The Slaveowners and Me: On Nurturing Empathy for Oppressors

I was baptized in Alabama, at a Bible-believing church less than 12 miles and 30 years away from where four little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair—were killed in a church bombing during the Civil Rights movement.  I knew the starched white columns of old plantation homes just as well as I knew the spires of Cinderella’s storybook castle, and I’d seen with my own eyes how, just before a harvest, Georgia’s cotton fields could look like a fresh-fallen snow.   

My ancestors were not slave owners, but they fought a war to protect their neighbors who were. I learned the n-word from my great-grandmother, a sweet, churchgoing lady who loved Jesus and read her Bible and, in the remote mountains of Appalachia, regarded the black man we saw at the ice cream shop that day as a fearful curiosity. 

When I was a teenager, my family moved to Dayton, Tennessee, a town famous for prosecuting and convicting a science professor for teaching evolution in 1925, and which sits right on the path of the old Trail of Tears. I took a German reporter through the Scopes Trial museum a few weeks ago, where she paused at the tiny glass case in the back dedicated to Cherokee memorabilia and said, “In Germany, they do not let us forget. Reminders of the Holocaust are everywhere, not just our museums.” 

An insatiable reader, I grew up reading Southern writers: Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Lee, William Faulker, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Conner. In addition, my mother brought home armfuls of historical fiction novels from garage sales and let me stay up long past my bedtime so I could see what happened next on the Oregon Trail, at the Alamo, at Sand Creek. In the midst of all this reading, I learned not only to empathize with the suffering and the oppressed, but also to empathize with the oppressors, who - let's face it - often shared my skin tone, my geography, my language, and my faith.

In short, I didn’t learn about America’s history of oppression from the Church. I learned it from Huck Finn. My church, like so many, focused on sins of the present, not sins of the past. 

I was thinking about this recently after our conversation on Monday about corporate confession and lament and after this week’s controversial conference on homosexuality hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Foundation of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Given the SBC’s troubling history of supporting slavery and opposing civil rights for African Americans, I was dismayed to see an attendee brag about the event’s good attendance by posting a picture of a crowded conference room with the caption: “So this is what the wrong side of history looks like.” Later in the event, a speaker declared he would “rather be on the wrong side of history than on the wrong side of a holy God.”

While comparing the suffering of slaves and people of color to the marginalization of LGBT people is irresponsible and does a disservice to both, I am often surprised by Christians’ complete lack of interest in exploring exactly why their predecessors might have supported oppression in the past.  It seems like such information might be critical for assessing whether similar oppression is occurring in the present. Yes, the SBC formally apologized for its racist origins in 1995, but I wonder how many Southern Baptists have taken the time to really study the sermons and speeches of their predecessors to learn what rhetorical devices and hermeneutical approaches were employed to make so many Christian people so comfortable with that oppression that they formed an entire denomination around it. 

The fact is, most of the defenses of American slavery were written by clergy who quoted Scripture generously and appealed to a “clear, plain, and common-sense reading” of biblical passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2.  Many Bible-believing Christians, including those who were uncomfortable with slavery and encouraged masters to treat their slaves with “Christian kindness,”just weren’t buying the abolitionist argument that placed the “spirit of the law” over the “letter of the law." As Connecticut Congregationalist Leonard Bacon put it, “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.”  [For more on this, check out my post about Mark Noll’s excellent and illuminating book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.] 

When I raised this point on Twitter (not the best place to raise it, I realize), my remarks were met with incredulity: 

How dare you bring up past sins that are totally unrelated to the present issue! 

Southern slave-owners were just racist and greedy people who purposefully abused Scripture to their own ends!  

Christians were on the abolitionist side, not the pro-slavery side! 

These responses  reveal a lack of empathy—not so much for those who have been oppressed, but for the good intentions and misguided complacency of the oppressors. By characterizing oppressive people from the past as one-dimensionally evil, as hateful racist intentionally using the Bible to their own ends, we're able to distance ourselves from their way of thinking, and say "well we would never do that." 

The truth is, there were Christians on both sides of the American slavery debate. It's an uncomfortable reality, but whether we describe people as submitting to the Bible or as using the Bible depends largely on hindsight. I have no doubt that many of the people who opposed abolition, interracial marriage, protection of indigenous people, black civil rights, women’s suffrage, etc. believed wholeheartedly that God was on their side and they were simply being faithful to God’s Word.  While blatant hate and racism certainly motivated plenty of our country’s past oppressors, blatant hate and racism aren't nearly as effective at sustaining oppressive systems as uncritical acceptance of the way things are. 

In this sense, the question, what were they thinking? need not be a rhetorical one. Rather, it’s a crucial one. As we read and explore and study our history, white Christians in particular would do well to ask of our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents:  What were they thinking? How did they justify their actions? What convinced them that they were doing right?  Whether our ancestors were complicit in oppression or whether they bravely stood up against it, it’s worth nurturing the curiosity and introspection it takes to wonder why

And lest you think this post is about finger-pointing, I have no doubt in my mind that if my own assumptions and prejudices go totally unchecked, if I never stop for a moment to consider the other side and wonder if I might be wrong, I too am capable of using the Bible to my own ends, of convincing myself that God is on my side

We are often told to nurture empathy for those who are unlike us or those who suffer. But Scripture’s powerful emphasis on prophetic lament calls us to also nurture empathy for those we’d like to think are unlike us, those whose sins we assume we would never commit ourselves.  Because the degree to which we take sin seriously isn’t so much in how good were are at spotting it in others, but rather in how good were are at spotting it in ourselves. And sometimes that means combing through our shared history and flinching a little at how quickly those dusty pages can transform into mirrors. 

See also, Christ and the Greco Roman Household Codes, which shows how the very same passages used to support slavery are still used today to support gender hierarchy. 


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“Forgive Us”: Christians, Injustice & Corporate Confession

Author and activist Bryan Stevenson was recently interviewed on The Daily Show, and in his conversation with Jon Stewart, noted that Americans often have a difficult time acknowledging and confessing those corporate injustices—like racism— that are a part of our shared history and a part of our present-day culture. As I watched, I found myself thinking about how the Church, with the age-old sacrament of confession and the tradition of corporate lament, is equipped to speak powerfully and counter-culturally to this very issue.  So why have so many of our congregations allowed the practice of corporate confession fall by the wayside? 

Perhaps it is because many of us struggle to find words adequate to lament those sins committed against indigenous people, African Americans, immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups throughout American history. This is why the book, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith is so powerful and so practical. In Forgive Us, authors  Soong-Chan Rah, Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Troy Jackson provide historical information, reflection, and prayers around Christianity’s complicity in sins against God’s creation, indigenous people, African Americans and people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, Jews and Muslims.  

This has been an amazing fall for book releases, and Forgive Us was one of my favorites, which is why I’m so thrilled to welcome all four authors to the blog today to talk about corporate confession and its role in the American Church today. 

RHE: Throughout the book, you make a point of identifying yourselves as evangelical Christians. Why was that important to you? 

Soong-Chan: A few months ago I got a phone call from a national newspaper for an interview about diversity in evangelicalism. Out of curiosity, I inquired about the reporter's background and she stated that she had no religious background but that she was originally a political reporter who was assigned the "evangelical" beat because of her background in politics. Unfortunately, in recent years, evangelicalism has become defined as a purely political movement. I think we are hoping to restore some of the theological identification of evangelicalism. That's why we state at the beginning of the book, our commitment to a high view of Scripture and to a high view of Jesus, which has historically been key markers for evangelical faith. I think more people would identify with this theological definition over and against the political definition that has come to identify evangelicalism in the United States.

From another angle, I personally do not want to abandon the term because it shows a greater sense of responsibility for the sins of evangelical Christian faith. I was at a Native American Theology conference when one of the white participants stated that we should abandon terms like evangelical and Christian. A Native American theologian replied that abandoning those terms would also be a shirking of responsibility that comes with the history of those names. In other words, abandoning those terms by those who have historically perpetuated those terms would be the opposite of what we are calling for in this book. Which is the acknowledgement of historical sin and the seeking of forgiveness that leads to a restored and redeemed faith community.

In the Introduction to “Forgive Us,” you show that throughout Scripture lament and confession are corporate acts. And yet much of Christian culture regards sin and confession as individual concerns. In what sense is corporate confession countercultural? (Say that three times fast!) 

Lisa: In our hyper-individualized society we have lost the sense of being connected to much more than our own individual identity, desires, choices, and brokenness. Our society elevates the self and fails to acknowledge the reality of human sin. But this was not the world of the Hebrews. 

The Hebrew people were a communal and indigenous culture. Individuals’ core identities were interwoven with the generations that came before, their extended families, their community, and the land where they and their ancestors lived. We see Nehemiah stand in the gap confessing the sins his people as his own, though he never lived in Jerusalem and had nothing to do with the tangible cause of the burning of Jerusalem’s walls. In Lamentations 3, we see Jeremiah offer a lament and confess the sins of his community though he repeatedly did what was right before God. Corporate confession was a critical practice; exercised most often when the culture and governance of a society denigrated the image of God in their midst by disregarding the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, or the poor. 

The call of the Kingdom of God is always counter-cultural. Jesus says, “…the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1: 15b) Paul warns us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12: 2a) 

Corporate confession is counter-cultural in our society because the hyper-individualistic, self-worshipping nature of our culture is counter to God—ultimately, it leads us to disregard and even crush the image of God in marginalized and impoverished peoples. This is the first place where we need to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. We need God to take our blinders off—to help us see how we are all connected—to help us see the image of God in “the other”—to help us stand in the gap like Nehemiah and Jeremiah—to own the reality that the forbearers of our Christian American faith were not transformed in these respects and the consequences still live with us. The walls are down and the gates have been burned by fire, per-say, and like in Nehemiah’s day, we need to confess the sins of our people so that our land can be healed.

How do you respond to those who would argue that many of the sins you describe in this book were committed by others—in some cases long ago—and therefore none of our concern?

Mae: Sin, brokenness, and separation from God’s perfection are realities not only for us as individuals but for our communities as well. It is imperative that we not only acknowledge our individual sins, but also that we realize and accept ways we benefit from unjust systems and corporate brokenness. Slavery is a good example. Many whites in the United States today may claim that slavery is a “historic sin” and is irrelevant today. People might claim we shouldn’t repent of the sin of slavery because, for recent immigrants, our ancestors didn’t own slaves. Yet, systems and infrastructures continue to exist today which were built on the injustices of slavery. After reconstruction  and until passage of the 1965 voting rights act white families and communities were able to build up capital and privilege while black Americans lived under the mantle of Jim Crow voting and segregation laws in the south, and red-lining and workplace segregation in the north. These privileges and racial assumptions continue to exist in our society today. It is imperative that the church acknowledge the ways we have benefited from these unjust systems. We must repent of both individual and corporate sins where we have been complicit and have inherited privilege. 

Why is acknowledgment of sin so important to true reconciliation? 

Troy: This book began as a response to a section in Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller when he described setting up a confessional booth at a raucous annual festival at Reed College in Portland. Instead of inviting confessions, Christians confessed the historic sins of the church to those who came to the booth.

As an historian, it struck me that this should and could be an important posture that the church should assume when engaging the world. We should adopt a confessional stance, acknowledging the many ways the church has failed God and humanity. The trouble is, we have a very surface level view of the sins of the American Church. We might be able to talk about racism or sexism in a generic way, but not with much specificity. I quickly realized that an anemic understanding of sin leads to anemic confessions, robbing them of the power to transform the confessor and those hearing the confession.

So at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, we launched a six-week sermon series in the Spring of 2007 called “The Confessions of the Church.” Each week, I shared some of the tragic history of the church in how we have sinned against African Americans, Immigrants, Women, and the LGBTQ community. These sermons sparked a lot of introspection and lively confession and repentance within the lives of congregational members.

When it comes to people who have been historically mistreated, abused, and sinned against, any attempt at whole relationship that skips this step of honest understanding of history and heartfelt confession will be little more than assimilation. This has all-too-often been the approach of the white church toward African Americans: we are somewhat sorry you’ve endured so much, but now you are welcome to join our church if you would like. This is not reconciliation for it fails to honor African American culture and to account for centuries of wounds and abuse. 

The chapter on sins against indigenous people really moved me. Tell us a little about how, in response to dialog with indigenous theologians and activists, InterVarsity made policies to submit to the spiritual authority of original peoples regarding the land. (I thought that was a nice example of prayerful listening leading to action.) 

Lisa: It wasn’t so much policy changes, as it was conscious decisions on the parts of leaders of the time to submit themselves to the authority of the first peoples of their regions when making decisions about where their regional and national conferences were to be held. For example, I directed a racial healing conference in Greater Los Angeles called “One God, Many Nations” in 2004. Richard Twiss (Lakota author of One Church, Many Tribes) was a new mentor in my life at the time. He agreed to serve as our keynote speaker, but strongly advised us to seek the blessings of first people of the Los Angeles area where the conference would take place. I did. 

I called the office of the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe of Los Angeles and spoke with a member of the tribal council. She didn’t understand my request, at first. I explained that I was a staff member of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles. We had come to recognize the spiritual authority that Creator God gave to all the first peoples of the land to serve as stewards and protectors of their appointed lands. We understand that the Tongva were the first peoples of Los Angeles. We would like to hold a racial healing conference on the land, but we understand the process is as important as the content of our gathering. In recognition of the spiritual authority of the Tongva people, we ask for the tribe’s blessing over our gathering. If granted, we would like to open our gathering with a traditional protocol ceremony. The tribal council member took my message to the council. Days later, she contacted me to let me know the people were moved by our humility and agreed to offer their blessing. The Chair of the Tongva council board attended our gathering. The Divisional Director of Intervarsity – Greater Los Angeles and I gifted the leader with a Pendelton blanket and sage. The Tongva chair offered his blessings over our gathering.

I continued to contact the Tongva council chair to ask for the council’s blessing for each large conference we convened until the chair said, “Lisa, you have shown yourself to be worthy of our blessing. We bless you to do whatever you would like to do in our land.” 

 The research that went into this project is impressive, and Forgive Us serves as an eye-opening introduction to the ways in which the Church supported exploitation, marginalization, and even ethnic cleansing throughout America’s history.  How did notion of “Manifest Destiny” in particular wreak havoc on creation and indigenous people? 

Mae: Manifest Destiny became a commonly held ideology in the early 19th century and was the belief that the United States had a God-given right to aggressively spread values of white civilization across the land mass of the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. It wreaked havoc on creation and entire communities of indigenous Americans including the Five Civilized Tribes, who were forcibly removed or annihilated based on the assumption that they were an impediment to God’s purposes being realized. Manifest Destiny justified the conquering of the indigenous peoples of Texas, New Mexico, California, and other parts of the Southwest; and the inclusion of the Oregon territory in the United States. Christians must confess the many ways we have contributed to this tragic history by acknowledging and repenting of our sins. We need to repent of our attitudes about the divine right of conquest, white supremacy, ethnic superiority, Manifest Destiny, the pursuit of wealth, and the brutalization, domination, and murder of thousands of Native people who have lived before us. 

 In addition to featuring sins against creation, indigenous people, African Americans and people of color, women, immigrants, and Jews and Muslims, you featured sins against the LGBTQ community. Was this a controversial decision? Why did you decide to include sins against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the book? 

Troy: When David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons shared their findings of how unchurched young people view the church in Unchristian, one of the most jarring critiques was that the church is, in their words, anti-homosexual. For us to engage the church and the culture in a relevant way, we simply could not avoid engaging the last forty years of hatred toward the LGBTQ community that for far too many has defined the church.

The decision to include this chapter was not controversial for the authors. We all agreed that we simply could not write this book and not address this horrible track record. That said, this was a risky chapter to include in the book for Zondervan, and we are very pleased they agreed to publish the book, including this important chapter of confession and repentance.

What are some practical ways churches can incorporate confession and lament into their worship? 

Soong-Chan: I am currently working on a commentary on the book of Lamentations and in that book I examine the absence of lament in the American church. Three different studies in different denominational traditions show that lament psalms and songs of lament are conspicuously absent in our liturgy, our hymnals, and our worship services. I attribute this disconnect to the tendency of triumphalism and exceptionalism that is strongly present in American Christianity. We jump to celebration rather than seek to stay in places of suffering and lament.

Our first step may be to acknowledge this gap and intentionally seek to introduce lament and confession into our worship life. What songs do we sing and why do we sing them? What psalms are read and towards what purpose? What sermon illustrations do we use? Are we always pointing out a happy ending of a triumphant faith or are we introducing places and stories of suffering that are not so easily resolved. In some cases, it may be a more rigorous examination of our liturgy and a more intentional usage of lament in Scripture reading and songs. How do we introduce stories of pain in our community to our worship? When an event like Ferguson occurs, do we quickly jump to it'll be fine, justice will be served or do we cry out as a community in solidarity with a community that is suffering. What testimonies are being shared? Are they not only the stories of triumph and victory but also stories of ongoing pain and struggle? How are churches intentionally introducing what may be considered places of disruption in order to bring about change?


For more on Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, join the Google Hangout with the authors on Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. ET.


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‘God and the Gay Christian’ Discussion, Part 5

Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (See Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4)

I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story compelling, and he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 

We will wrap up our discussion next week with a look at Chapters 8, 9 and 10, but today we focus on Matthew’s analysis of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. 

The Kingdom of God 

Matthew begins this chapter with a startling and sad confession: “I am far from the only gay Christian who has heard the claim that gay people will not inherit the kingdom of God. That message is plastered on protest signs at gay pride parades. It is shouted by roaming street preachers at busy intersections and on college campuses. The result is that, for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, all they have heard about the kingdom of God is that they won’t be in it.” 

That sentence just broke my heart. 

The biblical passage typically cited to exclude LGBT people from the kingdom of God is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which in the King James version says, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [malakoi], nor abusers of themselves with mankind [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God.” 

Matthew points out that the two terms consider here are malakoi [sometimes translated “effeminate”] and arsenokoitai [sometimes translated “abusers of themselves with mankind” or, more recently, “homosexuals” or “men who practice homosexuality”]. 

Regarding malakoi, Matthew notes that most uses of the word in ancient literature are not related to same-sex behavior but rather to men who were self-indulgent and enslaved to their passions…for women. In the apostle Paul’s culture, it was believed that women were weak and lacked self-control, so a man who indulged his passions without restraint, or who took on the passive role in any sexual relationship, was considered effeminate. This would explain why many early versions of Scripture translated this word as “wantons,” “debauchers,” “licentious,” and “sensual.” New Testament scholar David Frederickson has argued that, given the context, malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is best translated, “those who lack self-control.” 

The word arsenokoitai is a bit more complicated, and has traditionally been understood to refer to same-sex behavior, especially since a similar word combination occurs in Leviticus 20. In Greek, arsen means “male” and koites means “bed.” While there are very few uses of arsenokoitai in Greek literature after Paul, some of the few uses that have survived indicate it referred to economic exploitation, not same-sex behavior. It’s also important to remember that the most common forms of same-sex behavior in the ancient world were pederasty and sex between masters and slaves. (Pederasty was so common that Philo described it simply as the union of “males with males.”) 

Matthew points to an ancient text known as the Sibylline Oracles in which the word arsenokoites is used to describe injustice: “Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed to generations of generations, to the scattering of life. Do not arsenokoitein, do not betray information, do not murder. Give one who has labored his wage. Do not oppress a poor man.” He also quotes from the second-century text, Acts of John, which says, “And let the murderer know that the punishment he has earned awaits him in double measure after he leaves this world. So also the poisoner, sorcerer, robber, swindler, and arsenokoites, the thief and all his land.” The word also appears in 1 Timothy 1:10 after “sexually immoral” and before “slave traders.” 

These and other examples from the ancient world have led several scholars to conclude that the term arsenokoites likely describes economic exploitation by some sexual means. 

Given our limited understanding of the exact meaning of these words, it seems like it might be better to err on the side of caution and not rely exclusively on them to condemn or support same-sex relationships. (Personally, I think the Romans 1 passage is probably the most important one to contend with. We covered that in our last discussion.) 

“But here’s the key point to remember,” writes Matthew. “Even if Paul had intended his words to be a condemnation of all forms of same-sex relations, the context in which he would have been making that statement would still differ significantly from our context today.” 

That’s because same-sex behavior in the first century was not understood to be the expression of an exclusive sexual orientation but rather it was understood as excess on the part of those who could easily be content with heterosexual relationships, but who went beyond them in search of more exotic pleasures. So when the translation of malakoi and arsenokoites shifted in the 20th century to refer to people with same-sex orientation, “it fostered the mistaken belief that Paul was condemning a minority group with a different sexual orientation” when “in fact, he was condemning excessive and exploitive sexual conduct.” 

At the end of this chapter, Matthew basically repeats his main thesis: 

“The concept of same-sex orientation did not exist in the ancient world. Prior to recent generations, same-sex behavior was widely understood to be the product of sexual excess, not the expression of a sexual orientation. The issue we face today—gay Christians and their committed relationships—has not been an issue for the church in past eras…”  

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about a threatened gang rape, not an intimate companionship. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were grounded in cultural concerns about patriarchal gender roles and religious ritual purity. Romans 1:26-27 refers to excessive sexual desire and lust and uses “natural” and “unnatural” to refer to customary gender roles, just as those words are used to describe men with long hair and women who cover their heads. 

“The bottom line is this,” writes Matthew.  “The Bible does not directly address the issue of same-sex orientation—or the expression of that orientation. While its six references to same-sex behavior are negative, the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation. What’s more, the main reason tat non-affirming Christians believe the Bible’s statements should apply to all same-sex relationships—men and women’s anatomical complementarity—is not mentioned in any of the passages.” 

Next week we’ll wrap up with a discussion around the biblical arguments for marriage equality. 

Questions for Discussion: 

1.    What do you think of Matthew’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 6? 

2.    If Matthew is right—if committed same-sex relationships are simply never discussed in Scripture—do you find that encouraging or discouraging? Given the degree to which LGBT people have been marginalized, and given the controversy surrounding marriage equality that rages throughout much of the Church, do wish Scripture was a bit more clear on this? Do you think it matters? 

Learn more: 

If you want to learn more about the Bible and sexuality, check out the Reformation Project conference in Washington D.C., November 6-8. Speakers include David Gushee, Allyson Robinson, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Jane Clementi, Danny Cortez, Frank Schaefer, James Brownson, Kathy Baldock, Alexia Salvatierra, and Amy Butler.


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Responses & Resources for the Abraham/Isaac Question

So my post last week about wrestling with the story of Abraham and Isaac and considering the role that conscience plays in our interpretation and application of Scripture generated quite a response. I got “farewelled” and called a heretic. People bemoaned my slippery-slope sliding, mocked my lack of theological training, and accused me of challenging God, hating the Bible, and exploring atheism.  But in the midst of all that came some really fantastic insights, challenges, questions, and ideas…exactly what I’d hoped the post would generate.  And I was reminded that I’m not alone in my questions and curiosity, and that questions and curiosity need not threaten faith but can actually enliven it. 

As it turns out, people have been wrestling with this text and its implications for centuries and there are many fascinating, helpful perspectives on it. And when I asked for more, you sent me poems, essays, books, articles,  encyclopedia entries, and even songs—little gifts that softened my defensive posture by infusing me with fresh curiosity. 

This, I believe, is exactly what the Bible is meant to be: a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender. The Bible invites us into conversation with God and with one another as we debate, discuss, wrestle with, and learn from its various texts. And this divine conversation reminds us that being people of faith isn’t just about being right; it’s about being a part of a community, part of a great tradition of dialog. Think how boring and individualistic the Christian life would be if biblical interpretation were easy! 

So I thought I’d share with you some of the best responses and resources I received over the past few days. While I don’t agree with every point in every one of these comments, articles, and quotes—I’ve included thoughts from Christians, Jews, and even atheists—I think they provide great fodder for conversation and may help you as you work through all this on your own. Feel free to share your own favorite posts or resources in the comment section.  

Theology and biblical interpretation aren’t meant to be done alone, but in community. We’re all learning as we go. So let’s take a deep breath and just listen to one another for a while: 

From the comments… 

 From Nate Pyle: 

“If, as some argue, the story of Abraham and Isaac is about God revealing himself in a new way and showing that a religion requiring a child sacrifice is wrong, I can't help but wonder what that means for us. For me as a pastor, being sure not to sacrifice my family and my kids on the altar of church. Not sacrificing people with a heavy, moralistic yoke. Not sacrificing relationships because of "truth." Maybe it is time we pay attention to all the ways we sacrifice people on the altar of religion and then stop it.” 

From Amanda:

“There is a scene at the end of Shusaku Endo's exquisite historical novel, Silence, in which the young Jesuit priest Rodrigues is given a choice between ending his Japanese Christian brothers and sisters' tortuous suffering by recanting and trampling on an image of Christ, or standing resolute in his faith and not denying his Savior. In his agonized moment of indecision, Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ say, ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’ And so, I will forever treasure this novel for teaching me that to deny our absolute faith in God and belief in right doctrine out of love for another is to do exactly as Christ would have us do."

From Kathleen Margaret Schwab: 

“I personally find convincing the theory that the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Issac is a story about the end of child sacrifice. Perhaps the beginning of the culture beginning to wrestle with this ancient practice, and define a response. Sacrificing children was a part of the culture of the time. The Hebrews broke from this practice and went on to be very very critical of it...although the OT also records that even kings of Israel sacrificed their children, which implies that common people may have also done so. I personally think that humans often deal with emotionally heated topics through story telling. The story of Abraham, with the details of the journey, the wood, the binding and the knife, provokes a powerful emotional response from the listener or reader. I think most of us want to say NO! And then our emotional response is confirmed by a message from God, that this sacrifice is not necessary.  I think we need to dig into stories like this, to see what message they give, the emotional arc they take us through.” 

From Micah: 

“Oh man, have I spent a lot of time on this passage. I've hated it and loved it and hated it and loved it again. At this point it's one of my favorite passages of scripture. It wasn't an accident that we named our kid Isaac. There's a lot to this passage, but there's one thing that you've not mentioned that I find completely fascinating: Abraham did not regard God's command as immoral. When you read the text again and again and grapple with it, you're struck by the fact that Abraham's objections were purely logistical, not moral. Isaac was the child of promise; how could he have descendants if he died? Abraham didn't seem particularly fazed by the whole "child sacrifice" thing, and for good reason: child sacrifice was completely normal in his area. No one had ever voiced objections to child sacrifice. Why would they? On what grounds would one of his neighbors have ever decided that a child's life had inherent worth? God didn't ask Abraham to do anything out of the ordinary in Abraham's culture. But it was out of the ordinary for the new culture that God wanted to create. Else why supply the ram at all? So I don't read this passage as a cruel and petty God testing Abraham. I see this passage as the beginning of a redemptive arc that sweeps through all of Scripture. It's the beginning of God teaching his people a new and better ethic. It continues on in, for example, Deuteronomy 18:10 and then carries on throughout the story of Israel. (Micah wrote more about this in a post here.

From Rabbi Moffic: 

Jewish tradition has a long history of arguing that Abraham FAILED God's test. He should have protested. That's why it is an angel at the end who stays Abraham's hand, not God. Just as Abraham protested in Sodom and Gomorrah, all the more he should protested when God's ask him to sacrifice his son.

Articles, Essays, Books, Poems…

Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: 

“The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is.” Read the rest here (or a summary here)

The Jewish Virtual Library’s “Akedah” entry (shared by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg): 

“Milton Steinberg (Anatomy of Faith (1960), 147), rejected Kierkegaard's view as ‘unmitigated sacrilege…While it was a merit in Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his only son to his God, it was God's nature and merit that He would not accept an immoral tribute. And it was His purpose, among other things, to establish that truth.’ Other thinkers such as J.B. Soloveitchik have found the Kierkegaardian insights fully compatible with Judaism. Ernst Simon (in Conservative Judaism, 12 (spring 1958), 15–19) believes that a middle position between the two is possible. Judaism is an ethical religion and would never in fact demand a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham is, therefore, ordered to stay his hand. The original command to sacrifice Isaac is a warning against too complete an identification of religion with naturalistic ethics." (Read the whole entry.)

Rob Bell’s The Gods Aren’t Angry (or, abbreviated in “What is the Bible: Part 6”)

“…This isn’t a story about what Abraham does for God; it’s a story about what God does for Abraham. Mind blowing. New. Ground breaking. A story about a god who doesn’t demand anything but gives and blesses…So, back to our original question: What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son? Now, an answer: Not this one. The other gods may demand your firstborn, but not this God.”

 “Abraham’s Madness” by Bink Noll (shared by Preston Yancey) and “Sarah: Before Mount Moriah” and “Isaac” by Madeleine L’Engle 

But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman (reviewed here) and The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son by Jon Levenson 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on “Noah” - seems relevant 

“[Noah] failed in the greatest mission of all. He failed to protect human life. And failed to fight with God when he wanted to take human life. He refuses to wrestle with God….God says “everyone will die” and Noah says nothing. But this is not what God wants. God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity! He does not want the obedient man of belief. He wants the defiant man of faith . It isn’t until Abraham, when God says, ‘we have the rainbow and I promise not to destroy everyone, but I will destroy these two cities Sodom and Gomorah,’ Abraham does something audacious. He says “will the judge of the entire Earth not practice justice?’ He lifts his fists to heaven! He raises a cudgel to Heaven! This made him the first Jew. A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience.”

Blog Posts…

Derek Rishmawy with “Abraham, Cultural Distance, and Offering Up Our Moral Conscience” 

“All too often in these discussions of troubling texts, we collapse the cultural distance between us and the biblical characters. Human nature is, in many ways, constant. Conscience is one of those basic human features. Across cultures, everybody has a clear sense of right and wrong, norms against which we must not cross, and an internal compass about these sorts of things. That said, any student of culture knows there are some significant variations across cultures as well. “Self-evident truths” held by post-Enlightenment Americans are not all that apparent to equally intelligent Middle Easterners or citizens of the Majority world. The conscience of a 1st Century citizen might be very sensitive about an issue you and I wouldn’t blink twice about, and vice versa. Our cultural presuppositions and plausibility structures do a significant amount of work here.”

Neil at Godless in Dixie with “Evangelicalism: It’s Not Just a Messaging Problem” 

“In the end, if whatever God tells you to do is right, then morality is fundamentally relative.  Once you’ve decided on that way of thinking, it inevitably devolves into a theological debate about God’s feelings.  This is a highly subjective discussion, of course, since one of the key tenets of monotheism is that if there is a God, you’re probably not him.  So how is it that you feel qualified to determine what he wants and what he doesn’t (and for that matter, why it has to be a “he”)?  It’s your word against another man’s word, not God’s word against everyone else’s.  You can try saying “but the Bible says,” except that’s really the word of more people just like you.  Any attempt to deny this leads to untenable absurdity because the Bible isn’t even consistent with itself.  Biblical writers didn’t all see everything the same way."

[I included the atheist's perspective because it was one of the only responses to actually engage the question at the heart of the post of which the story of Abraham and Isaac was simply an illustration. Also, it was refreshingly free of condescension!]  

Lee Wyatt with “Do Christians Still Sacrifice Their Children?: A Response to Rachel Held Evans” (this one also includes a nice quote from John Howard Yoder) 

“Evans is in effect complaining about a flat reading of the text which assumes any and every command of God is applicable to his people anytime and anywhere.  Yet she appears to practice the same hermeneutic in assuming that believers today might sometime face the same command to sacrifice our children. This is a red herring because we will never face such a command.  Evan’s failure to read the Bible as a story told as chapters or acts of a play (Creation, Catastrophe, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation) and factoring in the difference it makes that we live in the fifth chapter or act, “the Church,” rather than the earlier ones where these texts are found.  After Christ, and in the absence of anything remotely similar in the rest of the New Testament, ought to assure us that whatever those earlier stories mean, they no longer hold for the chapter of the story we live in.  That doesn’t lessen the difficulty we feel with those earlier stories, but it does mean that things have radically changed since Christ such that no more of that kind of thing is appropriate or should even be thinkable for God’s people today.  Yes, some do still think that way, as Evans points out, but that is a misuse or misinterpretation of the Bible and should be treated as such.”

Caroline Langston with "Holding the Blade of Sacrifice" 

It occurs to me that all the violent Old Testament stories that are routinely dismissed by contemporary Christian progressives for their supposed brutality and vengeance are, in fact, the very ones I love. For are not the depictions of riven families and murder and inconclusive journeys how we actually experience life here, in the Far Country? It strikes me that the stories of the Hebrew Bible, read in an evolutionary manner, are a great mercy to us humans, for they bring God nearer to us than we could ever imagine. We who are clueless, bumbling about in our wilderness, thinking we are trying to be obedient.

I'm rereading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead in preparation for Lila and just happened to bump into this quote, (in the voice of Pastor John Ames) which seemed relevant: 

"My point is that Abraham is in effect called upon to sacrifice both his sons, and that the Lord in both instances sends angels to intervene at the critical moment to save the child. Abraham's extreme old age is an important element in both stories, not only because he can hardly hope for more children, not only because the children of old age are unspeakably precious, but also, I think, because any father, particularly an old father, must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God. It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents' love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in the wilderness."


What did I miss? Please feel free to share links in the comment section! 


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Sunday Superlatives 10/19/14: Travel Edition

I was offline this week traveling from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Charleston, West Virginia, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Phoenix, Arizona to hang out with the Methodist, the Lutherans, and the evangelicals. So today’s superlatives go to the most memorable experiences from the week. Feel free to share your picks from the blogosphere in the comment section. 

Lightest Packer: 
Yours Truly with six days of travel crammed into one backpack and a purse 

Most Unnerving: 
Delta pilot in Chattanooga with “Take a look at that windsock! This should be exciting!” 

Scariest Airport: 
Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia with its 6,302-foot mountaintop runway 

Best Dancers: 
Members of the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church Clergy School who opened their first session dancing to “Happy” 

Best Conversation:
My conversation/interview with Laura Harbert Allen on Southern life, LGBT equality, and faith 

Best Sermon: 
Rev. Telley Gadson on 1 Corinthians 13 at the West Virginia Conference UMC Clergy School (if I can get my hands on the sermon itself, I will share it!) 

Funniest Crew Member:
Delta flight attendant with “If you haven’t been in a moving vehicle since 1985, here’s how you fasten your seat belt.” 

Most Beautiful: 
Good Earth Village in in Spring Valley Minnesota with FALL 

Most Stimulating:
Talking about the sacraments of baptism, confession, communion and anointing of the sick with Lutheran (ELCA) clergy in Minnesota. I loved these people and learned so much. 

Best Light-Reading for a Long Flight: 
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 

Best Deep-Reading for a Long Flight: 
The Atlantic Monthly’s November issue and Jon Lee Anderson’s breathtaking feature article, “The Mission” in The New Yorker  

Best Hugs: 
Participants at the Barefoot Tribe Conference at The Grove in Phoenix whose warm welcome will not soon be forgotten 

Coolest Idea:
Artist Scott Erickson created this as I spoke about gender equality at Barefoot Tribes

Most Inspiring: 
When the people of The Grove church shared how they took this post and brought it to life by holding a great feast for more than 675 people at one table! 

Best Feeling: 


In spending time with Christians from a variety of church traditions this week, I was reminded of the degree to which theological and ecclesiological diversity strengthens the Body of Christ. It was especially encouraging to talk about the sacraments (the topic of my next book) with groups that express those sacraments in different ways. I learned a lot and I felt like I contributed a lot too, which is the best way to feel after a trip like this one. Thanks to everyone who instructed me, listened to me, encouraged me, and fed me this week.  I came home feeling tired but grateful. 


So, what did I miss online this week? Share your favorite links in the comments and I’ll catch up! 


Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.