Abandoning Caution for Chaos…

“You have burned the bridges to naïveté, and there is no more turning back.”[1]

This quotation was shared with me and 20-some other seminarians my first night of classes at Fox in 2013. At the time, reading this quote was relieving. I had spent several years either remaining silent in church over “controversial” issues out of fear of being ostracized or picked small things to challenge because I felt safe enough to get a point across without being labeled a “heretic” or “false teacher.” The only places I found where I could truly express my thoughts were with a couple people who had similar experiences with evangelical churches. Knowing that at seminary, I’d not only be free to ask questions and explore the theological fringes, but in fact it was a necessity, was comforting.

Honestly, I think seminary provided a space where my faith could breathe.

In the month I’ve been out of seminary, though, it hasn’t quite been the same. In a lot of ways, it feels like the world I left behind when I went to seminary – a world of unhealthy boundaries where you can ask questions insofar as you don’t disrupt the structure. Theological discussions regarding male headship are allowed, only if they’re led by men and everyone comes to agreement with the previously established hierarchy. Change is a curse word in this world. Justice is something that describes God, but strangely not those who bear God’s image. It’s a world that sings “Come as you are,” but closes its doors to entire LGTBQ communities. It prays for the safety of police officers, but not for the healing of or the justice for Tamir Rice’s family. It’s a world of long sermons, but minimal action.

When I encountered my first “controversy” with the evangelical world, I encountered a particular phrase again and again. My question was something like, “Can we still be Christians without believing the Bible is perfect?” Compared to the questions I encountered in seminary, this was harmless. But it rocked the boat too much for many people, so, in the attempt to sound “engaged” (it’s one of those “relevant” buzzwords, right?), they often said, “Well, I would rather err on the side of caution.”

This is one of the key phrases used to guard communities from unbelief, from falling away from Christ – as if one is incapable of asking questions that challenge hierarchical systems and remain a devout follower of Christ; as if Christ wasn’t already doing that when he quoted Isaiah 61 and declared that he was setting the captives free.[2] This phrase is used in a world that believes as long as it operates “by what the Bible says,” it can never take part in the oppression of others. What this world would learn if it ventured across that proverbial bridge is that the church has a long and terrible history of being on the side of the oppressor. And that this little phrase is often used to justify oppression against women, blacks, Indians, gays, lesbians, queers, bisexuals, transgender people, Muslims, or basically anyone who isn’t a cishet, white, male Christian.[3]

What happens, though, when these “other” identities get labeled as “heretical” is that the humanity of those who bear the same amount of God’s image as the cishet, white, male Christians gets erased. Look at the way many white Christians have reacted to Muhammad Ali’s death. Instead of saying that he was a powerful figure for black and Muslim communities, they say he “transcended race.” We’re still waiting for this to be said regarding any white celebrity.

My point is simply that remaining on the side of caution when it comes to “controversial issues” is not good news for the marginalized. It’s deadly. Suicide, genocide, and outright murder have faced and still face many marginalized groups – precisely because it is believed that helping them wouldn’t be erring on the side of caution. It would risk something. But when I read what Jesus does, it seems apparent to me that risk is part of the deal – part of considering the cost of following him.

“Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before them all, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”[4]

Your Bible probably has a footnote for this passage because it actually doesn’t appear in a lot of the early Greek manuscripts that scholars have today. The footnote in the beloved ESV Study Bible even says it “should not be considered as part of Scripture,” (pg. 2039). But it certainly gets treated as Scripture when Christians want to focus on the “sinful woman.” Notice how they don’t bring the man with whom the woman was caught in adultery before Jesus. They only brought her. Notice also Jesus using his status – his privilege – to dispense her accusers. The text doesn’t say so, but it seems likely that they had stones in hand when they brought her to Jesus. By not erring on the side of caution by following Moses’s command, Jesus may very well have been risking his life.

Jesus’s gospel gets treated as the most exciting thing ever. Sure, it is good news. But in certain contexts, one has to ask, “Good news for whom?” If embracing the gospel of Jesus means rejecting one’s sexuality, gender identity, or cultural expression, then it is not good news for everyone. If it means not calling out the white supremacist undertone in governmental structures, then it is not good news for everyone. And if it means not questioning the theological justification of “discovering” America (rather than embracing the Logos – the expression of God’s presence – within the Indigenous cultures already here), then it is not good news for everyone.

Following Jesus’s teachings is risky business. And nothing is risked when one “errs on the side of caution.” Instead, oppressive systems already in place simply continue on. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest enemy to equality wasn’t the KKK; it was the moderate whites who wanted to err on the side of caution. Their silence meant his imprisonment. In what areas are we being cautious? In what areas are we dehumanizing marginalized groups? Following Jesus means asking these questions because it is in the answers that we discover how the gospel can truly be for everyone.

In these post-seminary days, I’m encountering the challenge of abandoning naïveté by taking a risk with God. In some ways, my life might not be at stake. But someone else’s might be.

I think Jesus would want me to make sure they don’t feel alone.


[1] David Scholer. I wrote a post close to when seminary began, which you can read here.

[2] Luke 4:16-21.

[3] “cis” is an abbreviation of “cisgender,” which merely means that one identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth; “het” is an abbreviation for heterosexual.

[4] John 8: 2-11.

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Because of Jesus…

Some may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging as much lately. I wish I could blame it all on the workload of being a full-time seminarian mixed with a couple of part-time jobs, but the reality is all of that busy-ness actually makes me want to blog more. Of course, it doesn’t suddenly create the time to do so, but nevertheless the desire to blog isn’t the reason I haven’t blogged.

Honestly, my lack of blogging is due more to the fact that there are heavier things to blog about. For example, this summer I took American Church History with one Professor Randy Woodley and while we would read speeches from Martin Luther King Jr., a news story would break about how another black individual (or nine individuals at a Bible study) was killed at the hands of white men (usually police officers). Or when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages must be recognized in every state, how quickly many Christians responded with messages of mourning and lament even though the founders of many of the conservative institutions fought for equality of all. In those situations, my words would not do much to improve any situation or to lessen the pain within these communities. All anyone who is not directly involved can do is draw attention to the voices who are directly involved.

And basically that’s what I have been doing: re-tweeting and sharing the voices who have been speaking against injustice in these arenas as well as others. But sometimes that doesn’t seem to be enough. Sometimes it seems as though my friends on Facebook or Twitter won’t pay any attention to what I share because they don’t believe racism exists or they believe a “biblical marriage” has a simple, straight-forward definition contrary to what the Supreme Court thinks. What does it take for these perspectives not to be changed entirely, but to be challenged a little and given the space to think or process for themselves? What is needed in order for the voices of the slain black men, women, and children at the hands of police to be heard? What is it going to take to value each other’s life equally?

I will not even begin to pretend to have the answers, but I have a few hopes. One hope is that we would de-politicize these issues so that we might have a little more room to talk. Both Republicans and Democrats can be (and often are) seen as the enemy – as the group that is trying to ruin the country. Our political atmosphere has long been removed from the realm of equal dialogue and sharing of perspectives because it has become so fused with the need to beat one’s opponent that we’re reluctant to admit where we have agreements – or even worse, where our political parties are actually wrong. Removing the politics from the discussion enables for voices to be heard.

Which leads to my second hope: that we would de-politicize these issues so that we might have room to listen. This is by far the most important aspect of removing the political labels because in either political party the people who are less likely to be heard are the underprivileged black, Latino/a, Native, LGBTQ, and female voices. So the opposite of these categories – the cisgender, heterosexual, white male – is primarily the one who desperately needs to listen. But the same challenge can extend to others who are not this category and yet retain some aspect of privilege. For example, I’m not white, but I am a cisgender, heterosexual male, so in conversations revolving around sexuality or how women are treated, I desperately need to shut my mouth and listen. It doesn’t mean I can’t ask questions, but it does mean that I better spend more time listening than asking.

And this leads to my third hope: that we would sweat it out as we listen. Randy Woodley challenged the class with this idea in an (unpublished?) article he wrote, but the idea is basically that when it comes to “sitting at the conversation table,” we must remain seated as our privileges are exposed. And yes, we may even be guilty of abusing these privileges, in which case it is even more imperative that we remain seated and sweat it out. If we are seeking to be true allies and help those who are underprivileged, then we can’t say that we’ll listen and get up from the table after five minutes because we got too uncomfortable or we found the words directed at us to be offensive. Here’s the thing: if we are privileged, then we are not in the right to be “offended” when this privilege is called out. We’re merely experiencing what happens when our privileges are removed. So if you’re white and hearing about “white privilege” for the first time, remember that it is not racism to call out the dominant race for the systems their ancestors put in place that subordinate other races. Like John Metta talks about, race is a difficult topic because it is almost always centered around white feelings. We must sweat it out when our privileges are called out.

When all of the above is implemented, then comes one more hope: that the privileged do not suddenly become the leaders/experts in the issues of the underprivileged. An example comes from male feminists or white guys in the Black Lives Matter movement: they read a book by a feminist woman or hear a sermon from a black preacher about police brutality and think they ought to take up the leadership of those causes. This is not how systemic oppression changes. It is merely the reincarnation of the same systemic oppressions with new masks of equality. So when a man points out his own feminist leanings and proceeds to take over a conversation, that man then undermines his feminist values (because feminism seeks the equality of all specifically by focusing on the inequality of women). So yes, this means that I cannot take over the discussion about women’s equality; we must empower the underprivileged to have equal footing as the privileged.

Some may not find any of this to be in accordance with Christian values, but the truth is that it has been my faith in Christ that has led me to all of these issues (and for what it’s worth, treating them only as “issues” is a privilege in and of itself). It was Jesus who led me to feminism and womanism. It was Jesus who led me to accept the marriages of the LGBTQ community as God ordained. It was the suffering and lynching of Jesus that led me to lament the suffering and lynches of the black community (yes, when a black child is shot dead for playing with a toy gun, that is a lynching). It was Jesus who taught me that every person was made in the image of God. All that I have been challenged with is really expanding my definition of what God looks like.

Even with this brief outline of why these things matter to me, I am drained. Why? Because it is quite likely that as I have written these words, someone in the U.S. has been killed because they’re black, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, Native, Mexican, Muslim, a woman, or some combination of these. Or some prominent Christian leader has said another racist thing about people he does not understand or care that much about to begin with (*cough, cough* Franklin Graham *cough, cough*). With as much as I could write about these issues, change still seems incredibly far off. But that does not mean that I can not hope in God who has poured the Spirit into us through Jesus of Nazareth.

May we all find the courage to follow where the Spirit leads and end oppression.

God bless.

Halfway Assessment: Reflections on How Seminary Has Changed Me…

A little over a week ago I found out that I am now up for candidacy assessment, which all (or most?) at George Fox Seminary who are reaching the midway point of their programs must undergo. It essentially evaluates how well or not well I’m handling my courses, whether or not I’m growing in a healthy way spiritually, and then ultimately it decides if I’m up to the task of finishing. From all of what I have read about it thus far, it’s a simple means of determining whether or not my degree program is benefitting me and those around me. It is such a weird feeling to be nearly halfway done with a pursuit that I began a little over a year ago.

Part of the assessment asks how my theology has changed over the duration of my time at George Fox. This was a tough question to answer mostly because we’re supposed to keep our words few and our meaning specific, but also because I am not sure whether it is better defined as a theological shift – a change in what I believe – or as a coagulation of things that I believed in part – undercurrent beliefs or questions long held, but merely affirmed throughout my time in seminary.

For example, I believe that women can and ought to be on the forefront of ministerial leadership, which includes being the head pastor of a church, but is not limited to that. Even if Adam and Eve were truly the first humans, Eve – as the supposed model for all women – is the co-helper with Adam and vice versa. Women being placed beneath men is a consequence of humanity’s break with God, which was then mended in and through Christ, rendering there to be “no longer Jew or Greek, … slave or free, … male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[1] When we treat and value women as equally capable leaders and thinkers, we are ushering in the new creation that Christ has established.

I believe that calling God “Father” is not a terrible thing to do, but that there are plenty of shortcomings in taking this label – as really with any label – further to attribute “masculine” characteristics back onto God. There are also shortcomings with calling God “Mother” as well, which only means that any label we would like to give God that depends solely on modern terminology (or even dated terminology) will only wind up leaving us with a God in our own image – or the image we would like God to be in. This is not to say we create God in our own image when we call God Father or Mother, but to say that we must always allow God to be God – transcendent beyond gender, time, and material, yet embedded deeply and relentlessly active within each. God is much larger than our simple regurgitations of our pastors’ favorite theologians.

I believe our understanding of sexuality from the lens of Scripture is exceedingly limited – particularly with homosexuality. Declaring heterosexuality the norm based on a text from a time period where loving, caring, homosexual relationships were practically non existent (at the very least, not attested for) – where in fact homosexual acts were a means of expressing dominance – is stifling the voices of the LGTBQ community before they’re even given a chance to speak. At that point, we are no longer bullying them; we’re dehumanizing them.

Lastly, and not at all of least importance, I believe that racism is still alive and manifests itself in many realms and on many levels. The people of Ferguson, Missouri and their reaction to the killing of unarmed Michael Brown is but a taste of what many marginalized races have been feeling for God knows how long. And, most importantly, this is not to harmonize all races – that because they have the same struggle, they must have the same story. This is profoundly not true. The story of the Native American people – my own heritage – is not the same as the African-American people nor the same as the African, Korean, Afghan, Palestinian or any other marginalized people’s story. Loving one’s neighbor, particularly in this context, is not standing idly by while fellow siblings are trampled on and dehumanized without being given a chance to speak for themselves. And yet at the same time, it means not taking up their cry for justice as one’s own and further muting their voice. Inasmuch as I can claim the Cherokee people as my own heritage, I cannot claim their struggle as my own; I was raised by a successful, white family (my mother is white). But I can certainly help.

One must pardon the matter-of-fact nature with which I write all these; there has been an exhausting amount of controversy revolving around each of these lately and I am simply fed up with the lack of neighborly love shown from fellow Christians (and of course, myself). In many ways, those who have been marginalized, whether Christian or not, have displayed greater Christ-likeness than many of the Christians arguing against them. Rather than responding in kind, they’ve chosen to love their neighbors as themselves (similar to what Paul describes in 2 Cor. 6:1-10). In many ways, I have been challenged to follow their example.

By and large the biggest challenge of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is listening to one’s neighbor and allowing them to define themselves in their own terms. I have no right to tell the gay Christian that she is not really a Christian because she is gay; I am not God, therefore, I am not omniscient. Furthermore, Jesus teaches that we will know the false believers by the fruit they bear; are the predominately-white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri truly bearing Christ-like fruit when advancing on peaceful, unarmed gatherings (which is a right granted to all by the 1st Amendment) or are the protestors – who have shown a greater wherewithal to protect their own community peaceably – showing bad fruit by crying out for justice for Michael Brown and his family (and the families of many other black men and women killed and demonized within white communities)?

Seminary hasn’t changed me, really. It’s simply helped me refine things I have already been believing for some time and then challenged me with opportunities to live out those beliefs. And as I have said, these beliefs are quite simple: loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving my neighbor as myself – valuing them as equally as I value myself despite the drastic differences there may be between us. If I am only at the midpoint of my seminary experience, I have a lot of work ahead of me.

God bless.

[1] Gal. 3:28, NRSV. Paul here repeats “there is no longer” to further emphasize the break from “the way things are.” Richard B. Hays writes, “Paul is echoing the language of Gen. 1:27: ‘male and female he created them.’ To say that this created distinction is no longer in force is to declare that the new creation has come upon us, a new creation in which even gender roles no longer pertain.New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Vol. XI, p. 273, emphasis mine.