Monthly Archives: January 2013

Let’s Not “Agree to Disagree”

agree to disagreeI’m taking an interfaith conflict resolution course at my seminary. Tonight, the professor briefly touched on the difficulties experienced by religious people when attempting to solve problems within their own faiths.

During her lecture, a certain student raised her hand to share that in her opinion, one example of internal religious conflict occurred several months ago when Chick-Fil-A’s CEO expressed that he felt the “institution of marriage” should be “protected” by reserving it for heterosexual relationships. She felt the backlash from the public was wrong– and that in our country, religious people who express their opinions on issues of “morality” are often unfairly targeted, unheard or misunderstood.

The professor (whom I actually interpret to be rather liberal) attempted to move on by inviting another student to speak. An older gentleman raised his hand and said that he believes some conflicts require us to “agree to disagree” because that’s the more peaceful thing to do.

Everyone nodded along, but this bothered me. A lot. So I raised my hand.

I explained that in my opinion, there are times when justice requires us to stop “agreeing to disagree”. Inaction and complacency can in themselves become forms of violence. My comments seemed to make the students uncomfortable… After all, the topic of same-sex relationships is one that has been inflammatory in other classroom settings, and is intentionally avoided by the faculty. I think the professors are instructed to stay away from the topic because they scurry like hell to change the subject when it rears its head. The students often avoid it because they’re worried that their comments might cause division.

The truth is that I’ve grown very weary of the “agree to disagree” policy that is so often applied to issues surrounding same-sex relationships. The phrase “agree-to-disagree” implies that both positions (for and against) have merit– but in the case of civil rights, I don’t believe that’s possible. I simply do not believe that a person’s right to oppress is as valid as the rights of those experiencing the oppression. And I think we become complicit in oppression when we buy into the myth of the oppressor’s rights.

Christianity is a privileged group in this country, and at many times throughout history (including today) its religious leaders have been guilty of oppressing people whose humanity (as found in their religion or lack thereof, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc.) they haven’t understood. This has happened in nearly every generation in which Christianity has existed– and in every case, there has always been some faction of people who said, “Those who wish to use scripture to marginalize others are entitled to their opinion.”

I can’t say that anymore. Even if it’s popular. Even if it’s politically correct. Even if it’s touted as the “peaceful” thing to do.

Those who use scripture to belittle, marginalize or discriminate against other people are NOT entitled to do so. There is no merit in a position that minimizes a person’s worth based on his or her sexual orientation– even if he or she believes God has given him or her the divine right to carry out such discrimination. “Agreeing to disagree” is not the helpful or peaceful thing to do in a situation where oppression is the problem. The helpful and peaceful thing to do is to call oppression what it is: Bigotry. Socially violent. Absolutely and totally wrong.

So here are the unintended lessons I learned at seminary today: That we all have a limit. And that I’ve finally met mine. And that I don’t want to play the “we-both-have-valid-positions” game when it comes to issues of equality or human dignity. And that I need to start admitting that, at times, I am tired of Christianity’s institutions– for a variety of reasons– but most recently because they often ask us to affirm the oppressor’s rights.

And now I must go to bed. After all… I have class again tomorrow.

The Baptism of Jesus in John’s Gospel: What happened in the water?

I’ve written several posts about Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity, many of which are now available in my “On Jesus” collection. Among them are my writings about the incarnation. I started with a post called “The Incarnation: A Heretic’s Creed,” and wrote the following in that reflection:

I BELIEVE the twofold point of the Jesus story is 1.) to show us that God is concerned about what’s happening in the world AND  2.) that God can’t fix the world without human cooperation. I’ve come to understand the incarnation as God’s effort to make use of humankind in the ongoing practice of changing the world. I’m not particularly interested in how God stuffed godself into the Jesus-sized container, or whether Jesus was of the same substance as God. I’m concerned with what the incarnation means for humankind in practical terms…

And I still mean what I wrote there… I really don’t think very often about “how god stuffed godself into the Jesus-sized container” because I think our obsession with incarnation theology tends to obscure the message of justice that was so central to Jesus’ ministry. However, this week’s lectionary readings include John’s account of Jesus’ Baptism, so I’ve spent quite a bit of my weekend thinking about Jesus and divinity.

Baptism as a Mystical DoorwayI love John’s gospel– not only because I regard it as the most mystical of the four, but because it is packed with non-traditional theology about Jesus. In this case, John tells the story of a baptizer whose ritual was designed to wash away sins. This rite was like a doorway. After progressing through the doorway, the participant was expected to reform himself or herself into a human being who  would walk in righteousness and live in communion with God.

It was once widely taught that at the age of 30, Jesus participated in the baptizer’s ritual for the remission of sins because he didn’t understand himself to be the “deity” we’ve insisted upon throughout the ages. It was further taught that as a result of his obedience, he achieved some kind of unique unity with the Divine. This newly-acquired unique union was the basis of his “sonship,” and is the reason why God’s voice said of Jesus: “This is my son in whom I am well-pleased.” In this sense, Jesus was the Supremely Faithful One, adopted by God to perform a special series of works in the world. I touched on the idea of “supreme faithfulness” in one of my older reflections about Jesus:

[There is] an ongoing debate about the Greek word pistis (faith). In short, the scriptures speak of faith in reference to Jesus, but it is unclear whether the writers meant “faith in Jesus,” or “the faith of Jesus”. [Theologian John Cobb] prefers the latter translation, and in his understanding, the word pistis was used by Paul to describe a Jesus whose divinity was expressed in his faithfulness to God…

See this video for a more in-depth explanation in Cobb’s own words:

Three hundred years after the death of Jesus, Christianity’s power players decided that the only acceptable doctrines about his nature would be those affirming that he was both fully human and fully divine from the moment of his birth. The alternative view (which seems to be supported by John’s gospel and is known as “adoptionism”) was declared heresy and deemed unacceptable. That’s why no one ever talks about the possible progression of Jesus’ divinity in the Book of John.

It is with all of that in mind that I’ve pondered to myself this weekend: What happened to Jesus when he got in the water? What does Baptism mean?

I think the Bible’s authors have answered this question in a variety of ways– but John does seem to say that Jesus underwent some change while participating in John the Baptizer’s ritual. Maybe the author really did mean to communicate that Jesus participated in a sinner’s ritual because he understood himself to be imperfect.

While I don’t really know what happened in the water, I still think of the gospels as invitations to bring love, peace and justice to the world while living in union with the Divine. Perhaps the rite of baptism offers a doorway to the Divine and empowerment to carry out the call of our souls. Or maybe it signifies spiritual newness, a clean slate… a new beginning…

I will continue to think about all of this as the weekend comes to a close.

In the mean time, what is your opinion? What do you think happened to Jesus in the water?

(Read more of my reflections about Jesus by clicking here…)