations.” These images – body, household, city – are essential for understanding Christian salvation. They teach us that God is not saving individuals, but God is restoring creation, and this can only be done through a political community. Unlike any earthly political community that uses its power through intimidation, threat or resentment, the restored political community will be known by the “light” it emanates attracting the nations to its beauty. It cannot be forced through power, but formed through cross and resurrection. Until that restoration occurs we are not saved; we are being saved.

In my next few installments, I hope to explain the above thesis. To do so will require attention to some key Scriptures. Reading Scripture well is no easy task. Much damage is done to Scripture and to Christian witness because we put the wrong question to Holy Scripture. One should not read the first book of Genesis asking questions of astrophysics. After all, as Origen noted in the third century, it cannot be read literally since it refers to a day before the sun is created. Nor should one read the story of Noah’s ark asking questions of maritime architecture. Too much foolishness emerges because poor interpreters put the wrong questions to Scripture. One worthy question, a question posed by God, is found in the book of 2 Samuel. Once King David has finally settled in the land, he decides that God should no longer live in a moveable, tabernacle. If the king has a settled house, then the God of the universe should have one as well. King David decides to build God a house, but God puts an intriguing question to David, “Are you the one to build me a house?” The question is intriguing because on the one hand it shows the foolishness of David’s question. Is the God of the universe like you that he can be contained in a dwelling? On the other, it is one of the most important questions God poses in Scripture: “Will you be my house?” It is the question to which Jesus is the answer, and the answer to that question is why, as Wesley noted, Christianity is essentially a social religion.

The Politics of Enemy-Love

“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

To whom are these words addressed and what are their political significance? Let me suggest that this teaching makes best sense when its context, The Gospel of Matthew, is understood as a political document. It begins by establishing Jesus as the true ruler or political authority through its use of the term “kingdom.” There are seventeen references to that term or one of its cognates in the first seven chapters of Matthew. The first appears in the genealogy, Matt 1:6, when it presents Jesus as “King of the Jews.” The same title will be placed on the cross as the indictment against him (27:37). The gospel is a political contestation about what constitutes the true kingdom, the true city, true political rule. The Sermon on the Mount manifests the shape of political life that takes place once God’s rule in Christ the King has been established. It is marked first by “beatitude.” The first beatitude assures its readers/hearers that the poor in spirit inherit the “kingdom of heaven.” Other beatitudes are then announced, after which Jesus refers to his disciples as “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” Correlated with the latter is another political term, this time not defined in terms of “kingdom,” but another essential ancient political entity – a “city.” Jesus tells them, with what most take to be a clear reference to Jerusalem, that a “city set on a hill is not able to be hidden.” Jesus does not tell his disciples to be a city set on a hill; he tells them that they are this and their light cannot but shine.

Because Jesus fulfills the law, he tells his disciples that those who loose any of its commands “shall be called least” in the kingdom, and those who observe and teach it “shall be called great.” What these commands are is not easily identified. Is he speaking about the Jewish Torah, or his reinterpretation of it in what follows? It is most likely the latter, although Matthew appears to be writing to a Jewish-Christian community who has not abandoned Torah, but finds in Jesus its fulfillment. If this is true, then it is significant that Matthew does not reject those who “loose” the commands, but identifies them as “least” in the kingdom. Does this provide evidence that Matthew did not assume everyone would abide by Jesus’ difficult teaching in the Sermon? Lesser adherence is still possible in the kingdom? Roman Catholic moral theology, like our Wesleyan tradition, affirms a Christocentric ethics of perfection, but it does so by dividing the evangelical counsels for religious who seek perfection from the biblical commands binding on all. Unlike our Wesleyan tradition, it does not assume the pursuit of a Christocentric ethics of perfection is available to everyone. The difficult teaching is affirmed for those seeking perfection, but those involved in everyday politics live by a different standard. One reading of Martin Luther’s protest is to understand him as opening the pursuit of evangelical perfection to all Christians. Wesley did so as well.

Wesley understood the Sermon as autobiographical; the Sermon first describes Jesus’s righteousness (see Sermon 21, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount I”). But he also thought that righteousness could be ours, that we were called to put on the “righteousness of Christ” and not simply claim that we are justified by it without it perfecting us (see Sermon 20, “The Lord Our Righteousness”). He did not develop a sufficient political theology or address at length the question of violence. He affirmed the then-prevalent teaching of the Church of England that, when the ruling authorities say go to war and kill in their name, one does it. But he lamented the violence and war Christian were perpetrating on each other.

As we are preparing to tear ourselves apart both in the church and the world at this moment, it is good to remember again his words:

You may well say (but not in the ancient sense) “See how these Christians love one another!” These Christian kingdoms that are tearing out each other’s bowels, desolating one another with fire and sword! These Christian armies that are sending each other by thousands, by ten thousands, quick into hell! . . . Yea, what is most dreadful, most to be lamented of all, these Christian churches! – churches. . . that hear the name of Christ, “the Prince of Peace,” and wage continual war with each other. … O God! How long? Shall thy promise fail? Fear it not, ye little flock. Against hope believe in hope. It is your Father’s good pleasure yet to renew the face of the earth. Surely all these things shall come to an end, and the inhabitants of the earth shall learn righteousness. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they know war anymore.” … They shall all be without spot or blemish, loving one another, even as Christ hath loved us. Be thou part of the first-fruits if the harvest is not yet.” (Sermon 22, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount II”)

What are the implications of the biblical teaching on loving our enemies in the context of our Wesleyan tradition? Perhaps the best implication is already with us; it is found in article 16 of our Confession of Faith – which our forebears in the faith presented and accepted, making it binding on all of us: “We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ. We believe it is the duty of Christian citizens to give moral strength and purpose to their respective governments through sober righteousness and godly living.” This should be the expectation of all the people called Methodist, but like the Sermon we should tolerate those who “loose” the commands and acknowledge there is a place for them as well in the kingdom – for the purpose of loving our enemy is to make sure they (we) are still present to each other to hear Christ’s demanding but gracious word. To kill them or separate from them is not to hear Christ’s difficult teaching well.

Love Your Enemy by Killing Him?

“If a terrorist is headed toward a large crowd of innocent persons in order to harm them, should you not shoot him before he has the chance to do so?” Any reasonable person would have to say, “Of course, yes.” But the answer can be taken no more seriously than the question, and the question lacks seriousness. It is similar to asking, “If a terrorist is headed toward a large crowd of innocent persons in order to harm them, and you can safely transport them to a different space-time dimension, should you do so?” To which I would also say, “Yes, if I had the power to do it.” The question assumes that if we have the right levers of power at our disposal, we can secure our future and guarantee safety. It misleads because we do not have that power. Although this judgment should be noncontroversial, it seems that few ethicists, military leaders, or politicians will admit it. No one wants to say, “Neither I nor anyone else can guarantee your security.”

The question posed above misleads if we assume it describes an intelligible, everyday human action. Consider what conditions would need to be in place that would satisfy an affirmative answer. First, one would have to possess a weapon, either at the ready, or find one just at the right time. Second, one would need to be a very good marksman or very lucky. Third, one would need the awareness that the person advancing toward the innocents intended them harm with sufficient time to react. If the latter conditions could be met – you find yourself confronted by an advancing terrorist or criminal who is signaling what he plans to do at the same moment that you happen upon him and have a weapon you can use to stop him – then of course you should consider it a moment of divine providence and you would be justified in using the weapon to deter the terrorist. How reasonable is it to assume these conditions are ever satisfied? Moreover, would not the preparation and vigilance necessary to seek to satisfy them create a world so filled with distrust, suspicion, and readiness to use violence that it would create a morally deficient world, one where we get what we prepare for?

Even if the above description should fit a real-life situation at some place and some time, it would be such an extraordinary situation that it could not establish a foundation for rational, ethical or political reflection, and that is why the question misleads. It does not help us describe what is really going on in our world. Instead of asking us to look upon our violence, it asks us to look away from it and pretend it can be wished away by better planning or a safer security apparatus. What we should ask is something more along these lines: Given that there are evil people in the world who will do harm to innocent others, how should we prepare ourselves to counter them consistent with our faith? Should we be constantly armed, and vigilant 24/7, imagining that the person before us could be the next terrorist capable of the nihilistic, destructive violence we have witnessed on too many occasions? Or should we be willing to love the world so much that we are prepared to give ourselves for it? The latter question is where our theology and ethics matter, for how we answer it does nothing less than testify to whether we think God exists, and even more importantly to our beliefs regarding the nature of that God who exists.

If we are convinced that our violence is responsible to secure our future, then our actions will tacitly witness to the death of god in our culture. This atheistic tendency has been prevalent because of our fears since the destruction of the World Trade Towers. The results have been disastrous. The more we prepare for war, the better our weaponry, the more vigilant we become, the more we engage in “preemptive” war or targeted drone assassinations, the more we live the illusion that we can create peace by violence and in turn leave a wake of destruction that mirrors the very destruction we fear. Because peace and security through violence are political impossibilities, our wars are no longer limited political engagements but ideological crusades, and that should concern all people of good will. (A good dose of Niebuhrian realism would be beneficial.) Even more should it concern people of faith who have been told to love their enemy because this love is the nature of God who loved us while we were enemies. Before we can ask the question, “what would you do if” in a hypothetical situation, it would behoove Christians to ask: How do we best witness to this God who loves us while we were enemies? The cross and resurrection are the inconvenient answer to that question. Any politician, ethicist, military leader, etc. who claims the mantle of the Christian faith and forgets to ask that question or neglects that answer, supplanting it with one that assumes we can secure our future through our own violent efforts, is guilty of practical atheism. By claiming to make the world safer through our own violence, our actions make it less possible to witness to God.

Loving Enemies in and outside the Church

At a recent conference on “love” a presenter was defending Christian nonviolence based on Jesus’s teaching to love one’s enemies. An African theologian stood up, expressed his strong sympathy for the presenter but then posed the question, “If a member of Boko Haram is headed toward a large crowd of innocent persons in order to blow himself and them up, should you not shoot him before he has the chance to do so?” He then added, “For us, this situation is not hypothetical.” It has never been hypothetical for those of us in the US either.

The recent horrific, heinous violence at The Pulse in Orlando has, to my great horror, brought together the themes in my first two installments in “Loving Enemies.” The first began to address the question how to love enemies outside the church. The second addressed how to love enemies inside the church who disagree over homosexuality and are willing to divide the church yet again. The genocidal violence against LGBTQ persons in Orlando is an all-too-glaring sign that the significant advances in civil rights for gays and lesbians still stands under a constant threat by forces who seek their elimination. Those forces do not have the US judicial and political system on their side; those judicial and political protections must be continued and strengthened. It is our church’s position to do so. The church should continue to lend its voice to insure this minimalist human decency. It is also imperative that good theological arguments are presented that are persuasive to guide us through an issue that is not, and should not, go away.

Unlike one of my respondents who uncharitably misunderstood my previous installment, I do not think that those who disagree with me on homosexuality are all complicit in the violence against the LGBT community inasmuch as they unequivocally condemn that violence and seek to continue and strengthen the protections gays and lesbians have fought and died for the past few decades. I continue to think theological deliberation on the question of sexuality, marriage, and ordination is sorely needed. Splitting the church into two or three will, of course, resolve nothing. The “organization” (I don’t think we can continue to call ourselves church if we split) that ordains and marries LGBTQ persons will have dissenters in its midst. The “organization” that refuses will do so as well. Purifying the church of either group by force or juridical means courts disaster. At the risk of being denounced for “supercilious theological clothing” that somehow creates an “us versus them judgment,” when my intention is the exact opposite, I will try yet again to advance such an argument that is, in fact, nothing short of trying to dance on the head of a pin (see the comment section of my previous post).

Let us begin by acknowledging two arguments that do not work and should be abandoned. The first is liberal inclusivism. It is “liberal” in that it begins with the assumption that freedom liberates us from traditioned notions of truth or goodness. When coupled with inclusiveness, it becomes incoherent, reducing to this syllogism:

We are inclusive.
You are not inclusive.
Therefore, you must be excluded.

The major premise cannot sustain the concluding moral judgment. If we are to think theologically about the matters before us, something more than liberal inclusivism must lead the way; we must recognize that there are theological matters of truth and goodness to which we must attend.

The second argument eschews the hermeneutic task for a strict, literal reading of Scripture. No one applies Levitical laws to everyday life without some kind of hermeneutic, neither Jews nor Christians, not in antiquity nor the Middle Ages. We should not seek to do so now. Take the command to stone adulterers to death in Lev 20:10. The good rabbi from Nazareth, who is also truly divine and human in one person, applied a hermeneutic as to how the law should be fulfilled in such a situation that on the face of it appears directly to oppose the literal reading (John 8:1-11). Or take the vision God gave Peter in Acts 10:9-16. Is it not precedent-setting for a hermeneutic of the law’s fulfillment? It at least suggests that what God appeared to condemn as anathema, defiling, detestable at one place (Lev 11:24-45) becomes understood as clean, fulfilling, and permitted at another (Acts 10). I am not arguing for the old anti-Jewish grace versus law hermeneutic. The law matters. Wesleyans formed by “General Rules” should understand that. But how the law matters must be carefully set forth. Scripture must not be dismissed; it must be interpreted. The ancient fourfold sense of biblical interpretation that associated it with the virtues of charity, faith, and hope could guide us with a better hermeneutic. To look on the deaths of those killed at The Pulse in Orlando and to cry out “abomination” (Lev 18:22), applying it to homosexuality rather than the loathing and hatred of gays that led to it, is not only a clear violation of faith, charity, and hope; it is obscene. No one in the church should be married or ordained who cannot recognize that; it is that loathing and hatred that is clearly incompatible with Christian teaching.

So what might we do as a church? First, we could do away with the Social Principles altogether, and in so doing do away with the original controversial statement that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. The social principles are ineffective at making disciples; their purpose seems more to give policy wonks directions to tell legislators what The United Methodist Church believes when in fact on almost every issue addressed the Methodist people have not received most of those principles. I would be pleased if we could do away with the Social Principles and replace them with the Sermon on the Mount, but I know that argument will go nowhere. Second, we could do away with the specific statements on homosexuality in the Book of Discipline. I support that, but it will most likely not happen either. So I return to my previous post. Could those who are enemies in the church at least agree that the sexual practices identified as incompatible with Christianity be expanded so that gays and lesbians are not singled out as they currently are? I have little doubt that for all of us our sexuality is in some sense broken, even while it is also a joyful blessing. Let us add all the traditional broken practices identified by the church as incompatible with Christian teaching and see if anyone is left standing to condemn. Then we might hear Jesus saying to all of us, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.” Figuring out that last bit will require a charitable hermeneutic. If we apply it to ourselves, we should equally apply it to others.

I have not yet addressed my African colleague’s question. If you can shoot an enemy whom you know is headed toward a gay night club to cause untold evil, and in so doing save those threatened by his act, should you? Of course, yes. How could anyone say something other than that to such a question? But this is not all that needs to be said. I hope to explore this more fully in the next installment.

The Grace of Doing Nothing – Again: A Defense of the UM Bishops’ Call for Silence

I interrupt my intended discussion of the Neo-Augustinian and Neo-Anabaptists’ interpretation of the command to love enemies for a more immediate application. How do we love enemies in the church, who view us as faithless, and whom we view the same? At the recent 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, our bishops were tasked to give decisive leadership and their response was to ask us to be silent, to wait on God. I find wisdom in this judgment. In 1932 after Japan invaded Manchuria and everyone demanded action, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested there can be grace in doing nothing. Whether Niebuhr was correct on that occasion, his summons that sometimes doing nothing can be deeply faithful seems to me correct. Let me explain why.

First, let me address a somewhat compelling objection: Martin Luther King Jr’s powerful words: “justice delayed is justice denied.” He was clearly correct about the Civil Rights of African Americans in the 1960s. Clergy who counselled the “grace” of doing nothing were submitting African Americans to unspeakable abuses. Our situation differs. The Supreme Court has ruled and, thanks be to God, the kind of oppression I witnessed as a child of gay and lesbian persons is no longer the order of the day. Gay and lesbian persons have protections. I am profoundly grateful for all who made that possible. There are countries in which that is not the case; the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United Methodist Churches have rejected such discriminatory policies. Protecting minorities abroad is neither colonialism nor imperialism.

So why would I defend the UM bishops for doing nothing today? The presenting issue is not the state’s extension of human and civil rights to all persons, but deliberating the nature of Christian marriage and ordination. Our deliberations lack theological direction. They have occurred in a context of coercion where strategies arise to force the other side into submission, either through voting or protest and disobedience. Rather than loving one another, we reflect the “world” to which we are not to be conformed. We seek to destroy the other. Christ’s church cannot be built on the destruction of one’s enemy. There is no way forward by protesting and dividing yet again.

We have no consensus on whether the blessing of a same-sex couple constitutes Christian marriage or the ordination of a partnered gay or lesbian person constitutes ordination. We cannot say yes, and we cannot say no. I am fully aware that there are two constituencies in our church who are absolutely convinced, dogmatically so, that they can say yes or no. But my point is that we cannot say yes or no because all the means of grace that we have for discerning an answer, acknowledging that discerning an answer is always filled with conflict, error and revision, have failed us. We have not been able to say, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” We can say, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and them,” but that only means that like-minded folk think alike. A sign of the Spirit would be that someone be able to provide a way forward that would include “we” and not just “them.” Following like-mindedness is easier, but the history of Protestantism has universally demonstrated that its long-term consequences are disastrous. The bishops’ call for silence reminds us that we do not yet have a way forward. So we must wait.

Waiting provides space and time to gain clarity on what we are discerning. Let me suggest the primary, but not exclusive, issue is this: how does the practice of sexuality sanctify the body, both individually and communally. Unfortunately, we have isolated homosexuality as the fulcrum point for this deliberation. Their sexual practices have been under the microscope and those who are straight have not subjected ours to the same scrutiny. We cannot discuss affirming or rescinding the negative prohibition: “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with …” without a positive affirmation: “the practice of sexuality sanctifies the body by….” Utterly confused as to how to respond to the latter, our prohibition of the former lacks intelligibility. If we are to love one another in the body of Christ, we can no longer proceed by alienating “them” and not asking some difficult questions about us. When was the last time someone was not ordained or removed from orders because he or she failed to practice celibacy outside heterosexual marriage? How many marriages have been blessed without the question arising? What about other practices readily accepted today among straight people that were once rejected as porneia or as sexual vice and are now no longer subject to scrutiny – not only remarriage but also masturbation (mutual or individual), felatio, cunilingus, birth control, and marriages intentionally opposed to welcoming life? Perhaps we should discuss the use of Viagra and porn, or even the titillation our television watching creates. I think St. Paul would have something to say about those matters. I do not raise these issues to make sexuality private and argue that it is an indifferent theological matter, but to seek the truth of holiness that puts us on a level field for Christian conferencing.

Tradition remains constant as it develops. Consider how long it took for the Nicene Creed to become the most inclusive, ecumenical creed used throughout the holy, catholic church? What some saw as innovation became the faith once delivered. There is no need for impatience. We have made progress and we can do so by sustaining the witness of Scripture and tradition. Perhaps we can find agreement on these issues: What has changed is something Scripture never addresses – the origin of same sex desire. As the Roman Catholic Catechism states, it is not a matter of choice. If it is not a matter of choice, then we have at least three options. First, we require all who have this orientation to maintain celibate lives. Although orientation is not a choice, sexual activity is a human act of will and asking for celibacy is not in itself oppressive, but it is a major burden and one the Reformers thought produced deceit when it was required of clergy. Should we reopen that question as well? Celibacy asks nothing less than for gay and lesbians to be heroic in their sexuality in a way we ask of no other people. A second option: we privatize sexuality and make it indifferent to theological scrutiny. Then we simply affirm desire qua desire and provide it no orientation toward sanctification. Let us be honest, contemporary practices of heterosexuality have already done this and so we merely extend to gay and lesbians the entrenched culture of straight promiscuity. A third: we provide some form in which same-sex desires can be exercised that reflect the love between Christ and his church. Perhaps there are other options. The bishops have given us time to consider them and continue to discern together what they may be. Four year General Conferences complete with voting machines and Robert’s Rule of Orders do not provide sufficient time or space for discernment. I hope we have the grace to continue to do nothing until God shows “us” and not just “them” how to go on.

Loving Enemies?

What is the relationship between the command to love one’s enemies and the use of violence and/or other coercive political means? Two important contemporary approaches to Christian ethics offer different, perhaps incommensurable, answers. On the one hand, the Neo-Augustinians suggest that an unwillingness to defend what is good, true, and beautiful in this life through coercive means stems from a hatred of the world emerging from bad apocalypticism. On the other hand, Neo-Anabaptists accuse those who would preserve what is true, good, and beautiful through violence of turning away from Jesus’s eschatological ethic and toward a “Constantinian” desire to rule history. NeoAnabaptists worry that metaphysics takes precedence over eschatology. NeoAugustinians worry that eschatology, or apocalypticism, takes precedence over metaphysics. Are these two approaches, and worries, forever divided, or can the two be reconciled?

Any reconciliation, certainly premature at this stage, first requires clarity on differences and similarities between the two influential approaches. Such clarity is not readily forthcoming, for the terms “NeoAugustinians” and “NeoAnabaptists” potentially obfuscate as much as, if not more than, they clarify. The terms are inadequate, but recognizable. James Davison Hunter used the term “neo-Anabaptist” in his thoughtful work, To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010). His sympathetic critique frames one of the questions this essay addresses. He stated, “In effect, theirs is a world-hating theology. It is not impossible but it is rare, all the same to find among any of its prominent theologians or its popularizers, any affirmation of good in the social world and any acknowledgement of beauty in creation or truth shared in common with those outside of the church” (174.) His affirmation of good, beauty, and truth discloses Augustinian-Platonist proclivities. If there is good, truth, and beauty in the world, and only the worst form of Manichaeism would argue there is not, is it not worth defending? Are “NeoAnabaptists” forced to deny the goodness, truth, and beauty of creation and allow these transcendental predicates of being to dissolve in an apocalyptic blaze?

Let me illustrate the problem with two different events at theological conferences. I was giving small talk at a conference that had Anabaptist sympathies, extolling the virtues of a recently purchase carbon fiber bicycle, when one of the participants said, “You know, when the eschaton arrives, it too will be consumed in the great fire.” I found that to be an odd and unconvincing statement. Why would Jesus desire to take something as beautiful as a carbon fiber bicycle and destroy it? The participant’s statement was an example of apocalyptic gone bad. At another conference I was involved in a “private” audience with the pope, which meant I was in a theater of five thousand people waiting on the Pope to arrive for an address. When he arrived, the crowd went wild, standing and cheering. A theologian more attuned to Augustinianism found this all quite compelling and turned to me and said, “This is just how it must have been when the Emperor returned to Rome.” I thought the same, but worried. Neither of these events represent “NeoAnabaptists” or “NeoAugustinians” well. They exemplify caricatures, but they also justify the worries noted above. Does the NeoAnabaptist position require abandoning our proper loves, including a proper love of the world? Does the NeoAugustinian position love the world too much, unable to distinguish between the vicar of Christ and the Emperor? In the next few installments for Catalyst, I will explore the similarities and differences between these two theological approaches to ethics, seeking to identify their similarities and differences around the command to love one’s enemies. What does it require of us?

First, a caveat. Anyone familiar with the “NeoAnabaptist” approach will know that beginning with love already moves more in the direction of Augustinians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey than it does with them. Niebuhr and Ramsey were responsible for an Augustinian renaissance in mid-twentieth century Christian ethics that made “love” the primary concern. There are, of course, good reasons to do so. The New and Old Testaments agree that love is the basic meaning of the commands: love God and love one’s neighbor. Ramsey understood just war as based on the command to love one’s neighbor. Although that may seem counterintuitive, his argument has some plausibility. Stanley Hauerwas has been suspicious of love. He once wrote, “When love becomes what Christianity is all about, we can make no sense of Jesus’s death and resurrection” (“What’s Love Got to Do with It? The Politics of the Cross,” ABC Religion and Ethics, 3 April 2015). No theologian attentive to Scripture can oppose Jesus’s command to love our neighbors and our enemies, so future installments will also need to address why Hauerwas is suspicious of love. For now, we are left with a question. Can killing one’s enemies fulfill the command to love them? What is Jesus asking of us, and who is the “us” being asked, when he tells us to love our enemies?

Criticisms of the Perfectly Simple Triune God

Having set forth a defense of the traditional teaching in the previous installments (1, 2, 3), let me now examine the reasons it has been rejected, admitting that reducing their criticisms to a single sentence cannot but be reductive. I noted these critiques in the third installment:

  1. It cannot resolve the theoretical problem of evil: if God is eternal and simple, then what God knows God wills; evil will be directly willed by God (process theology).
  2. It cannot resolve the human freedom and divine foreknowledge dilemma: if God is simple and eternal, then human agents who are caused by God are determined by what God knows and consequently, they are not free (open theism).
  3. It is logically incoherent. If God is simple and eternal, then somehow God cannot have real relations “internal” to God or “external” with creation (analytic theologians).
  4. It offers us a deity made in the image of a Eurocentric theocrat who cannot be moved by the oppression and sorrow in the world (liberation theology).
  5. It subordinates a dynamic, biblical sense of history to a Hellenistic substance metaphysics and cannot make sense of God’s becoming in the incarnation or divine processions (anti-metaphysical Barthians).

Are these sufficient reasons to reject a teaching shared diachronically and synchronically among every Christian church, and nearly every theologian prior to the seventeenth century?

My brief response is no. The three previous installments offer a lengthier argument, but in this final installment I want to make a negative argument, a positive argument, and an argument about the nature of theology. First, the negative argument. Many of the criticisms above are circular. They assume what should be demonstrated. They assume that God and creation can be placed on a single continuum and thus the two compete for “space” and “time.” If God has no “real” relation with creation, then God is not relational. If God is omnipotent and free, then creatures cannot be. For this reason, they are inattentive to a reasonable argument that three sets of relations should require different theo-logics, relations noted in the second installment:

  1. God’s real triune relations
  2. God’s logical relation to creation
  3. Creation’s real relation to God

Simplicity helps us attend to the different logic that must differentiate these relations for if we confuse (1) and (2), as almost all of the above critiques do, then we have no way of affirming that God is not less but much more relational than human creatures can be. Divine simplicity affirms that God is more intimate to me and others than we can be to ourselves or each other.

The positive argument is that no theologian has, or should, simply affirm “simplicity” qua simplicity. Here is where I think some common cause could be made among those who critique it and those of us who affirm it. It is simplicity mediated through Trinity that should be affirmed. Some forms of simplicity have been, and should be, rejected. Proclus stated, “Whatever is simple in its being may be either superior to composite things or inferior to them” (The Elements of Theology, proposition 59). No Christian theologian would argue that a simplicity that is inferior to composite beings should be attributed to God. We should attend to the positive reasons the Cappadocians, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Arminius, and Wesley affirmed it. At their best, they understood that it helps us confess God is one, as we must do as persons committed to the revelation to Moses, and as three persons without violating that unity, which we must do as Christians. Simplicity allows us to say what strains our language, which is always a creaturely reality. The God who has no potentiality can yet be in God’s triune relations, gift and reciprocity. The God who is immutable, can also “proceed” from Father to Son, and to Spirit, without turning God into a changeable creature. Only when simplicity helps us first speak of God in divinis so that we can also speak of God as three persons without losing unity, should simplicity be affirmed.

A final reason to affirm simplicity has to do with the nature of theology. What do we as theologians do? We are seeking to set forth in language an “object” that cannot be like any other object in the world. God cannot be indicated, as though we can point to something and say, “That is God.” The relation between divine simplicity, perfection, and Trinity maintains the difference God is. It also requires an element of paradox and mystery that many theologians may find difficult to affirm. God is, as Balthasar noted, a mystery to be inhabited and not a logical puzzle to be solved. To be frank, atheism solves some of the theoretical problems identified above better than a reconceived deity who in the end requires such a rupture in the Christian tradition that it also requires us to confess that no one prior to the eighteenth century, or perhaps prior to Hegel, knew what they were doing. No one “masters” divinity. The perfectly, simple Triune God asks us to be reticent in using God to solve logical problems rather than receive God in the sacred wisdom that has come down to us.

What Is God?

That God was perfect, simple, and Triune was the common language of the church for nearly two centuries. It was affirmed at the Council of Rheims in 1149 and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It is present in some form in nearly every Protestant Confession and can still be found in the Roman Catholic Catechism. One of the first Protestant theologians to call for its rejection was the controversial John Biddle (1615-1662), who accused it of being composed by human traditions based on “figurative” biblical readings, and dependent on Greek metaphysics rather than Scripture. With the literal rule of Scripture in hand, Biddle radically revised the traditional answer: God is located in heaven, has figure or shape and thus is composite, has passions, and has limited knowledge of the future. Biddle understood himself as “continuing the Reformation.” Protestant theologians at his time were horrified; in our day, many seem less so.

Modern theologians are not as radical as Biddle in calling for revisions to the common language for God. Yet despite its ancient pedigree, its traditional depth, and its ecumenical consensus, many, if not most, have summoned us to reject or revise it. Process and open theists, analytic and liberation theologians, as well as anti-metaphysical Barthians tell us the language is insufficient for our day. They challenge it for a number of reasons. (1) It cannot resolve the theoretical problem of evil: if God is eternal and simple, then what God knows God wills; evil will be directly willed by God. (2) It cannot resolve the human freedom and divine foreknowledge dilemma: if God is simple and eternal, then human agents who are caused by God are determined by what God knows and consequently, they are not free. (3) It is logically incoherent. If God is simple and eternal, then somehow God cannot have real relations “internal” to God or “external” with creation. (4) It is based on a faulty “substance” metaphysics that expresses patriarchal authority. Or (5) it fails to express adequately the Holy Trinity.

To engage each of these reasons would require a book length treatise. I cannot do it here (but attempt to do it elsewhere in my book, The Perfectly, Simple, Triune God [Fortress, 2016]). I only hope to challenge what has become a dogmatic certainty against the traditional answer: its perceived insufficiency has become so commonplace that theologians only have to say “substance metaphysics” or “classical theism” and they conjure up the image of an abstract, distant, unloving God, “locked within itself” (to quote Rahner.) Who would want that God? If this were the depiction found in Augustine, Dionysius, Anselm, Thomas, the Protestant Scholastics, and so on, then of course it should be challenged. But were they the impoverished theologians this all too common critique suggests? Before accepting the critique, every theologian should at least examine if the critique is true, if it is a charitable reading.

The argument often begins by assuming the problem was the traditional teaching on God’s unity or essence (substance) – God is, simple, perfect, immutable, infinite, and eternal. Once God is depicted as such, then it either creates the problems identified above, or it says what needs to be said before we say what matters most, namely, that God reveals God’s self as Triune through the Incarnation of the Son and sending of the Spirit. So “substance” becomes more determinative for who God is than the divine economy. This critique, however, is a caricature. It misses what the teaching on the divine unity does (and unfortunately has led to a misplaced search for a “social” trinitarianism.) One of the most Thomistic Protestant theologians can help us see why it is a caricature – Arminius.

Arminius never made God the source of evil through a doctrine of divine reprobation prior to the divine economy. In that sense, he “fixed” Thomas and Calvin’s teaching. Nor did he deny human freedom. He also set forth a compelling account of the Trinity, following Thomas closely, in which the two processions of Son and Spirit are related to the divine understanding (truth) and will (good). Arminius begins with simplicity. Simplicity here, however, does not relate God to creation. It is an incommunicable attribute of God. It is a feature of speculative and not practical theology (see my previous installment). The divine will wills first the perfection/goodness that God is in God’s being. Then divine power exercises the simple will externally making possible beings other than God, beings that will therefore not be simple. God wills and knows creatures solely in the goodness and truth of God’s own essence because that essence always already is, in its perfectly, simple unity, the Triune persons. This goodness and truth come first because God is perfectly, simple, and Triune prior to being creator. Creatures arise from God’s power as participants in that goodness. The power God then operates on creatures arises from what is communicable of God’s goodness and knowledge. God is never defined as power apart from God’s goodness and truth.

For Arminius, this communication to creatures does not require any diminishment of God’s omnipotence or omniscience. God is in no sense limited. God “moves” toward creatures only as the simple, infinite, eternal, immutable, and Holy God. Arminius’s complicated Thomistic metaphysics avoids any hint that God’s will is irrational or that God decrees something other than God’s goodness and perfection for God’s creatures. It is a source for the doctrine of God that Wesleyans could and should affirm, and in doing so, we will also affirm the traditional answer in its depth and ecumenical consensus. It will not resolve the theoretical problem of evil, but it should never be resolved. It does help us address the problem of human freedom, and I think, it can answer the other questions that have led to the current dogmatic certainty that the traditional teaching must be rejected or revised. My final installment will address these concerns.

What Is God?

Question: What is God?

Answer: God is the perfectly, simple, Triune God.

This question and answer seem inappropriate. We cannot know God’s “whatness,” so why inquire after it? To answer it would be to “Master Divinity,” a ludicrous activity. Nonetheless, responding to this question is a necessary, albeit impossible, theological task. The “answer” has become problematic because numerous contemporary theologies find divine simplicity incoherent. (We will examine the calls to revise this answer in my third installment.)

To say that God is simple makes a number of important claims. At its heart it affirms that God is “to be.” God’s essence is God’s existence. What God is is identical to that God is. For every creature from tadpoles to stars, what it is is not equal to that it is. A single star does not identify all stars, and whether one particular tadpole exists would not call into question the essence of tadpoles. For God alone existence equals essence. God is not contained in a genus, not even the genus of being. God plus creatures is not greater than God alone. God is simple, then, because God is not composed of parts as creatures are. Nor can God’s “attributes” finally be distinguished from each other, even though their mode of appearance to us requires such distinctions.

Simplicity is not unique to Christianity and that causes some theologians consternation. It is found among the Greeks, and in Judaism and Islam. For Proclus, simplicity identified both the highest and lowest form of being. To prevent misunderstanding, Thomas Aquinas followed simplicity with perfection. God is not only simple, but God is also perfect – without any potentiality, needs, or inclination to evil. Other terms logically follow from simplicity – immutability, impassibility, infinity, timeless eternity, and unity. All of them primarily, although not exclusively, tell us what God is not. What is intriguing, and I think often overlooked, is how Aquinas, drawing on others, uses the perfectly, simple God to explain the Trinity. This “explanation” is not the logical solving of a puzzle but an attempt to speak well of a mystery.

After presenting the perfectly, simple God, Thomas asks, “Whether there is procession in God?” (ST I. 27.). Simplicity and its correlates now function as objections. How can there be processions if God is simple and therefore immutable and infinite? Processions imply movement, and movement assumes composition so simplicity appears to stand in the way of divine processions. Appearances can be deceiving and in this instance they are. An infinite being has no “outside” to which movement proceeds. A simple being has no potentiality that movement actualizes. Divine simplicity, however, does not rule out movement; it is a movement unlike any other form of motion we know. It is a perfectly simple motion from one Person to the others in which the unitary essence that is God is eternally given and received. It is procession. Thomas will even speak of an esse receptum, “received being,” among the Persons (ST I.27.2 2.). We have no essence behind the Persons and the Persons are not three individuals who gather in committee.

Divine simplicity has been turned to purposes Proclus would have found confusing. Far from creating a motionless, abstract, static being who cannot love, divine simplicity affirms the opposite. God is the infinity of an immutable procession, a pure act that is in itself real relations without actualizing a potential. This God then enters into relation with creation out of the divine goodness that freely creates, but creates consistent with God’s nature. For the perfectly simple God, there are then three relations.

1. God’s processions as real relations. One cannot be without the other.
2. God’s relation to creation which cannot be a real relation for God can be without creation.
3. Creation’s relation to God, which is a different kind of real relation for creation cannot be without God.

These three relations fit with three kinds of theology.

1. Speculative theology – God as God is in God’s self, the definitive answer to ‘What is God,’ which only God knows.
2. Practical theology (A) that knows God from what God has made, from God’s relation to creatures, which only God knows but is revealed to creatures.
3. Practical theology (B) that knows God from what God has made by beginning with creatures and examining our relation to God.

These three aspects of theology are aspects of a single science. Of course, we can only begin with practical theology B. The question is if modern theology has become content with it and abandoned the impossible but necessary task in mastering divinity – the speculative aspect.

Let me conclude with a qualification: Thomas should not be slavishly followed. There are many aspects of his thought that are outdated and should be rejected – his understanding of gender, predestination, his affirmation of the execution of heretics and lapsed Christians, and his politics. If his doctrine of God supported these or other outdated ideas, then it should be rejected or revised. I am yet to be convinced there is a correlation between them, but many theologians think I am wrong. We turn to them next.

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