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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When the Holy Meets the Unholy: Ezra and the New Testament

Sorry for the long gap between blog posts!  No, I haven't forgotten about 1st Corynthians.  I've just had to generate so much output for other, non-bloggy things that I haven't had the time left for here.  But I'm bursting with things I want to blog about, so hopefully April will be more content-rich than March.

Now on to the topic for today.  When Ezra the scribe led a second group of Jewish exiles back to Judea, he was immediately confronted with a problem.  "The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands who practice detestable things . . . ," said the Jewish leaders.  "Indeed, they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has become intermingled with the peoples of the lands.  Worse still, the leaders and the officials are at the forefront of all this!" (Ezra 9:1-2).  In order to understand the significance of the problem we need a general understanding of the concept of purity expressed in Scripture as "holiness" and "cleanness."  (The following is heavily influenced by David A. deSilva's Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, which I blogged about in a previous post.)

It's most helpful to think about purity by thinking about dirt.  Dirt is "matter out of place."  For example, if I am gardening and spreading peat moss-enriched topsoil on my flower bed, it is "earth" or "soil."  But if I accidentally track some of it into my house, it becomes "dirt."  What changed?  Not the substance but its location.  Human beings organize our worlds with invisible but extremely powerful definitions of where stuff should be.  Not all human beings or human cultures draw the lines in the same places, but all of us do it somehow.  If something crosses one of those lines, it becomes dirt, and we abhor it.

All religions contain "purity maps" that proceed from the same impulse.  These maps put divine beings at the center and mark everything else, especially us humans, exactly where we can be positioned and not be considered by those divinities as "dirt."  One's holiness is one's position on the map.  A person is born with a particular degree of holiness based on his or her household/clan/caste/tribe/nation, sex, and/or order of birth among his or her siblings.  For Israel, this came to be depicted architecturally by the layout of the temple, particularly according to the reconstruction by Herod the Great.

In the center was the Most Holy Place (Holy of Holies) where only God could dwell, with the exception of the yearly visit of the high priest on the Day of Atonement.  The next level outward was the Holy Place, where other priests occasionally served to burn incense, change the showbread, etc.  The next level outward was the Court of the Priests, where they made sacrifices, and next to that was the Court of the Israelites, where Jewish men who were offering sacrifices entered with their gifts.  The level after that was the Court of Women and the wider court outside it, where all Jewish laity could gather.  Beyond that, separated by a low barrier, was the Court of the Gentiles, where non-Jews who desired to worship the God of Israel could stand and pray.  And we might even extend the topography to the Antonia Fortress just outside the temple complex where the idol-worshiping Roman garrison was stationed.  You notice that each ring of the temple complex corresponded to a type of person.  The further in you could go, the holier you were from the perspective of the God of Israel.  If you look at it from the opposite direction, everybody outside the level of holiness where you stood was considered "common" or ordinary—holiness is specialness, because you can enter where most can't.

A related concept is cleanness.  If holiness defines how close you could be to the Holy One and not be considered "dirt," cleanness describes whether you were allowed at the present moment to function at your level of holiness.  Your holiness was connected to unchangeable characteristics of your identity (such as Levite, Israelite, male, firstborn).  Your cleanness on the other hand came and went.  Everyone was unclean sometimes.  For example, if you touched a dead body (say you were a pallbearer for a relative) then you would be unclean for a week (provided you followed the appropriate purification ritual in Num. 19:11-13).  There was nothing sinful about this (though sinning was also considered to be contracting uncleanness within), but it meant that while you were unclean you couldn't be present in worship at your typical level of holiness.  You temporarily became "dirty."  In fact, you were excluded from the whole worship system until you became clean again, and if you made contact with anyone else you would make that person unclean too (think cooties).

Now one reason it is so useful to conceive of holiness and cleanness—or rather their opposites, commonness and uncleanness—in terms of dirt is what we do with dirt when we find it.  We eradicate it, at the very least pushing it into its proper realm but often trying to annihilate it altogether (think squashing a bug in your house that you would ignore outdoors).  The mental maps humans impose on reality are so powerful that arguably the most dangerous place for any substance on earth is anywhere that a human believes it to be dirt.  God reveals himself as dealing with dirt the same way.  This is why appearing in his presence is so terribly dangerous—one is positioned for imminent obliteration.  (See for example Isaiah's response to his vision that he, a common Israelite, was standing in the Most Holy Place, with "unclean lips" no less.)

It is also useful to think of commonness (vs. holiness) and uncleanness (vs. cleanness) as dirt because the presence of dirt makes things dirty.  It is not that the presence of non-dirt makes things clean.  If a sock comes in contact with soil, the sock becomes dirty; the sock doesn't extend its cleanness to the earth that makes contact with it.  The same is true with holiness and ritual cleanness.  If the holy mixes with the common, it becomes unholy; the holy doesn't elevate the common to holiness.  And as has been said before, if the clean contacts the unclean, the clean becomes unclean, not the other way around.

This leads us back to the problem Ezra faced.  "The people of Israel . . . have not separated themselves from the peoples of the nations who practice detestable things," and as a result the dirty deeds of the nations were by contact defiling God's people and making them unclean.  Furthermore, "they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has become intermingled with the peoples of the lands," and the result of these marriages between the holy and the common were common, unholy children.

This wasn't mere accidental behavior.  Moses' Law made room for marriage between Israelite and Gentile in a particular circumstance: if in war Israel annihilated all men from a community by sword or enslavement and took wives by force.  This is a jarring and rather horrific thing for us to contemplate (which is probably the topic for another post), but the point is that that kind of marriage was compelled from the Israelite direction only.  Any other marriage, particularly in that place and time, was a bilateral negotiation not between two individuals but between two entire families.  These families were wedding themselves to each other through the union of the couple, which is why royal marriages were often used to cement peace treaties between nations.  This is the kind of intermarriage that the returned exiles were engaging in.  The intermarriages were a sign of a close fraternization to the point of union between the people of the Holy One of Israel and the worshipers of pagan deities without number.  To push the point one step further, it was an intermarriage between Yahweh and empty idols and the demonic shadows behind them.

Therefore, when Ezra heard this news, he ripped his tunic, tore out some of the hair on his head and beard, and sat down, dumbstruck and devastated, all day long.  Then at the time of the evening offering he cried out to God for mercy (vv. 3-15).  The Jews had brazenly violated God's explicit commands exactly as they had the first time he had given them, when Moses led Israel out of Egypt toward Canaan.  The persistent willingness of the God's holy people to make themselves unholy, of the people he had cleansed to make themselves filthy, was what led God to treat them like the dirt they insisted on making themselves.  It was for this reason that God had ejected them out of the land he promised them like someone sweeping dust off his or her porch.  And yet, despite all that Israel had done, God still had enough mercy to take a remnant of these defiled people and bring them back for another go.  And yet they went ahead and soiled themselves again—even the holiest among them, the priests!  Ezra was terrified that this time God would not only remove them from the land but wipe them out so that they would cease to be a people at all (v. 14).

As Ezra wept and prayed, a crowd gathered around and joined him.  And in their contrition and desire to repent, they settled on a drastic solution that Ezra administered: they divorced their non-Jewish wives and disowned the children of those unions (10:1-8).  Perhaps if they removed their defilement as much as they could and sincerely pled for forgiveness, God would be willing to spare them and not scour them away again.  It was a shocking move, but if the holy became common and the clean became unclean when the two mixed together as the Law indicated, then it was a perfectly logical course of action.

It was for this very reason that the appearance of Jesus over 400 years later seemed so illogical.  With Jesus, when the holy intermingled with the common, the holy wasn't corrupted; instead, the common was sanctified.  When the clean contacted the unclean, the clean wasn't defiled; rather, the unclean was cleansed.  Simply put, Jesus could not become impure; to the contrary, he purified what he touched.

This contrary pattern began in the incarnation itself when Holy God became united with human nature—sin-affected human nature cursed with mortality no less.  That abhorrent mixture should have polluted God, but instead it redeemed human nature in the very person of the Son of God.  As a matter of fact, Matthew goes out of his way to note four unholy (by ethnicity) or unclean (by behavior) women in Jesus' ancestry, women who were partners in exactly the sort of marriages that made Ezra tear his clothes (Matt. 1:1-17; esp. vv. 3-6).  But their ultimate offspring wasn't unholy—he was the Holy One himself!  Indeed, one might suggest that the Son sanctified his mothers.

The pattern continued in the actions that Jesus took.  In encounter after encounter that in our day we don't immediately see the drama in, Jesus violates norms of purity by physically touching and being touched by people who ought to defile him, with the result that the impure are purified.  Jesus doesn't merely speak the word, "Be healed," to the leper (as he does, for example, for the centurion's slave).  Instead he touches the leper, whose disease causes uncleanness, and says, "Be cleansed."  Then he commands the leper to undergo the appropriate ritual with the priest at the temple according to the Law "for a testimony to them" that a new and superior purification is taking place (Luke 5:12-14).  This entire episode is backwards.  Jesus should have fled from the man whose skin disease was obvious, but the physical contact, rather than infecting Jesus both physically and ritually, results in the purification of the one afflicted.  The offering at the temple is perfunctory—it is simply a sign to those under an old regime of holiness and cleanness, because the actual cleansing has already happened by Jesus' authoritative declaration.  We can multiply examples of this from the Gospels.  Two that particularly jump to mind are the menstruating woman who touched Jesus' garment to be healed (and was mortified when she was discovered, because she had covertly made the entire jostling crowd unclean by contact) and the forgiven, once-immoral woman known to engage in unclean sexual behavior who kissed, anointed, wept on, and wiped Jesus' feet.  You can understand why the Pharisees, the theological descendants of Ezra in 1st-century Judaism, were as vexed about Jesus as Ezra had been about the returned exiles centuries before.

Jesus' example signaled a profound departure from Old Covenant assumptions about purity.  No longer is it a given that the pure are always polluted by the presence of the common and unclean.  God, who in his perfection is under no threat of defilement, has chosen to transgress those boundaries for the purpose of sanctifying and cleansing the human race.  Obviously this stretches in the most profound way to include Christ's saving work on the cross.  The blood of the Perfect One radically and irrevocably makes common people into the holy people of God and cleanses all their moral and ritual filth.  The Old Covenant purification system could not do this.  As the author of Hebrews points out (emphasis mine):
[The Law is] completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, to perfect those who come to worship.  For otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers would have been purified once for all and so have no further consciousness of sin? . . . By [God's] will we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus once for all. . . . For by one offering he perfected for all time those who are made holy (Heb. 10:1-2, 10, 14).
The pattern of purity in Jesus extends still further to his ascension.  Not only did his offering of himself give believers access to the holiest of holy places in heaven where God dwells, but then in his name God gave believers the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the most shocking leap over purity boundaries yet, the Holy One himself now lives inside human beings with mortal flesh and a vicious sinful nature.  But rather than the Holy Spirit's presence vaporizing every body he enters, he actually converts our bodies—and our collective body, the Church—into his holy temples!

The amazing work of God to make the holy/clean transform the unholy/unclean rather than the other way around leads us to a very unusual New Testament parallel with Ezra's situation.  Like Ezra, Paul had to deal with the situation of a holy person married to an unholy spouse.  But Paul's viewpoint was, at least on the surface, completely the opposite of Ezra's:
To the rest I say—I, not the Lord—if a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is happy to live with him, he should not divorce her.  And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is happy to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is sanctified because of the wife, and the unbelieving wife because of her husband.  Otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.  But if the unbeliever wants a divorce, let it take place.  In these circumstances the brother or sister is not bound.  God has called you in peace.  For how do you know, wife, whether you will bring your husband to salvation?  Or how do you know, husband, whether you will bring your wife to salvation? (1 Cor. 7:12-16).
For Ezra, when the holy Jew married the unholy Gentile, the Jew's cleanness was compromised and the children of that union were unholy.  But for Paul, when a holy Christian is married to an unholy unbeliever, the unbelieving spouse is actually sanctified through that union, as are the children that come from it.  Now, there is some question as to what this sanctification is.  We know from what Paul says at the end of the quoted passage that this sanctification is not tantamount to salvation as it is in the Hebrews passage quoted previously.  But perhaps this leads us back to the idea of the Christian's body (and the church generally) as the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Earlier in 1 Corinthians Paul says, "If someone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him.  For God's temple is holy, which is what you are" (3:17).  Because God lives in the believer, God jealously guards that believer.  That includes the believer's body, which of course is still imperfect and shouldn't be fit for a holy God, but he guards it anyway.  In fact, if an unholy person attempts to harm the holy temple of God, imperfect though it is, God will sweep him away as fiercely as he did when the unholy came into his presence in the Old Testament.  (See, e.g., 2 Sam. 6:6-11 for an example of God's anger against someone who breaches the boundary of holiness and yet also blessing for those who abide near it at the proper distance.)  The same appears to be true for the Christian's household.  God is living in that household in the Christian who lives there, and so he considers the household his sacred dwelling, worthy of protection (particularly because the unbelieving spouse has allowed God into it by remaining married to the believer in whom God dwells).

And yet, despite the difference between Paul and Ezra on the subject of holiness in a mixed marriage, there is similarity too.  Ezra's situation involved holy people who chose to become united with the unholy.  Paul's situation involved an unholy person who became holy through the work of Christ after being married.  When Paul turns to the subject of a holy Christian considering marriage, however, he draws the same line that Ezra does: "A wife is bound as long as her husband is living.  But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes (only someone in the Lord)" (1 Cor. 7:39).  A holy person mustn't willingly choose to be united with the unholy.  Paul states this strongly and unequivocally in a profound passage that doesn't just relate to marriage but to any wide-ranging, settled alignment of purpose between believers and unbelievers:
Do not become partners with those who do not believe, for what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship does light have with darkness?  And what agreement does Christ have with Beliar?  Or what does a believer share in common with an unbeliever?  And what mutual agreement does the temple of God have with idols?  For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, "I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."  Therefore, "come out from their midst and be separate," says the Lord, "and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters," says the All-Powerful Lord.  Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).
Here we see the paradox of holiness in the New Testament.  In the Old Testament it was simple: when the holy/clean touches the common/unclean, the holy/clean is defiled.  The New Testament is more complex.  On the one hand we have the example of God himself in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, who flagrantly transgress all normal purity boundaries and rather than be defiled, they transform what they touch.  In at least some circumstances (such as a converted spouse), the same thing operates through believers too.  On the other hand, we see here in 2 Corinthians that it is still possible for a holy person to be defiled by contact with the unholy.  How do we sort this out?

Well, despite that this is a cliché answer, it seems to be that we must be "in the world but not of it," which is a paraphrase of what Jesus prayed on behalf of his disciples:
I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. . . . I have given them your word, and the world has hated them, because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them safe from the evil one.  They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world.  Set them apart [sanctify them] in your truth; your word is truth.  Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.  And I set myself apart on their behalf, so that they too may be truly set apart (John 17:11, 14-19).
Jesus makes clear that he has sent his disciples to be in the world and transform it with the truth exactly as Jesus did.  Their presence in the world wouldn't automatically defile them; instead, they would effect change in the world.  However, they were not to be like the world they were in, and for this reason they would be resisted and hated by the world under Satan.  Notice how Jesus employs the language of holiness here: "Set them apart/sanctify them," just as Jesus himself is sanctified and set apart even though he is "God with us."

This goes right along with guidance that Paul gives the church at Corinth (notice how often they pop up in this investigation of holiness?).  A member of that church was sleeping with his father's wife, and Paul insists that they must discipline him by excluding him if he refused to repent.  He concludes,
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people.  In no way did I mean the immoral people of this world, or the greedy and swindlers and idolaters, since you would then have to go out of the world.  But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler.  Do not even eat with such a person.  For what do I have to do with judging those who are outside?  Are you not to judge those inside?  But God will judge those outside.  Remove the evil person from among you (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
Notice how Paul makes clear that he has no intention of gathering the church into a "holy huddle" that has no contact with the outside world.  The church is not defiled by contact with the world but rather is the means by which the world becomes sanctified.  However, if the church tolerates worldly, unclean behavior within itself, then it does become defiled and risks the judgment of the Holy One (cf. Rev. 2:12-29).  The defiling element must be purged.

This is the very same way that Jesus and the apostles describe individual holiness and cleanness.  Jesus said,
"Don't you understand that whatever goes into a person from the outside cannot defile him?  For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer."  (This means all foods are clean.)  He said, "What comes out of a person defiles him.  For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly.  All these evils come from within and defile a person" (Mark 7:18-23).
A clean person, like a clean church, doesn't become unclean by contact with the unclean on the outside.  He or she becomes unclean by the unclean things that are already inside and leak out.  (For comparison, note my earlier post on keeping the Law within.)  Likewise, interacting with an immoral person doesn't defile the Christian, just like it didn't defile Jesus.  But when a Christian develops intimate ties with an immoral person, the immoral person's influence reveals the unholy motives, values, and agenda that were already lurking inside the professed believer.  This is the resolution of the New Testament paradox of purity.  The world itself cannot defile us, nor can the people in the world.  But the lusts in our sinful nature that are titillated by the world and its people can make us impure, and when indulged, they do.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Two Yeshuas and the Samaritans

This is the first post of a short series exploring how the Jews who returned from exile in Babylon to their homeland dealt with the non-Jews who surrounded them as depicted in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  We'll see similar themes throughout, but because I have to start somewhere I'm going to proceed through chronologically beginning with Ezra 4:1-5.

Ezra 1-6 (except for a "flashforward" in 4:6-23) describes the first return of Jews to what would be called Judea and the beginning of rebuilding the temple during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus (Kurush) and then the completion of the building during the reign of Darius (Darayavahush) I.  When they settled in Judea, the returned exiles reestablished the temple site as the place of worship and built an altar there (3:1-6).  The following year they started the reconstruction by acquiring materials and organizing themselves (3:7-9) and by laying the foundation of the temple (3:10-13).  When other inhabitants of the area saw what the Jews were doing, they wanted to participate, so they talked to the two chief leaders of the project, Jeshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, who later succeeded Sheshbazzar as the local governor of the Jews under the authority of the governor of the province "beyond the River [Euphrates]" (which comprised the territory extending eastward from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean).

The Jews' neighbors phrased their request, "Let us help you build, for like you we seek your God and we have been sacrificing to him from the time of King Esarhaddon of Assyria, who brought us here" (4:2).  Apparently these folks had a lot in common with the Jews, right?  Zerubbabel and Jeshua didn't think so; they replied, "You have no right to help us [or, 'We have nothing to do with each other to'] build the temple of our God.  We will build it by ourselves for the LORD God of Israel, just as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, has commanded us" (v. 3).

Why so harsh?  What was the problem?  Well, the Jews' neighbors had indeed been making sacrifices to Yahweh, but not exclusively.  They were worshiping Yahweh as part of a whole pantheon of gods.  After the kingdom of Israel (the northern half of the entire Israelite people in contrast to the southern kingdom called Judah) was annihilated and many of its people were deported by the Assyrian Empire, the Assyrian King Esarhaddon eventually relocated other people from elsewhere in his empire to Israel.  These immigrants were being eaten by lions sent by Yahweh, so to appease "the god of the land" the new arrivals started to worship him too (2 Kings 17:24-41).  So though their descendants 150 years later were indeed worshiping Yahweh, their worship and probably even knowledge of him was not in accord with the laws God had given Israel through Moses, most notably in that they were worshiping other gods right alongside them.

Jeshua, Zerubbabel, and the rest of the leaders were rightly wary of allowing these folks to join them in building the temple.  Israel's relentless tendency since meeting God in the Exodus was to worship Yahweh while worshiping other gods in idol form at the same time.  Their persistence in this practice was what led God to exile them in the first place as he had first warned centuries before.  They knew that serving shoulder to shoulder with these worshipers of other gods would lead them right back down that road.

And yet I can't help but suspect that Jeshua and Zerubbabel's response was overkill.  Because even though God was crystal clear in his Word about the danger of fraternizing with worshipers of other gods, he also told Israel to expect that other nations would come to them asking to worship the True God with them (e.g., Isa. 2:1-4).  That looks like what the Jews' neighbors, at least some of them, may have been doing here.  This may have been a pregnant opportunity to teach the ignorant nations the truth about Yahweh that the Jews wasted out of a legitimate but disproportionate concern for the purity of their worship.

Ironically, the Jews' ability to worship Yahweh in purity was impaired as a result of them spurning their neighbors.  Jealous and enraged, the non-Jews intimidated the Jews and bribed officials close to the successive kings of Persia to withdraw and withhold their support for the Jews' project, and construction of the temple lapsed for 14 years.  The hostility escalated from there.  About three quarters of a century after Ezra 4:1-5 took place, the Jewish scribe Ezra led Jewish men to divorce their Gentile wives and disown their children from those marriages (which I'll discuss in my next post).  One can only imagine the seething resentment those children had toward Jews once they grew up.  In the days of Nehemiah there was the threat of physical violence from the Jews' neighbors, some of whom were the descendants of those rejected by Jeshua and Zerubbabel.  Back in Ezra 4:1 we see the original party in the dispute introduced as "the enemies of Judah and Benjamin."  Without a doubt they were enemies after they heard Jeshua and Zerubbabel's response, not to mention when Ezra recorded the history a few generations after it happened, but I wonder if they were enemies from the start and if they had to be.

Four centuries later, the descendants of those who had been relocated to the old northern kingdom of Israel were known as Samaritans, and the enmity between them and the Jews had continued to simmer through all that time.  By then the Samaritans' religion was much closer to Judaism, but it still had some of its own quirks.  This hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans frames the ministry of a second High Priest Yeshua who appeared on the scene.  ("Jeshua" and "Jesus" are different transliterations of the same name, "Yeshua.")  Jesus took an entirely different approach from Jeshua and Zerubbabel.  He responds with grace when a Samaritan town refuses him hospitality.  He tells a story to a Jewish legal scholar in which a Samaritan is the model of adherence to the Law.  He converses with a Samaritan woman whose sexual promiscuity recalls her ancestors' spiritual promiscuity, asserting that though the Jews have the facts from God, a day had already begun in which pure worship would be defined by Spirit and truth and could be entered into by anyone.  And because he considers the residents of this woman's town part of the harvest that the Father gave him to reap, he stays there and many more believe in him.  So it isn't surprising that some time after Jesus' ascension to the Father unholy, heterodox Samaritans would hear the gospel and believe and receive the Holy Spirit with power.

The contrast between the two Yeshuas' responses to the Samaritans seems to me to be a sort of parable of the tension between purity and mercy, two essential but paradoxical virtues that God wants us to exhibit.  Jeshua and his contemporaries leaned all the way towards protecting their purity and made scant attempt to show mercy to seekers ignorant of the truth (the indication of an exception perhaps being Ezra 6:21).  By contrast, Jesus was able to show mercy to Samaritans without his purity being tainted in the slightest.  We'll look at how Jesus was able to do this along with the nature of purity and holiness next time.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Self-Interview about Same-Sex Marriage (3)

I sat down with myself recently and asked myself some questions about same-sex marriage (part 3 of 3).

Do you think you will prevent same-sex marriage from becoming a legal and accepted part of American life?

Lately, no.  The fight has ebbed and flowed with each side trading the momentum and the upper hand.  We are still a significant distance from same-sex marriage being recognized in a widespread way in the United States.  But the trends are pointing in that direction.  I've observed a few things lately that don't really mean much of themselves but are indicators of our current trajectory.  (1) A Pew poll shows increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage since 1996 with fewer than 50% (though still a plurality) opposing it now.  (2) Apple's rejection of the Manhattan Declaration app (which I previously blogged about), labeling it "defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited or likely to expose the targeted group to harm or violence" and "objectionable and potentially harmful to others," and the almost total lack of media coverage of this story.  (3) The Obama administration's recent decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court.  (4) An unusually bold comment by a conservative-leaning pundit I highly respect, David Brooks, that, though he "worr[ies] about a president not defending a law that's on the books," nevertheless, "on the substance I certainly agree with his position.  I think he's moving toward the right position . . . maybe moving a little too slowly, and too slowly for the country, [for] which I think this is becoming a nonissue."

So why do you continue to speak against it?

Well, for one thing, it ain't over till the fat lady sings.  As I said, this controversy has gone back and forth, and I don't know what's going to happen next.  So what I write and say might still have a tiny influence.  There could also be game-changers that we haven't foreseen yet.  For instance, the huge turnout of blacks and Hispanics in California to elect President Obama in 2008 also contributed to the ballot initiative to amend the California Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman the same year.  Demographic changes because of immigration—especially if immigration reform is passed that allows many illegal immigrants to become citizens—could dramatically reshape the landscape on this issue.

But the main reason that I speak is that one job of a Christian, particularly a preacher, is to be a witness to truth.  God appointed the prophet Ezekiel to be like a watchman, someone who foresees impending danger and shouts a warning.  God made clear to Ezekiel that if someone chose not to heed Ezekiel's warning he was responsible for his own fate.  But if Ezekiel saw the danger and did not warn the people, then their death was Ezekiel's responsibility.  As it turned out, the people were destined not to heed Ezekiel's warning, but that did not make his prophecies useless.  When the disaster came, there was a witness that it had come as a result of rebellion against God's law, not just military failure or political mismanagement.  Perhaps someday we will be in a similar position, and the things that believers say now will ultimately point people to God and turn them to him.  That would be a great thing, even if it is very unpleasant getting there.

What will you do if same-sex marriage becomes legal and mainstream?

Well, I will continue to maintain the standards I always maintain for the marriages I perform, whatever the consequences happen to be.  I probably won't talk about it a whole lot, because there are other, bigger fish to fry, but I will maintain my position when it comes up.  I expect to continue to hold to it even if younger generations of Christians think I'm a judgmental stick in the mud.  If a government illegally restricts my freedom of religion on these grounds, I'll submit to being arrested.  But I also want to be open to being corrected from the Word of God if in fact I've confused what the Lord has said with what I think.

So, do you have any hope for your position?

I have hope in something even more powerful.  I have hope in the kingdom of God.  I have hope that Christ will return and take sovereign authority over the whole world and set it up the way he wants it.  I have hope that as I preach that message, people will believe and be saved on that great day.  And I have hope that nothing can stop that.  No one has ever lived in a community with perfect laws.  Though a community will thrive in part because of how perfect its laws are, the community of my primary citizenship does have perfect governance and cannot be overcome by any other.  I don't need to live in an ideal state to be happy, because in Christ I already live there, and I always will.  And I am confident that more and more people will by God's grace opt to live there too no matter what our earthly communities become.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Self-Interview about Same-Sex Marriage (2)

I sat down with myself recently and asked myself some questions about same-sex marriage (part 2 of 3).

Who are you to tell someone who they can or can't marry?

I'm no one to tell anyone who they can or can't marry.  I can't force my beliefs on anyone, and I don't intend to try.  Because in fact, this very day anyone can consider themselves married to anyone they want.  If you are committed to your partner, and your partner is committed to you, and you pledge your lives to each other, even having someone to officiate a ceremony that says as much, and you consider yourselves married, no one can prevent you from doing that.  This is a free country, meaning that we recognize our inability to make anyone believe or not believe one thing or another.  So if you want to marry someone of the same sex, you can go right ahead.

But of course, this is not what proponents of same-sex marriage want.  It's not so much that they want for people to be able to marry others of the same sex; it's that they want such a marriage to be recognized by society at large both in general opinion and through the laws of the state.  This instinct is appropriate, because marriage is a public institution that is woven deeply into the life of every community.  A marriage not recognized widely as a marriage does lack a degree of integrity.  Nevertheless, since what proponents of same-sex marriage are looking for is recognition of these marriages by society at large, it is they who are trying to force their beliefs on other people.  I can't make someone who wants to pledge themselves in marriage to someone of the same sex not do so.  But some are trying to make me recognize a same-sex union as equivalent to an opposite-sex one as a member of a society organized around marriage in innumerable ways (tax law, for example).

So, I'm no one to tell someone who they can or can't marry.  But who is anyone to tell me what marriage I must or must not recognize?

How does disallowing same-sex marriage not violate the basic principle of equality under the law secured in our national and state constitutions?

Well, since I'm not a constitutional lawyer, I shouldn't get too deep into this, because I know enough to know that I don't really know what I'm talking about here.  But my basic answer, going back to the first question, is that every person in this country of requisite age may marry someone who is not a close relative.  It's just that "to marry" means by definition "to become joined in covenantal, sexual union with a member of the opposite sex."  As I said before, that's what marriage is.  Everyone has the right to do that.  To argue that some do not have their equal right to marry because they want to marry their same-sex partner is like arguing that some do not have their equal right to assembly because they want to assemble all alone.  It turns inside out the meaning of the words "assemble" and "marry."

But deep down, we already know this.  I just mentioned that we restrict marriage to people who are old enough and who aren't marrying a close relative.  We also restrict marriage to people who aren't currently married to someone else and who intend to marry a human being.  We place all these restrictions on marriage because we believe that anyone who enters into a marriage otherwise hasn't really entered it—it isn't real.  Until recently, marrying someone of the opposite sex was considered everywhere to be one of those requirements, but in any case, this way of restricting marriage to what is really marriage is not new.

Is keeping same-sex marriage illegal part of an agenda to make homosexual practice itself illegal or to discriminate against homosexuals?

Not for me.  Now, as I stated before, I do believe that homosexual practice is immoral.  And I also want to distinguish carefully between homosexual practice and homosexual desire.  A person may make choices that increase or decrease their amount of homosexual desire over the long term, but I recognize that they may not be able to do anything about the existence of homosexual desire within them.  That may truly be outside their control.  We can't be responsible for such desires.  But we are responsible for whether and how we act on our desires.  This is what I mean by homosexual practice, and I do believe that acting to gratify this desire is morally wrong.

But "morally wrong" does not necessarily mean "illegal."  It's grossly impractical and arguably itself wrong to make every wrong thing illegal.  I mean, when I lose my temper at someone when I'm driving, that's morally wrong.  Do we have the capacity or will within the court system to prosecute people for that consistently?  And how do we go about proving that someone has done something wrong within their thoughts, which only God can see clearly?

Even when it comes to physical actions, the law isn't always the best way of handling things.  Theologian David Wells described it this way.  There are some things that we generally agree are both wrong and dangerous to others.  This falls into the category of law.  Then there are other things that we generally agree are right and are good for the world.  These things we certainly don't want to prohibit.  But there's a gray area in between of things that we believe (perhaps not as widely) are wrong and potentially harmful, but these things are more situational, complicated, and/or private.  We don't think they should happen, at least not all the time or in every circumstance, but the law is too blunt an instrument to sort out what's right and what's not or impossible to be enforced fairly across the board.  This is the realm of virtue, where we hope that in place of people avoiding the wrong thing because it's against the law, they will avoid it because it offends their honor and their interior sense of what is right and wrong.

Every generation to some degree renegotiates what behaviors fall into each of these three categories.  In a prior era, homosexual practice fell into the realm of law.  Then it moved into the realm of virtue as sodomy laws ceased to be enforced.  Now some argue that it should move into the realm of what is altogether good.  I don't think it should go there.  But I don't think it should fall under law again either.  In other words, I don't think homosexual behavior should be criminalized.

Likewise, I don't think that homosexuals should be discriminated against in day-to-day life.  Otherwise, we would have to discriminate against everyone who does wrong but legal things, which means we would have to discriminate against all of ourselves, which means we would treat ourselves all the same, which means that we wouldn't be discriminating at all.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Self-Interview about Same-Sex Marriage (1)

I sat down with myself recently and asked myself some questions about same-sex marriage (part 1 of 3).

Do you believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, and why or why not?

The heart of the Christian perspective on marriage generally is Matthew 19:3-9, which in turn is Jesus' meditation on Genesis 1:26-27; 2:18-25.  In this passage, Jesus is asked by Jewish legal scholars whether it is legit to divorce one's wife for any reason—their argument is that when Moses gave the legal stipulations for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 he didn't put conditions on them.  Jesus' reply is that Moses' law came later as a concession to "your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way."  Rather, God's plan in the beginning was that "a man . . . will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh," since indeed, the first woman was made from the rib removed from the first man's body, and their union in marriage is the reunion of the two halves of humanity into one whole, a reunion recapitulated in every marriage since.

This is all interesting and relevant stuff, but what's really interesting is Jesus' dictum, "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."  The key words here are, "What God has joined together."  When a marriage is made, God is the one who makes it; God "joins together."  Marriage is God's invention, God's definition, and God is the one who makes it happen.  The two spouses must be willing, in traditional settings the families must be supportive, the state typically gives its acknowledgment, and for religious people a member of the clergy facilitates the ceremony.  But neither the spouses nor the families nor the state nor the clergyperson make the marriage.  Mysteriously, God joins them together.

On the one hand, it is accurate to say that traditional Christian teaching forbids same-sex marriage because marriage is (or ought to be) an intrinsically sexual relationship, and homosexual activity (i.e., acting for gratification on same-sex attraction) is defined in the Bible as a sin.  But it is just as accurate to say that Christian teaching forbids same-sex marriage because there is no such thing as same-sex marriage.  If God is the one who defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman (see my analysis of biblical polygamy if you must), and if God is the one who makes marriages happen, even for those who don't know he exists, then no one else has the power to alter his definition or make marriages.  So even if two partners of the same sex love each other deeply and pledge their lives to each other, even if their families support it, even if the state legitimates it, and even if a clergyperson officiates it, it still isn't a marriage because God didn't make it.  Christians maintain that "same-sex marriage" is like "square circle," a self-contradiction, a logical impossibility.  Just because someone says there is such a thing doesn't mean there really is.  That doesn't mean that two people of the same sex are unable to love each other faithfully for the rest of their lives.  It just means that that life-long love isn't a marriage.

So I oppose legitimizing same-sex marriage not so much because such a thing shouldn't happen as because such a thing can't happen.  And my opposition is based on an assumption that since God created stuff, if people function in accordance with his definitions of stuff, then things will go better than if they don't.  It's like if I operate my car in accordance with the owner's manual then it will run better for longer than if I rewrite the manual the way I like it and expect that the car itself will reflect my wishes.  Legitimizing same-sex marriage is an attempted societal revision of natural law we didn't write and are unable to rewrite, and we put ourselves at unknown risks by pretending to.

Is there any argument against same-sex marriage that doesn't come from a religious source or worldview?

As a matter of fact, there are such arguments.  One is an argument from evolution.  If marriage was not instituted by God, then it evolved along with the human race.  A foundational principle of evolution is that new forms last and multiply when they equip organisms better for survival in a dangerous world with limited resources.  The existence of this social institution called marriage, then, as we have known it to this point, has assisted our survival as a species generally and of the bloodlines of those who have entered into it specifically.  It is possible that legitimizing same-sex marriage is a further evolution that will enhance our species' chances of survival.  It is also possible that this would be a harmful mutation that hurts our chances.  The only way to know will be many generations down the line when we can compare the strength of societies with the mutation and those without.  Of course, by that time it will be much too late to do anything about it if this evolution of marriage turns out to be the devolution of marriage.

An argument that follows similar lines is the observation that same-sex marriage has very rarely been known in the history of the world, including among societies (e.g., ancient Greece) that routinely engaged in homosexual activity.  So we're comparing the argument of those who favor legitimizing same-sex marriage today with the overwhelmingly larger number of those who oppose it or knew no such thing both today and in all human generations past.  Now, let me make something very clear: a principle is not wrong just because it's believed in by a minority, even a tiny minority.  A tiny minority might be the only group that has it right (in fact, Christianity itself has often been in this position).  However, this situation does suggest caution.  At the very least, to take an arrogant stance that those in favor of legitimizing same-sex marriage are enlightened and those who oppose it are cretins is to set oneself up as one of the far less than 1% wisest human beings who has ever lived.  That may be true, but it's quite a claim to back up.

Another argument has to do with the sociological benefits of marriage as we have known it.  Numerous studies document superior outcomes (in life expectancy, education, earning power, etc.) for children who were raised in the household of their married parents.  There is a strong case to be made that marriage is one of the greatest health- and wealth-generating things we know.  Some critics' opposition to same-sex marriage is founded on a belief that redefining marriage in that way will weaken it within society across the board, not extend its benefits to more people.

In places that have already allowed same-sex marriage, the world hasn't come to an end, so what's the big deal?

I think that anyone who believes that the effects of same-sex marriage for good or ill would appear within a few years of its legitimization is quite naive.

Let me illustrate it this way.  A massive earthquake on the ocean floor can trigger a tsunami that devastates a coastline hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  The cause of the destruction and its effect are widely separated in both distance and time; in fact, without global seismic observation and communication, we would never know that one was connected to the other.  Likewise, the most powerful, profound, and irreversible effects come from causes that are widely separated from them in time and even space.  For example, when production began in England and America during the Industrial Revolution, they didn't know that as a result our global temperature would increase faster than the natural rate and threaten our world itself.

In the same way, we just don't know what the results of same-sex marriage would be.  But it is safe to say that if we tinker with the fundamental social unit of human civilization, there will be enormous and profound consequences.  Few if any of us will be around to see those consequences, but it is also safe to say that if our descendants want to undo our decision, they won't be able to.