Toyohiko Kagawa, and Why You’ve (Probably) Never Heard of Him: A Warning for the (American) Church

When Toyohiko Kagawa visited America for a preaching tour in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of people went to hear him speak. He would speak in multiple venues each day, while newspapers covered his travels extensively. For a time, he was a household name—a Japanese Christian of impeccable character and real, lived-out faith, who came to America to preach the gospel and share his passion for social change on the basis of that gospel. He was friends with E. Stanley Jones, and he met Gandhi, and he was regarded as one of the greatest Christians of his time. Why is it, then, that we’ve never heard of him?

Kagawa

Christianity and World Order

A short, fascinating little book.

I came across Kagawa when reading Bishop George Bell’s Christianity and World Order, a book published just before WWII that looked forward to the reconstruction of the world after another global conflict. Bell, well connected in the ecumenical movement, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contact in England, and friends to other German luminaries such as Martin Niemöller, and it was clear in his little book that he also thought very highly of this figure, Kagawa, of whom I’d never before heard. Especially since I’ve got an interest in non-Western Christianities, I decided to check him out.

Kagawa, illegitimate son of a samurai family in Japan, converted to Christianity at a young age under the influence of a few Western missionaries. An avid, prolific, and wide reader he dug into advanced books of Western philosophy and theology, even translating some of them into Japanese as a young man. Convicted by the Sermon on the Mount, he decides to go and live in the slums of Kobe in order to live a practical Christianity among the poor. His experiences there change him for life—not only does he maintain and carry a sincere concern for the state of the poor, but he contracts trachoma and is affected by spells of blindness for the remainder of his life. At this time Kagawa came to realize that many people, because of their social condition of extreme poverty, would not be able to accept the gospel as good news until there was a change in their economics. This conviction motivated much of what followed in his life. In the midst of his astonishingly busy schedule working in the slums, Kagawa begins to write books, and from this time on he publishes several books each year of his life. Extremely successful as an author, he donates all the money from the sale of his books to his projects to assist the poor in Japan. After several years he travels to America to attend seminary at Princeton, where he meets and befriends E. Stanley Jones. He returns to Japan, and becomes a strong labor advocate. This, of course, is the early genesis of the labor movement, when strains of it are threatening to move into communism or socialism, but Kagawa’s focus is on a deeply Christian call for fair wages, healthy working conditions, and reasonable hours and pay. In the midst of this, Kagawa becomes enamored of co-ops as a model for bringing economic social change to what is still a feudalistically minded economic world in Japan. He advocates for better farming practices, teaching poor farmers about crop rotation and the planting of trees to protect against erosion. It is around this time that Kagawa comes to America for his national tour, and where he is so widely accepted and revered. In the following years, as the world began to gear itself up for another war, Kagawa advocates for demilitarization and peace. But this sets him against his own government quite starkly, and Kagawa’s calls for peace fall on increasingly deaf ears.

Kagawa_Schildgen

The biography I found was written by Robert Schildgen, a figure in the co-operative movement in America, who has written a somewhat hagiographical (with reference to early 20th century socialism) account of Kagawa’s life.

It is here that something startling happens. During the war, Kagawa was strongly censored by the Japanese government. Then, from within Japan, his tone began to change. He wrote, and spoke on radio, in defense of the Japanese empire. He began to speak about the war being rooted in “racial aggression,” by which he didn’t mean Japanese racial aggression against China, Korea, and the Philippines, but Western racial aggression against Japan. He became (and remained throughout the rest of his life) a strong supporter of Emperor Hirohito. The grim result of this period, of course, is the colossal loss of Japan and the unveiling of Japanese atrocities throughout East Asia.

After the war Kagawa became an advisor for Japan’s reconstruction, and he played an important role in advocating for the development of Japanese democracy. However, his name had been tarnished by his association with Japanese propaganda during the war, and at one point he was even considered by the American occupying forces for “purge”—that is, for the isolation and removal of those ultra-nationalists who had instigated the war in the first place. He avoided that purge on the merits of his pre-war work, but a shadow now hung over his name. In part because of this, a post-war American tour had little of the thrill of his pre-war efforts. For the remainder of his life Kagawa would advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament. He died in 1960.

Kagawa_Getty

The most fascinating moment in Kagawa’s life is his meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. War is on the horizon, and Kagawa has explained to Gandhi that his opinions are not terribly popular in Japan—in fact, that he is a “bit of a heretic.” He petitioned Gandhi’s advice—what would he do? Gandhi’s answer is pithy and to the point: “I would declare my heresies and be shot.” This is an astonishing moment if only because this is precisely what Kagawa failed to do. When the crucial moment came, he capitulated.

Why don’t we know about Toyohiko Kagawa? I think there are two reasons. First, we don’t hear much about Kagawa because his version of Christianity is uncomfortably intermixed with early 20th century socialist politics. Now, from my (limited) read of Kagawa’s life and work, I think that those things for which he advocated are wholesome and good. He was possessed of a sincere desire to see the situation of the poor changed, and he saw in Christianity a model for that change which might give life to the world. He felt that a Christianity which didn’t address the practical needs of real people wasn’t much of a Christianity at all. To this, I give my full assent. However, the swing of labor movements away from Christianity in the intervening years makes it difficult to hear and accept his concerns today. Additionally, his presentation of Christianity becomes uncomfortably close to a political platform. The platform hasn’t succeeded, and unfortunately the Christianity has fallen alongside it.

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Second, I think we don’t hear much about Kagawa because of his capitulation during the war. Before the war, he had stood for Christianity, the gospel, and for peace. During the war, he stood for the political ends of his government—for Japan, for their advances into East Asia, and for military aggression. What is worse, Kagawa used (or allowed) his platform as a minister of the gospel to advance the political aims of the day. That intermingling is simply corrosive to gospel witness. It is difficult to recover one’s authority when it has been abused in that way.

So, what’s the warning for the (American) Church? It should be obvious. When Christianity is intermingled with a political platform, the end result, if the platform fails, is the discrediting of the Christianity. Irrespective of the truth of the Christianity itself, defeat of the platform brings about the dismissal of the faith that infused it. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Second, when Christians capitulate with the propaganda and rhetoric of their nation it does irreparable damage to their witness to the world. Christianity does not and cannot stand in support of political aims. It is corrosive to our gospel witness.

Toyohiko Kagawa was a fascinating, influential, but flawed follower of Jesus. I think it would be wise to learn from both his successes, and his failures.

Let’s Define ‘Progressive Theology’

For the past weeks I’ve been writing about specific features I’ve encountered in ‘progressive theology’—specifically, a certain view of love and relationship, and a concept of blaming tradition itself for certain abuses. In discussion with a few people, I’ve been pressed to provide a definition of what I mean when I talk about ‘progressive theology,’ and I’m going to try to do that today. Please note that while I disagree quite strongly with what I see in progressive theology, my goal today is to attempt to give it a charitable rendering. In other words, I hope that a progressive reader would find himself or herself unobjectionably described herein.

Car-Clash

Before anything else, let’s talk about the word ‘progressive.’ For most of my life, and in an ongoing way in political discourse today, the dividing line between ideologies is rendered most often in the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Liberal politics, like liberal theology, is theology ‘of the left,’ on the socialist and ethically progressive side of the scale, while conservative politics (and theology) is ‘of the right,’ and espouses some kind of capitalist, ethically traditional perspective on politics and theology. For a variety of reasons, I find these labels unhelpful when describing theology. First, because they are so trenchantly tied to political blocs, it seems all too easy to associate—and perhaps even identify—a theological position with a political one. In this, it is worth remembering that there is a long and upstanding tradition of Christian Democrats (e.g., Billy Graham), as well as a long a sordid tradition of Pagan Republicans (e.g., fill-in-the-blank). Some of these associations dispose us to errors in describing theological positions when we describe them as liberal or conservative. Second, many features of the ‘liberal’ agenda are deeply Christian—such as care for the poor, prioritization of human rights, and a disposition that aligns itself (at least ostensibly) with those members of society most likely to be abused by powerful systems of government. Whatever problems we might identify with ‘liberal’ theology, they aren’t these, and therefore I think it might be helpful to separate what is ‘liberal’ from what is ‘progressive.’

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For similar reasons, I also find ‘conservative’ to be an unhelpful theological label. ‘Conservation’ can imply retreat and protectionism, and can sometimes reflect nothing more than a doubling down on the status quo such that ‘conservative’ can imply simply ‘opposed to change in any form.’ Another label to be avoided is ‘orthodox,’ if only because to use it implies an automatic value judgment for its opponents (i.e., they are unorthodox). Additionally, to claim a position is orthodox, in a formal theological sense, means that it falls within the boundaries of creedal and conciliar Christianity. The proper antonym for orthodox is heresy, and to be a heretic means to adopt a theological position that has been declared a heresy by the Church (e.g., Arianism, or Nestorianism, or the like). For these reasons, and many others, I prefer the label ‘traditional’ as an opposite to ‘progressive’ in describing theology. Moreover, ‘traditional’ theology (as we will see shortly, I hope) differs in each of the key aspects which define ‘progressive’ theology.

A final aside before we begin. Naturally, these are my observations about the features of progressive theological thinking. They are formed from my reading, my conversations with progressive thinkers, and especially from my quiet observation of a few highly progressive online communities. Nothing that I say, of course, amounts to the level of a kind of formal sociological study—these are simply the things I see when I observe this phenomenon.

I perceive five characteristics that define ‘progressive’ theology:

Theology cartoonkirk-anderson-ona-cartoon-440W#1) Progressive Theology operates with a certain conviction of the progress of theology. In some ways, this may seem obvious (since progress is embedded in the name), but it is worth making explicit. As a methodological lynchpin, progressive theologians view the theological task as a developing, progressing one. We know more now than we knew then, and that which we know now ought to have significant impact on how we formulate theology. For example, we know more about evolution than did the author(s) of the Genesis account, and that new knowledge ought to shape our reading and interpretation of the text. We know more about human rights and dignity, and that ought to shape our reading of texts which permit slavery in the Old Testament (and fail to condemn it in the New!). We know now that women and men are equals in every respect, and that equality ought to shape our praxis and belief regarding women in the church. We know more about human sexuality, and our new knowledge ought to force a readjustment of our teaching and attitudes towards persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. However you may feel about these individual issues, in each of them a similar methodological turn is at play—new knowledge forces a reinterpretation (sometimes radical) of what was previously thought. At their heart is a belief in a certain kind of progress. Put theologically, the Scriptures and councils of the Church spoke for their times but do not necessarily speak for our time. In this way, the Spirit continues to speak in fresh expressions (much like an ongoing fulfilment of the Acts 2/Joel passage) which continuously develop our theological understanding.

Wesleyan Quadrilateral#2) Progressive Theology prioritizes experience on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. If you don’t know, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a way of viewing sources of authority in Christianity. It has four sides which together support Christian belief: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In its original formulation, scripture sits at the bottom of the quadrilateral as a foundation, while tradition, reason, and experience form secondary considerations in theological discourse (i.e., they each answer to scripture). For progressive theologians, however, experience is given a position of priority. Put simply, the lived religious experience of individuals has more value than an ancient text. If I encounter a homosexual individual who has a robust and visible relationship with the Lord, that lived experience ought not to be invalidated by a text or a tradition. Alternatively, in stories that are quite common, Christians with traditional views of human sexuality change their minds when one of their children comes out as gay. In fact, to validate the text over against the person is viewed as a form of dehumanization, and may even look (to the progressive theologian) a lot like Pharisaism (holier-than-thou adherence to a tradition that is far removed from and neglects the lived experience of the people). Within this preference for experience seems to be embedded a deep suspicion of religious authority, manifesting itself in distaste for traditional arguments from scripture, and for expressions of hierarchy or patriarchy. It may be from within this metric that progressives find themselves viewing traditionalists as oppressive, or even repressive.

#3) Progressive Theology prioritizes a certain interpretation of the love commandment in all theological/ethical thought. In line with a belief in progress and a prioritization of experience, progressive theologians/Christians emphasize the love commandments as the final word in Christian ethical debates. Since the Old Testament is full of commandments we don’t follow (boiling goats in mother’s milk, wearing mixed fabrics, etc.), and since the New Testament appeals to a new law of love which transcends those old commandments, all we need to think about is the new commandment. God is love, and love is all. This ought to manifest itself especially in love for one’s neighbour, particularly one’s downtrodden, poor, or oppressed neighbour. When a traditional Christian critiques the progressive Christian on scriptural grounds, this ethical prioritization activates, and the question of ‘which is more loving?’ is commonly utilized to navigate the dispute. For the result of the dispute, see the comments above on Pharisaism.

God is still speaking 2#4) Progressive Theology commonly prioritizes its progressive elements in witness. When progressive Christians witness, they commonly foreground those elements where they believe progress has been made—they preach inclusion, and LGBTQ rights, and marriage equality, and advocate for female clergy, are often pro-choice, and may describe themselves (and their theology) as “woke.” This makes sense—if you believe that the Spirit has moved in a new way in the present, and that this new way includes all of these elements, then you will want to celebrate these new elements in your public witness. Personal sin and salvation regularly plays a reduced role in progressive Christian witness.

#5) Progressive theology is impatient with ‘regressive’ theology, viewing it as a kind of bondage. This is of course a clear parallel to #4, but to the degree that you are convinced that a) you are an agent of progress, b) that the lived experience of individuals is of more value than dead tradition, c) that the love command is paramount, d) that this ought to be preached loudly and clearly, then it follows, e) that you will regard traditional theology as a kind of bondage. In fact, you may well view traditional theologians as modern day Pharisees, attempting to bind the common man to a law he cannot keep, and which God does not mean him to keep. Progressive Christians sometimes view themselves as liberators, and in line with that there is commonly an impatience, if not an outrage bordering on vilification, with which they regard traditional Christians.

tomorrowland-astronauts

Sometimes progress is just a guess.

There is, doubtless, much more to be said about progressive Christian belief than this, but perhaps this is a helpful start. I have refrained so far from criticizing any of these features, if only because my intention has been to maximize the charity of my presentation. In view of this, I will limit myself to the briefest of criticisms now. First, most importantly and essentially (and as I mentioned before), I am deeply suspicious of the narrative of ‘progress.’ In the past two thousand years there have been a host of ‘advances’ which were not advances at all, or at least were not advances that altered Christian belief. I struggle with a narrative that invites so much discontinuity not only between the Old and New Testaments, but between Christian belief and practice from the ancient world until today. ‘Progress’ very often is simply a representation of what is ‘popular,’ and as Inge said, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Second, as a traditional Christian theologian and thinker, I am disposed from the start to distrust experience. That’s the reason we prioritize Scripture—it provides a foundation against which to measure the vicissitudes and changes in personal experience (which is fickle), as well as with tradition (which occasionally goes wrong), and reason (which can be deceived). Third, while there is great merit in focusing on the love commandment in Christian life and practice, it still means that we have to define what ‘love’ is, and to define what love is we’ve got to appeal to a source of authority. That source for traditional Christian thinkers is a complex formulation based on love as it is defined in the Bible (manifested especially in love for God as our sovereign Lord), and then worked out in theological history. Fourth, traditional theology prioritizes the saving event of Christ in its witness (whether through preaching or eucharist) and views the prioritization of any other issue—no matter how valuable in itself—as a serious impediment to the proper work of the Church. Fifth and finally, traditional theology sees itself as forming an allegiance with God against the world in its bondage, while progressive theology often appears to align itself with the world against the Church.

So, what do you think? If you identify as progressive, does this describe you? If you identify as traditional, does this help you to better understand your progressive friends? I’m curious to hear your response.

Tradition to Blame: A Further Look at Progressive Theology

When I wrote last week about Love and Relationship I had no real intention to follow up that post. There were (and still are) things to say about defining terms like “progressive theology,” and there’s something to say about progressive revelation. But this week I encountered another example of progressive logic that startled me so much I felt the need to spend some time with it. It is the idea that Traditional Christian teaching on sexuality is in some sense the cause of sexual dysfunction. The more I think about it, the more I think it identifies another feature of progressive theology that we’ve got to try and dissect.

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If you’ve been reading the news, then you know that there has been a series of massive, deeply disturbing revelations about sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic church. Responses have been grieved, frustrated, and angry, and in the midst of this all there is a strong desire to explain or rationalize the goings on. One piece, produced in part by the scandal, was from Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option and chief editor of the journal The American Conservative. He published a story and interview with a man named Gabe Giella, a gay, former Catholic, former seminarian, who recounts some of his horrifying experiences in seminary. (Long story short: the seminary was full of sexually deviant individuals, and when he didn’t play along, he was the one who got removed.) The article is worth reading in whole, and I recommend it strongly, but the key paragraph that startled me is the following. Giella writes,

Sexual secrecy is the currency in the church and learning how to use it is almost treated like an art form in seminaries. This culture has been woven into the fabric of Roman Catholic clergy culture for centuries. The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration. Sexual secrecy and blackmail is the clergy’s bitcoin by which position, power, and control are bartered in the shadows, costing children and adults alike their faith, their safety and well being — and in some cases, their lives.

Now, before I comment on this, I want to make something really clear. My intention today is not to reflect upon Catholic practice and faith. As a rule, I keep my commentary on current events to those issues with which I have some personal involvement—I blog about conservative evangelicals, and I largely leave the issues of Orthodox, Catholic, or other believers to themselves. I think that’s only fair, and today’s post is really no different. I am not commenting, chiefly, on the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Serious commentary, and the business of criticizing and proposing solutions to that problem, is the purview of faithful Catholics (who, I add, have their work cut out for them and need our prayers). But in the comments I read from Giella, I detected elements of progressive thinking that I’ve encountered much more broadly. It is those elements that I want to treat with now.

Pope_Monkey see no evil

Yeah, but what about smelling evil?

First, there are a few things that Giella says that are quite important for us to hear. Chief among them is the role that secrecy plays in situations like the one he encounters. Secrecy gives added, corrupting power to sin, and in a context like a Catholic seminary, the secrecy of sexual desire—especially same-sex desire—must be necessarily strong. The wicked danger of this, however, is not simply that men keep quiet about their sexual struggles, but rather that secrecy is utilized as a tool of further suppression. And it certainly seems that in some circumstances suppression of talk about a situation is regarded as a solution to the problem, so that if we don’t talk about the elephant in the room, perhaps it will go away.

Another critically important aspect of Giella’s comments is his separation of gay priests from pedophile priests. Clearly, in the Venn diagram of these categories, they are not the same thing. There are gay men who are not pedophiles, and there are pedophiles who are not gay. Giella, and the other progressive thinkers I am familiar with, are right to reject the false equivalency that many traditional Protestants hold with regard to these categories. One does not necessarily mean the other.

Venn Diagram Template

Giella is not the only person who I’ve encountered recently who stresses this distinction, and he and the others I’ve read press it even further. They reject any material link whatsoever between desire for homosexual sex, and desire for homosexual sex with boys. For them, it is not a Venn diagram at all, with an overlap of homosexual and pedophile priests, but rather two completely separated circles, reflecting two completely different types of individuals. This makes a kind of sense, if one of your fundamental presuppositions is that homosexual attraction is a good. To the degree that you are committed to that claim, you must consequently reject any association between homosexual desire and categories of deviant desire (of which pedophilia would be one).

Since (on this line of thinking) deviant sexual desires cannot, by definition, account for homosexual and pedophiliac priests, something else must account for this. It is this ‘something else’ that I’ve detected in Giella’s rhetoric, namely, that the tradition itself is somehow responsible for creating this situation. Consider one of his sentences again, “The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration.” The language of ‘integration’ is loaded. Earlier in Giella’s piece he speaks about integrated sexuality, which means, effectively, living openly as an ‘out’ individual. And the suggestion, however subtle, is that somehow it is the Church’s traditional, outdated, and repressive teaching on sexuality that is the real cause of the sex abuse scandals.

Gay Priest

Rev. Krzysztof Charamsa, left, and his boyfriend Eduard. He has lost his position in the Vatican. One also wants to ask, How can ‘integration’ be complete when you must also deny your vows? Isn’t there a disintegration at play as well? The presumption is that living ‘out’ is more honest, even if it means committing perjury. 

Think about this further. If ‘secrecy’ has created a climate of sexual sin, then what better way to address that secrecy than living openly, or ‘out’? The solution hinted at is that if the Church were to update its teaching on sexual morality, these problems would go away.

This, it seems to me, taps into a foundational aspect of Progressive theology—chiefly, and even embedded into the name, the aspect of progress. The logic runs something like this: we know more about sexuality than any time in history. Our knowledge, not surprisingly, exceeds that of the New Testament authors, who were entrenched in their first century worldview. Consequently, our new knowledge demands a re-thinking of those old (i.e., outmoded) sexual ethics. We have matured out of our old cultural taboos, and now we know that homosexual desire is not only not an evil, but a positive relational good. Our teaching must be adjusted accordingly.

Here’s the twist, though. Adherence to the old teaching is not only backwards and anti-progress, it is also dehumanizing. If I proclaim a traditional Christian sexual ethic, which condemns all homosexual practice, then I might be participating in a kind of abuse. My teaching is contributing to the fracturing of personalities, to the denial of central humanity, and even (on some accounts) to increased suicide. This, to me, explains why many of the Progressive Christians I’ve encountered view their teaching as a kind of liberation. They are ‘releasing’ people from the strictures of tradition to live full, ‘integrated’ lives.

Love is a human right

Human flourishing, in other words, cannot exist without sexual freedom.

There is so much to say at this point that I despair of saying it all. I think I will try to say only three things. First, I reject wholesale the narrative of ‘progress.’ Since the time of the Enlightenment, it has been a common enough (and false) claim that our new knowledge is superior in every way to the knowledge found in Christian teaching. It was there that the beginnings of the science and religion debate began to take shape. Heady with new scientific discoveries, Enlightenment thinkers readily dismissed the whole of Christian teaching, or even re-edited it to meet their specifications. They were guilty, then as now, of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” They didn’t evaluate the old ways of thinking on their own terms—instead, they were prejudiced toward their present and weighted the scales unfairly toward the past. New is not always better. With regard to modern sexual ethics, it is worth noting just how new they are in the history of the human race. Whatever claims they make to scientific basis and universality, these are fundamentally untested theories.

Second, there is something wrong, and even dishonest, about the rejection of categories of ‘disorder’ when discussing homosexual desire. On a biological, even evolutionary account, the purpose of sexual desire is the creation of more members of our species. To do that requires one member of each gender—sperm and egg. It follows that same-sex attraction, if we start with an evolutionary biological account of the human, is an obvious deviation from the norm. It reflects a disordered desire on the part of the individual. I want what I ought not to want as a sexual human being. To turn and sanctify the disorder does not and can not bring the person to greater integration. Instead, it reflects a kind of sanctified nihilism where this world, and its desires, and a form of temporal happiness, are all that matters. That, to me, is anti-Christianity.

Finally—and while this is the most important argument for me it may seem like the weakest—I have faith in the Spirit of God that He has not deceived us in the Scriptures brought down to us. Granted, there are crucial differences between the ancient world and our modern one. Granted, there are commandments and practices which appear to have lost the sting which binds them to us (e.g., women with head coverings, casting lots, etc.). But the Scripture presents a picture of the human person which has not changed—that I, and you, are made in the Image and likeness of God, that there are desires within my body that war against my living out of that image, that I am commanded to resist and submit those very desires to God’s Spirit in obedience, and that obedience looks a great deal like crucifixion of the self.

Saint_Anthony_Abbot_Tempted_by_a_Heap_of_Gold_Tempera_on_panel_painting_by_the_Master_of_the_Osservanza_Triptych_ca._1435_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art-660x350

St Anthony, patron of those who resist the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

Here, as with last week, it hasn’t really been my intention to argue with the line of Progressive Theology that I’ve encountered. In both cases, my goal has been to try and single out and bring a degree of clarity to an element of what is an admittedly large and complex body of thought. A proper argument against Progressive Theology, as I see it, would require a far more robust analysis of the concept of ‘progress,’ and with that a commensurate discussion on the role and sources of authority.

Love and Relationship: Some Insights into Progressive Theology

If you’ve ever been out of your depth, then you’ll know how I felt several months ago, attending a theological conference whose starting points were deeply entrenched in progressive ideology. The people were friendly, the discourse was generally courteous, but I found myself holding little sympathy for the presuppositions and arguments of my fellow attendees. It was an odd experience, but probably a good one, because I think it’s really important to try to understand what makes other people tick.

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One moment, in retrospect, has given me quite a lot to think about. Some scholars had presented a paper, and in that paper there was a footnote which casually noted, without argument, that gay and lesbian desires were critically different from other sexual desires for things like adultery. The paper itself had little to do with these issues, but this kind of thinking was generally assumed all around, part of the progressive baggage of the conference, par for the conference course. One more traditionally minded attendee, however, chose to ask a question at this point focusing on that footnote. He pressed the presenters to clarify their casual and undefined distinction between types of sexual behaviour, which would condone one kind of sexual activity (homosexuality) while condemning another (adultery). The instant he asked his question the whole room changed. I could feel the tension visibly rise, heads shook in disbelief, a woman behind me began grumbling angrily not-quite-under-her-breath, and the cheerful congeniality of assumed liberality was swept away in sudden righteous indignation.

Another attendee offered a response, and it is her response that has stayed with me these past months. She posited that the difference between adultery and homosexual relationships is that “while marriage builds relationships, adultery breaks them.” This was met with general and widespread affirmation, and as a result the tension decreased, heads nodded in agreement, there were murmurs of assent, and the ordering of progressive assumptions had been restored for the moment. Here, I realized, is a crucial piece of logic which appears to be generally adopted by progressive-minded Christians. Naturally, I wanted to dissect it more.

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One of my favourite demotivators, reminding me of the importance of keeping my head down.

As far as I can tell the basic premises of her logic appear to be as follows:

Premise 1: God is love.

Premise 2: Love is manifested in relationships.

Premise 3: Things that build relationships are good.

Premise 4: Things that break relationships are bad.

It seems to follow, then, that since sexuality is an expression of human desire for relationship, homosexual unions—i.e., marriages—must be good because they build relationships, which manifest love, of which God is the image. This is how adultery can be distinguished from homosexuality, because the one breaks relationship (violating God’s nature), while the other builds it (honoring God’s nature).

If, as my limited experience seems to attest, this is the logic that operates among many progressive Christians, then it makes sense of a few things. First, it explains why, for them, monogamy is used as justification for homosexuality. If the essence of marriage is found not in biology but in a concept of “committed, covenantal relationship,” then homosexual unions must be good if they are committed and covenantal. The argument makes it feel as if arguing against homosexual marriage is to argue against marriage itself, and how can you argue against that? Second, it provides a clear example of a kind of ‘Bible within the Bible’ thinking where, basically, the love commands of the New Testament trump all other laws and regulations. Beyond even this, the love commands trump the ethical teaching of the New Testament itself. Since we know that God is Love, we can use that knowledge to make judgments about all other ethical behaviors in the present, homosexual love inclusive.

Love wins 3

 

There are lots of problems with this kind of thinking. In another post I plan to spend more time with the question of ‘Bible within Bible’ (AKA, Progressive Revelation). There is also a significant problem regarding the definition of terms—what justifies the above definitions of “love” and of “marriage”? These terms have been insufficiently queried, but I don’t intend to home in on those today. Instead, today I want to focus solely on the statement I heard at the conference, that, in essence, what builds relationship is good, and what breaks it is bad.

First of all, is it true that everything that “builds relationship” is good? Let’s consider some cases. What if I profess a love for (consensual) degrading sex acts, where sexual pleasure is experienced in proportion to the level of degradation? If such a relationship is consensual, and monogamous, but degrading to the Imago Dei, can it still be a good? Or what if I profess a love for sex (consensual) with underage boys? Moreover, what if I am ‘monogamous’ in such a sexual relationship? If the concepts of ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ in a blanket sense cover each of these types of relationship, then we retain no ground from which to proscribe certain ‘loves.’

Nambla banner

Nambla is an actual organization that advocates to legalize “consensual” adult-child sexual relationships.

Alternatively, think of the following case: imagine a husband and wife in monogamous marriage. However, the husband has become convinced that he wishes to invite another woman into the relationship, thus shifting into polygamy. His motives are based on an ethic of love—I love you (wife 1), and I love you too, (wife-to-be 2), and I think that the three of us together will increase our love. The polygamous marriage, by increasing the love-quotient in the relationships, should be a relationship-building good. However, might it not follow that if wife 1 refuses to enter into the polygamous relationship, then she becomes the culpable party, choosing a sinful rejection of relationship rather than the polygamous building of relationship?

There’s more. Isn’t it the case that sin also “creates relationships”? If I commit adultery, I may have broken a relationship with my wife, but at the same time I’ve also created a relationship with another woman. In fact, in any situation where I wrong someone, haven’t I generated a relationship with that person—however decrepit? If I sire children and abandon them, don’t we still have a ‘relationship’ even if it is one rooted in my own selfish sinfulness? If I economically exploit a poor person, do I not have a ‘relationship’ with that person, even if it is unjust by nature? If a given act of sin creates relationship, then it cannot be the case that all things that build relationships are good. In fact, in many of these cases that which breaks the relationship is in fact the greater good.

Rich Man and Lazarus_Eugene Burnard

Injustice binds the rich man and Lazarus together in relationship.

In each of these cases, the concept of love has been divorced from any meaningful reference points (whether historical or scriptural) and applied to the modern world as a sign of divine approval. But the fact remains that without some concept of ordered loves, we won’t be able to tell the pedophile that he is wrong, nor he who is pleased when God’s image is violated for his pleasure, nor, for that matter, the individuals who want to commit adultery and ‘break’ relationships on the basis of love found elsewhere, or love lost in the original relationship. What, in such a situation, is the benefit of a ‘monogamous covenant’? If love adjudicates all ethical matters, lack of love becomes justification for any number of wrongs. And the crucial fact is this: unless we have a way to distinguish between good and bad loves, and unless we have a way to distinguish between godly and forbidden relationships, we have no grounds whatsoever to proscribe any relationships or any loves, however reprehensible. Love cannot be its own justification, without definition and qualification, without falling into an inevitable, slippery slope of relational chaos.

And to this, I find myself asking: If only there were a place where we could locate, and study, such a definition…

What’s in a Name?

It wasn’t long ago that my newsfeed was graced by two provocative image macros, each shared by a variety of different people. I want to share them with you today in order to reflect, critically, on what they mean, and to comment on a way that they are strikingly similar. The first image features a description of the “real” meaning of the Confederate flag. The second features the image of a priest describing a nonthreatening use of “Allah” in Christian worship. Here are both images now:

Confederate Flag Meaning

God-is-Allah_Palestinian Christian

You may be wondering why it is that I think these two images are strikingly similar, and the reason lies in the logic they utilize to make their case, a logic I find deeply troubling among many of my fellow Christians. There are two components to their similarity.

1) Both images consciously ignore the fact that names have history. There is a reason, today, why we don’t name our children Adolf or Judas. There is a reason why Chernobyl and Hiroshima continue to make us shudder. These names, for varying reasons, carry with them the baggage of their narratives—baggage which distinctly inflects the meaning of the names. And herein lies the key we must remember—names point to a history, point to a heritage. The history of a name is the unveiled history of its character. They don’t exist in abstract; they carry narrative baggage.

This is what is so very crucial about the unveiling of the name of God in the Old Testament. Previously, He was a kind of idea—an El, a God, possibly among other gods. But after Moses He was known by His own self-designation, YHWH, I am that I am, I cause to be what is. From that moment on the dealings of the Israelites with the being named YHWH constituted a developing narrative of character. No longer would general terms be as suitable, because God had taken control in a striking way of His own self disclosure. Want to know about god (el) generally? You’re going to have to get to know YHWH.

Burning Bush

So, when our priest claims that “Allah is just our name for God” there is a two-way sleight of hand. On one side, he is consciously neglecting the importance of God’s self-revelation in time through the narrative of YHWH’s actions. On the other hand, he is consciously side-stepping the narrative identity of Allah. Allah may have once meant ‘God’ in a vague and nondescript sense, but it can do so no longer, for in the machinery of Islam it has gathered to itself its own narrative baggage. Allah no longer means simply ‘god’ anymore than Baal means simply ‘god.’ As soon as it became a name it took on an accretion of historical data.

2) Both images consciously ignore the fact that symbols have a life beyond their etymology. I can describe in great detail the etymological meaning of the word Negro. I can talk about its links to the colour ‘black,’ how it represents a basic description of encounter between Caucasian and non-Caucasian persons. But no amount of explanation can overcome the fact that, within living memory, the word “negro” was used to exclude and marginalize, often visibly on signs like this one.

No Dogs Negroes

Decoding symbols and defining terms is important, crucial work, but we mustn’t neglect the fact that their use and application in history adds levels of meaning and determines their interpretation. No matter how one describes the Confederate flag (and, for the record, the description in the image macro is false), its use in rebellion, in the defence of slavery, and in the narratives of white power, render it ultimately reprehensible. The flag, like the word “negro” is an object of thought that, whatever its origins, now carries a symbolic weight beyond its ‘meaning.’ It is irresponsible, if not dishonest, to ignore that symbolic aspect.

The flag has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. Allah has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. No amount of equivocating can sidestep these difficulties. And yet both these images operate from the same basic premise: if I explain a thing a certain way, all its troubles disappear. The rhetorical claim is something like this, “Here. This is what this thing really means. So relax, it’s no big deal, right?” Formally, this is logical fallacy called “Cherry Picking”—it’s where you point to one data set (favourable) and consciously ignore or neglect the rest of the data (unfavourable). In the cases above, the authors point to certain data sets (re: Allah, Confederacy), and neglect significant other ones (history, symbology).

Muggeridge5For me, this takes on an even more grievous slant, because in the hands of Christians—who are supposed to love the Word and what it means—it becomes a form, if you will, of exegetical abuse. I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm Muggeridge,

In the beginning was the Word, and one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically then rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time. (Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, 2)

Muggeridge’s words haunt me, echoing through my mind as I read, and listen, and observe the world. And nowhere do they grieve or astonish me more than when the Church, that great steward of the Word, participates in the destruction of its own sacred trust. Granted, it’s hard work to be faithful to the Word. The truth is that there’s enough cherry picking and equivocation in the world that, very often, the Christian message must begin with a proper definition of terms. But when we participate in these kinds of equivocation we discredit those places where we really do have a point to make about interpretation and misinterpretation. Abuse in one rhetorical field discredits us in others.

So let’s be critical of what we post and read, and let’s use our sacred trust—the treasury of the Word—wisely, faithfully, and with piercing clarity.

An Uneasy Conversation about Immigration, Continued.

I remain uneasy. Despite last week’s foray into the questions surrounding Immigration and Christianity, I am keenly aware of how much more there is to say—and of how uncertain a great deal of it is. Last time, I concluded that Christians do indeed bear clear ethical responsibility to the immigrant/stranger in the land, but I noted that the bounds of this responsibility are made unclear on account of the uncertain nature of our relationship to the state. In today’s post, I want to return to the question of the state, and to bring that to bear on the question of “illegal” immigration. I anticipate more uneasiness.

To get started, consider the following image, in which a cartoon of Jesus with children highlights Matthew 25:40 and suggests that the language of “least of these” applies specifically to undocumented immigrant children:

Immigration_Cartoon_Hay-Soos-COLOR-1020x684

This is a potent, evocative image. It raises questions (not entirely subtle) about national sovereignty, about where Jesus ‘stands’ in relation to nation-states, and about the extent of solidarity. It suggests explicitly that if we are truly Christian, we should be allowing these children (and by implication their parents) unrestricted access to America. In fact, it asks a fundamental question—one that is implied in a great deal of the discourse around American immigration and Christianity: Do nation-states have the right to exist?

To you, that may seem like the wrong question—it may seem like an exaggeration, or even a distraction. But I think it really captures the heart of the present debate. In one camp (let’s give a charitable account) are a group of Americans who want to preserve a form of national sovereignty. They want to do this, specifically, by clarifying the land border between Mexico and the Southern US. Many (but not all of them) want a physical wall. Now, however you may feel about this camp of citizens, if you are in the other camp and are going to oppose them, you’ve got to ask about the alternative. If we don’t enforce the border, for what are we advocating? Note that this is (at the moment) completely irrespective of the merits or demerits of a given immigrant—this has nothing to do with questions of “deplorables” or escapees. If we oppose the establishment of a clear border, aren’t we in fact advocating for no border at all? And if, upon reflection, we are advocating for no border at all, aren’t we tacitly arguing that nation-states shouldn’t have borders? Isn’t this bound up with desires for unrestricted travel, free trade, deregulated immigration, and a kind of “global citizenship” unbounded by certain premodern conceptions of the state?

aint-no-border

This, then, is our question: do nation-states have the right to exist? And how will we answer this question from a Christian perspective? The answer is: with difficulty. Firstly, and as I mentioned last week, there is no instruction whatsoever in the Bible on the management and establishment of foreign nation-states. We’ve got examples of states gone wrong (Canaanites, Egypt), and states under judgement for having gone wrong (Sodom, Gomorrah), but no ready-made Scriptural management techniques which we can apply to the Southern American land-border with Mexico. Instead, we’ll have to intuit a few answers and then draw some conclusions. To me there seems to be four sets of clues we can draw from: property laws, hospitality laws, the Kingdom of God as a State, and modern examples of anti-property, anti-border states.

Property Laws
First, property laws. The Bible has lots to say about property—it is enshrined, in fact, in no less than two of the Ten Commandments (we are commanded neither to steal, nor to covet). Property laws are then worked out in a host of case studies, relative to oxen (Ex. 21:32), donkeys (Ex 21:34-34), slaves (Dtr 15:17), children (Ex 21:22), and so forth. Among other things, this indicates that the category of things called “property” covered a significantly broad and varied assortment. It also points to the fact that, in the ancient world, the master of a household bore responsibility for virtually everything in the household. We must remember that in that world the horizons of economics and household management aligned. Within this extremely broad set of passages, there are also clear stipulations about the role of land rights. We are warned not to move ancient boundary stones (i.e., stealing property—Dtr 19:14), and we are commanded to return property to its hereditary owners after fixed-term leases (in this sense, no property was ever really ‘sold’ in Israel—see Leviticus 25 in full).

How can we connect these passages to the question of nation-states? Quite simply, if individual households have the right to exist, to preserve property, and to be managed according to just governance, then it is reasonable to expect that nation-states are subject to the same conditions. In short, as the household, so the nation-state. As households are judged (scripturally) on the merits of their masters, so nation-states are judged on the merits of their governors. As households have boundaries and door locks, preventing unrestricted access and protecting their assets (containing all the variety of ‘property’ within), so nation-states have boundaries and borders, similarly preventing unrestricted access and protecting its assets (containing all the ‘property’—its citizens—within). From this perspective—if our logic is sound—then nation-states possess the right and duty to establish and enforce a border. To fail at this appears to be, at minimum, a negligence of management.

Korean Rock Wall_Jeju_batdam

A rock wall separates farmland in Korea.

Hospitality Laws
However, and alongside each of these property laws, there is also a clear set of instructions regarding hospitality. Primarily, these are the laws of the stranger that I discussed last week. But in addition to these laws, there are a few key Scriptural examples to consider. The first is Genesis 19, where Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. It is extremely important to note that while immorality (esp. in a form of violent homosexuality) is in play during this story, the primary reason for their destruction appears to be the violation of hospitality. The angels appear at the gates of the city, and Lot—the only righteous man in town—displays his righteousness by offering them hospitality. The test of the city appears to be in how it treats the stranger. Sodom and Gomorrah’s response is disturbing: we rape strangers. Lot attempts to save the angels (not knowing they are angels) at the expense of his daughters’ lives, but before they can be subjected to this horror the angels begin their saving and destroying work.

Another case in the Old Testament is found in Numbers 20. There, Israel seeks Edomite permission to pass through their land—a desire for a kind of national hospitality. They even offer (astonishingly!) to drink no water, and pass through no crops. The Edomites refuse, and we note that to refuse water to a desert dwelling people is to desire, tacitly, their death. This is a source of future enmity between Edom and Israel. It is a violation of hospitality.

Note that we are not released from these hospitality laws in the New Testament. Most evocatively, and perhaps with Genesis 19 in mind, the author of Hebrews (13:2) admonishes us to show hospitality to strangers, “for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In each stranger, he argues, we may be offering hospitality to an angel of the Lord. Hospitality remains a fundamental test of our civic virtue.

lot-sodom-angel-ftr-600x396

The Kingdom of God as a State
“But wait a moment,” I hear you object—doesn’t the New Testament church do away with property? Don’t the believers share all that they have? Isn’t it the case that none had needs in the early church? Yes, and no. Yes, there was a radical new sharing among the people of God. Yes, it was the case that members of the early church exchanged earthly goods so that members of the fellowship could eat. But it was not the case that all members divested themselves of property. First of all, we must remember that the Church continued to meet in homes. To meet in a home you have to own a home. To own a home in the ancient world you had to be wealthy. The early church had quite a few wealthy members who did not sell all they had. They maintained their property. But wait—didn’t Ananias and Sapphira get the axe because they didn’t sell their property? Not quite—they were killed, primarily, because they lied about it. They sold the field not in order to bless the people, but in order to make themselves look good. They kept the money because their hearts weren’t in the gift. They died because, like Achan in Joshua 7 before them, their corruption could not be allowed to sully the new conquest of the new Israel in the world.

Furthermore, it was not the case that money was redistributed in toto in the early church. There are rules about widows and orphans (they must be genuinely helpless—1 Tim 5:3-7), there are rules about working and eating (if you can work but don’t, you are not going to get help from the church—2 Thess 3:10). There are admonishments for the wealthy taking advantage of the weak (1 Cor 11:17-22). These passages indicate that the early church was not a kind of proto-communist utopia, but a place of fulfilled and glorified biblical economics. All who can work must work, those with an excess give, those who are desperate are cared for by the church.

There is more. The Kingdom of God is here, but not yet fully. The Kingdom—that is, God’s reign, invading the earth—is an entity that actively rejects national boundaries. It includes people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, and in every case citizenship in the Kingdom trumps that of individual nation-states. My identification with other Christians in China, Peru, Namibia, and Honduras sits in clear priority over my identification with any particular nation state (whether the US, Canada, or the UK—the three where I’ve lived so far). Without regard to my individual nation-state, I bear an ecclesial responsibility to Christians first. They are part of my household. And yet, this reality of Kingdom-citizenship still has its own boundaries. There is an inside, and an outside; there are those who are part of the kingdom, and those who are outside of it (see Matthew 25). The Kingdom itself maintains (and defends?) its own boundaries, its citizens, and its values (see, for example, Eph 5:1-13).

Colorful World Map

The Kingdom transcends all borders.

Nation-states that have abolished property
From what we can tell so far, it seems reasonable—on Scriptural grounds—to infer that yes, nation-states have a right to exist. They are an extension of the household and are governed (at least in part) by the Scriptural laws of property and hospitality. Is there ground, then, to make a case for the abolition of nation-states? Not from Scripture. Even the Kingdom is conceived as a place of boundaries and property management under the governance of justice, hospitality, and identity. By contrast, in the modern world where governments have attempted the abolition of property the consequences, in human terms, have been disastrous. Ironically, the effect of removing property reduces all persons to the property of the state. Outsiders—those who do not participate in the communist project—are viewed as assets to be added to the collective (very literally, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine). A lack of borders becomes an invitation to the overriding of the borders of other nations. Nationalist, ethnic, and ideological holdouts are subjected to “re-education” (which is a word that should strike fear into any person educated with respect to 20th century history). In a strange turn, the abolition of property results in dehumanization.

Many Christians—historic and modern alike—have advocated for degrees and forms of socialist/communist economic structures. They have argued for these structures on the basis of their reading of the New Testament Church. However, it seems clear that they are guilty of an over-realized eschatology—what may work in a perfected world cannot work in this present, imperfect world. And in each case where this has been attempted such borderless projects, while promising heaven, have in fact delivered only hell.

Re-education in Vietnam

These images are from Vietnamese re-education camps, and are mild (i.e., they’ve been staged). Most of the other images are too disturbing to post.

Further Uneasy Ethics
Now what? And how does this help us with regard to the question of “illegal” immigrants? Here are five, further conclusions to consider.

1) Nation-states do indeed have the right to exist.

2) Nation-states are judged (by God) with respect to their management, specifically concerning utilization of property and hospitality.

3) Nation-states have a household responsibility to care for their citizens and maintain borders.

4) The Kingdom of God is the nation-state to which Christians belong, and may not be identified with any earthly nation-state. “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

5) Christians within nation-states possess a dual citizenship—the first, primary, to the Kingdom; the second, relative, to their nation-state.

Obviously, this creates an uneasy ethical tension. On the one hand, I am subject to the laws and regulations of my nation-state, which has a sovereign responsibility to defend its own boundaries. On the other hand, I am subject to the laws and regulations of the Kingdom of God, which transcends those boundaries and makes difficult demands of me.

So how do we address the question of the illegal immigrant? It seems that he or she falls squarely between the boundaries of earthly states and the Kingdom. We are bound to acknowledge that national borders are important—i.e., we admit that we all lock our doors at night for the sake of the residents of our homes. At the same time we bear a transcending Kingdom responsibility to be hospitable to the stranger. In the crush between the laws of our land and the commandments of Scripture, we are left with two questions: How shall we exhibit hospitality, and shall we err on the side of legality, or on the side of mercy?

First, hospitality. We don’t have to admit every immigrant who comes to a nation, but we ought—under God’s own command—to treat them each with dignity and hospitality. This will be costly, but the cost of ignoring it is too great.

Mother Teresa_pew

Second, mercy. Laws matter. And yet they are not all—especially when we follow Christ. And on his account it is clear that no amount of law-keeping will make us righteous if in the process we have become, and are, unmerciful. He even says this explicitly, quoting Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13, Hosea 6:6). Christ seeks from us a heart of tenderness, more than a heart that has kept all of the rules.

In all of this, I have still left out one, final, looming question: What responsibility does the Church have toward outsiders? What are the boundaries of solidarity? To that question I will return, and conclude, next week.

Let’s Have an Uneasy Conversation About Immigration

I must confess that I am uneasy. I am uneasy about the stories of immigration in the news lately. I am uneasy with progressive responses to those situations. I am uneasy with Christian responses to those stories. I am uneasy about the trustworthiness of news sources, the spin of commentators, and the histrionics of disputants. But beneath and throughout all of this uneasiness, I’ve felt especially uncomfortable with how Scripture is used when it comes to questions of the “immigrant,” the “stranger,” and the “refugee.” Some serious thinking was required, and the result is something of an uneasy conversation.

Immigration_CNN_mcallen-texas-exlarge-tease

This uneasy conversation is rooted in the fact that immigration (both legal and illegal), refugees, and Christian responsibility come together in an awkward discourse, one that stretches the boundaries of any simplistic ethics. At the heart of the conflict are two, oil-and-water realities—the life of the Kingdom of God, and the existence of nation-states. Unclear thinking in both areas, to my mind, has created a great deal of misinformation and confusion. Perhaps one way to summarize the diverse dialogues and talking points is to pose a simple question: what is the Christian responsibility towards the immigrant/refugee?

The most common answers I encounter come from certain interpretations of Scripture. Consider two such interpretations now. In this first image Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are likened to refugees, fleeing Herod to Egypt. The message, implicit, is that the state of the refugee is crucially linked to the story of Christianity itself.

Immigration_Holy Family as Refugees_Kelly Latimore

An Icon of the Holy Family, by Kelly Latimore.

Another image lists a series of scripture texts, but pointedly translates the word “stranger” as “immigrant.”

Immigrant Scriptures_

I won’t take the time to analyze these images in depth, but where I want to focus is on their use of Scripture. Specifically, in both cases Christian Scripture (or an event) is used pointedly to address the current immigration/refugee issue in the US. Each is, in fact, a form of proof texting—here is a situation, here is a Scripture to address said situation, case closed.

Allow me to register a few concerns. First, modern labels such as “immigrant” and “refugee” are heavily freighted with meaning. While the Bible does indeed have things to say about the stranger in the land, they may not be the same kinds of things that modern commentators are making it say. Is the modern refugee really the same as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt? Can these texts really be applied to our modern situation without interpretation or context? For instance, in order to claim that Israel’s stranger laws should directly inform America’s immigration policy we would need to establish that the nation-state of Israel is sufficiently similar to the nation-state of America. This is a deeply tenuous connection, and one that many commentators would not be so happy to make.

In light of this, a second concern. In addition to the quoted stranger laws, the Bible has lots of other things to say about how we treat one another, specifically from the same passages of text! For example, instructions in Leviticus 18, 19, and 20 shift almost breathlessly from laws about clothing of two fabrics, to rules about sex with slave girls, to the breeding of cattle, to forbidding homosexual relations, and to honouring one’s parents. Many of the same people who reject the Bible’s teachings on some of these issues (e.g., homosexuality), are presenting contextually linked scriptures as proof-texts for immigration reform. Furthermore, when they give reasons for why they are not bound by a scripture like Leviticus 18:22, they cite the fact that we do not observing other, contextually linked passages, such as the garment laws. The law of the stranger, then, is binding, but none of the others. I find this, at best, disingenuous.

Levicitus Clobber Text

While these flaws make me uneasy, they are not themselves an argument. They are bad rhetoric, and possibly poor interpretations of Scripture, but we still must examine the Scriptural claims about what, if any, is the proper Christian response to the immigrant/refugee. We’ll need to think about this from two angles—the nation-state, and the immigrant.

The Bible and the State
First, does the Bible speak to the circumstances of the modern nation-state? In a word, not really. The Old Testament offers instruction on the management of theocratic, then monarchic Israel. Many Christians believe that these instructions ought to shape the governance of their nations, but this is by no means a simple open-and-shut Scriptural case. For example, the text points to the role of boundary stones (Proverbs 22:28), of property management (Leviticus 25), of ethnic purity (Deuteronomy 7:3), and of economics (Leviticus 25, 23:22, Deut. 23). These are instructions for Israel specifically. It is worth noting, however, that when other nations stand in violation of certain aspects of God’s law they are judged, and even destroyed, based on those violations (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:9).

And yet, apart from these passages of judgment (for moral reasons) we get no instruction on secular civil governance in the Bible. Paul tells us in Romans 13 to “obey the civil authorities” (and he says this about Nero, mind you). John in Luke 3 tells the tax collector to collect just the right amount, and the soldiers to avoid harassing people and be content with their wages. If we wish to look to the Scriptures for advice on how to govern, manage, and maintain national borders, we are going to get precious little help. Furthermore, the concept of the modern nation-state—as a non-religious, non-ethnic social aggregate of disparate persons—is unheard of in ancient Israel, and certainly insufficiently like the Roman state for easy comparison with America, if only because no ancient person had a vote like modern persons do.

EmperorMaximiam

Emperor Maximiam offering incense to Jupiter.

In view of Romans 13, however, it is worth remembering that Christian obedience to the state clearly had limits. When the New Testament was written, the early Church had an uneasy but largely unchallenged relationship to the Roman government. But in the years following the writing of Paul’s letters this situation changed—the question of obeying Caesar or Christ became pointed, and the resounding witness of the early Church was to honour Christ, even if it meant death. Thus, when a given Christian stood before the altar to Caesar and was pressed to offer incense to him as a deity, that Christian refused to obey the civil authority. Death, by the very sword entrusted to those who govern, was often the consequence.

It follows, then, that because there are no Christian states, properly speaking, but only states with proportions of Christians serving inside them, no civil ethic ever aligns perfectly with a Scriptural model, whether Old or New Testament. The default ethic would appear to be some form of Romans 13:1-7 (to honor civil authorities), combined with some form of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (to lead a quiet life). However, in those situations where the state stands opposed to Christian teaching, then we side with Christ, even if it means our imprisonment or death.

The Bible and the Stranger
Second, does the Bible speak to the situation of the stranger, the immigrant, or the refugee? In a word, yes—quite a lot, actually. While the image macro of Scripture texts above bent matters a little for its own benefit, each of the texts do speak about treatment of the stranger in the land. Exodus 22:21-24 is one of the clearest and most poignant:

21You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. 23 If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; 24 and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

Slaves in Egypt

Israel, as a people who were formerly strangers—immigrants, if you will—in Egypt, are called to remember at all times their former status and to treat others accordingly. Note: the text makes no provision for the ethnic heritage of the stranger, nor for his or her religious background, nor for his or her quality of life, language ability, or socioeconomic status. It does not matter if the stranger is a qualified worker or a slave, he or she is to be treated justly. Leviticus 24:17-22 makes this explicit:

17 ‘If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. 18 The one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. 19 If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. 21 Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good, but the one who kills a man shall be put to death. 22 There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God.’

(Note: similar passages can be found at Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, Deuteronomy 27:19, and Jeremiah 22:3-5.)

In light of these passages, does the situation of the modern immigrant and refugee correlate to the biblical picture? It certainly seems so. Central to the story of the Bible, Jacob and his sons flee economic hardship in order to reside in Egypt, where they are immigrants. In the book of Ruth an Israelite woman (Naomi), on account of famine (a natural disaster) emigrates to Moab. After her sons die, she returns with Ruth (now an immigrant) to Israel, where they live, essentially, as economic refugees. Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus do indeed flee a situation of political hostility (the government, Herod, wants to kill them) and reside as political refugees in Egypt. Central to the story of Christianity is that of displaced people seeking safety and hope in foreign lands, and crucial in God’s ethics towards displaced persons is our responsibility to be hospitable to the stranger in our land.

The_Good_Samaritan_After_Delacroix_-_Vincent_Van_Gogh

Van Gogh’s Good Samaritan

At this point someone might object that for those stories, their movements were ordained by God as part of His story and plan. That is true enough, but it was on account of those stories—and especially the original story of Israel in Egypt—that we receive the clear commandments from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to care for the stranger in our land, irrespective of that stranger’s ethico-religious identity. Whatever the origin of the story, now we have inherited an ethic which governs our treatment of the displaced.

An Uneasy Ethical Balance
This, then, is the heart of our uneasy conversation about Christianity and immigration: on the one hand, we have a clear, Scriptural ethic to care for the stranger, and on the other hand, we have no clear Scriptural ethic about how to be a Christian in a secular nation-state. In light of this, I think the following, provisional conclusions are in order:

1) A Christian perspective does indeed carry ethical obligations toward the immigrant/refugee. If we take the Bible seriously, we must care for the stranger and seek justice for him or her.

2) To the degree that America is, in fact, a Christian nation, then it bears a Christian responsibility toward immigrants/refugees. By implication, Christians should be as pro-immigrant as they are pro-life.

3) To the degree that America is a Christian nation, to that same degree it bears economic, religious, and moral responsibilities as well. This will cover homosexuality and poverty, land reform and honouring the Sabbath.

As I close, let’s acknowledge two crucial factors. First, while conclusion #1 is unambiguous, neither #2 or #3 is in any sense ethically simple. Neither of the premises for #2 or #3 are clear (that America is a Christian nation), therefore the implications are necessarily murky.

But second, I’ve left aside one, looming question: what about illegal immigration? To answer that question, we will have to further consider the role of boundaries and self-identity in secular nation-states. For that discussion, we will need to return next week.