Romans 03 – You Are Holy

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Read the rest of today’s chapter here!)

Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law

I heard an interesting theory yesterday on the podcast Almost Heretical that I want to present to you here.  I’ll paraphrase as best I can: Jesus, as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, was not a penal substitution for our sins.  Or at least, that’s not the whole story.  He did die to atone for us, but it was more of a preparatory rite than a righting of wrongs.  In that way, he became the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law.

You should really listen to Episodes 82 and 84 as Nate and Tim spend almost two hours talking about the details of this, but again, I’ll paraphrase: Blood was viewed as the ultimate spiritual cleanser and buffer agent.  In Levitical law, it wasn’t so much that an animal had to die to appease an angry God, but that the sacrifice of the animal’s life was worth it to obtain the blood necessary for temple rituals.  Without the blood, God was dangerous to his chosen people in a very real and physical way: coming into contact with the divine whilst unprepared could actually kill you.  We see lots of examples of this in the Old Testament: seventy men are struck down for looking at the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 6:19; poor Uzzah is killed for reaching out to steady the Ark in 2 Samuel 6:7, and I wrote a whole blog post about Nadab and Abihu being killed when performing a ceremony with the wrong sort of fire.

Blood, then, was one of the most important chemical compounds, if you will, that allowed humans to safely come into contact with the divine.  By anointing the whole world with his blood, Jesus made the whole world holy. By making the whole world holy, Jesus fulfilled all the preparatory rights of Levitical law, essentially giving us all priestly capabilities. God was not angry with us to the point of needing a human sacrifice, God yearned for us to be with Xyr so strongly that Xe sent Jesus to pave the way for all humanity to reach Xyr without an intercessory protocol.

Faith in Jesus Christ vs. Faith of Jesus Christ

In light of this, I want to point out the phrase in v. 22 “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”  As I learned in Karen Armstrong’s excellent book, St Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ,” was, until the twentieth century, more often translated as the “faith of Jesus Christ.”  This is an important distinction: It transfers the responsibility of our salvation from a personal faith in Jesus to Jesus’ faith in God that God would make his death the start of a new order.  And yet, it does not change Jesus claim in John 14:6 that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For indeed, his blood anointed the world, and made us all holy.

Logically, the next step could be to say that we live in a world where faith isn’t necessary.  Think about it: if the whole world is holy and original sin no longer exists (if it ever existed at all), and our salvation has been achieved through Jesus’ faith rather than our own, then what do we need to being reading the Bible for? Going to church for?  Following the ten commandments for?  Couldn’t we literally do anything and it have no effect on our salvation?

This is the problematic thinking that Paul addresses in the first half of the chapter, particularly in vv. 5-8.  There were those, such as the “spirituals,” pneumatikoi, or Gnostics (depending upon which source you read) around the time of Paul’s teaching that came almost exactly to the conclusion above: that anything goes.  Some would eat food sacrificed at pagan temples.  Many participated in prostitution.  Most distressing to Paul, they lost the spirit of egalitarianism of the early Christian movement: lording spiritual supremacy over other believers and even suing other Christians in Roman court for personal gain.

The problem with this “anything goes” sort of thinking is that it causes us to quickly devolve into greedy, mean, base animals.  That doesn’t mean anyone without faith is automatically a greedy, mean, base animal – many kind, wonderful people are agnostic or atheist.  They may even be more spiritually evolved than me: Perhaps God actually wants a post-faith world for us where we automatically follow the Golden Rule and don’t need Xyr constant supervision, I truly don’t know.  My analogy to justify Christianity, which I go into more fully in this blog post, is that this life is kind of like a semester of a college course. If you do well for the entire semester, you’re more likely to get an A. But if you’re struggling, you still have a chance to redeem yourself on the final exam.  Christianity, for me, is like having a study guide.  You can still pass the class without said study guide, but it may be harder to do so.  Since that study guide is freely available for all of us, why not use it?

You Are Holy

What I want you to remember today is this:  You are holy.  God anointed you through the blood of Jesus.  You literally have a direct connection to God now.  Historically, the church has done a good job of obscuring this.  Purity culture, misogyny, exclusion and suppression have taken the place of recognizing the divine spark in all of us.  So, the next time someone tries to shame you for your weight, sexual orientation, beliefs, appearance, or status, try to remember that you are holy, and now that the faith of Jesus has given that to the world, no one can take it away from you.

Romans 02 – Casting the First Stone on the Patriarchy

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Read the rest of today’s Bible Chapter here!)

I was going to write about circumcision today, but given that Paul talks about that a lot, I’ll talk about it another time.  I am doubling down on the blog in 2020, because I believe that I am sharing a message that needs to be heard: and that is a message of radical love.  I suppose most Christians claim to be doing that, and many of them are.  What I am saying on this platform is probably not all that unique, and I dare to hope there are a lot of Christians out there that hold my same views. But there are other so-called Christians who spew vitriol and hate, using Bible passages out of textual and historical context to back up their selfish lies.  And there are lots of them.  So even if this blog is just one of many other progressive Christians saying basically the same thing, at least I am adding my voice to the fight.

I worry a lot. I worry that some people may dismiss the message of “radical love” as an easy one.  It’s easy to profess that you love your neighbor when nothing is required of you other than to say the words.  And really, that’s all a blog is: a bunch of words.  I also worry that other people will dismiss my writings as deliberately controversial in an effort to get attention, that I’m out here seeking alternative interpretations just to be contrary and rock the boat.

But radical love is not easy, and it should rock the boat.  It means putting everyone on an even playing field.  While that more often than not means lifting someone up, it can also mean tearing someone down.  This is why this blog has been renamed from A Liberal Christian Reads the Bible to God Vs. The Patriarchy.  The mission remains the same: I will still be reading the Bible one chapter at a time, in an order that has not been pre-determined, to find evidence of God’s radical love of all humanity.  I am here to counter-act racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia; economic, ecological, and social injustice.  I am here to help tear down the patriarchy.  If that wasn’t perfectly clear before, I hope the re-branding makes it so.

In today’s chapter, Paul tells us not to judge another because in doing so we condemn ourselves.  Well, guess what? I’m here to cast the first stone, anyway.  I stand guilty in just about any way you could charge me:  I eat at McDonalds and do not live a plastic-free life.  I have an iPhone and don’t know who made all my clothes.  I apathetically follow main-line news and therefore only hear about global calamities that effect white people -and then only the “big ones.”  I only sort of go to church, and have real doubts about a lot of the historicity and originality of the Bible.

But even with all my faults and all my doubts, I still believe in the message of radical love, and truly believe God wants us to dismantle any society that has become unjust. As unglamorous as it sounds, the best way to effect that sort of change is to do it small: brick by brick, or chapter by chapter.  Nature, society, and the economy all abhor a vacuum.  If I could snap my fingers and instantly end corn subsidies; outlaw gas-powered vehicles, and establish a universal basic income of $24,000 per person, the cascading effects of those changes would cause millions to starve, ignite a global war like you’ve never seen, and probably destroy the world. But that doesn’t make these ideas worthwhile goals, anyway, if we work towards them steadily and responsibly.  Asking – demanding – more power, resources, and respect from the people who have more and giving said things to those who have less.

I know I’m in a position of privilege and I’ll have to change, too.  Perhaps pay more in taxes, consume a little less or a little lower on the food and supply chains, make more room at the table for new voices to be heard.  But time and again it’s been proven that the more diverse an organization is, the better is survives.  Different ideas and problem solving skills can be put to work when they are allowed to exist, allowing for more innovation, responsiveness, organizational gain and overall satisfaction.  Isn’t that what we should want that for Christianity? Our country? Humanity?  It seems worth the trade-off.  Today I re-invite you to join me as I use the Bible to think about ways to make the changes the world so desperately needs.

Romans 01 – A Second Clobber Passage

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Clobber Passage Context: Sex was not viewed the same in Paul’s Day

We’ve stumbled across another Clobber Passage! Clobber Passages are Bible quotes used by more conservative circles to uphold their beliefs that God condemns homosexuality.  There are six – give or take – so-called Clobber Passages.  I discussed the first one last February when we read the story about Lot and his family leaving Sodom and Gomorrah. I go into more detail in that blog post, but in a nutshell: the “wicked thing” being condemned in the Genesis passage is rape, not consensual sex.  Today, we can deconstruct the condemnation of homosexuality even further.

First and foremost, it is important to remember context.  While there were certainly gay people through-out history, including ancient history, the full expression of sexuality as we know it today was seldom – if ever – possible.  As this article does an excellent job of explaining, sex was transactional and driven more often by power than by love or attraction.  Again, there were surely loving couples out there, but with arranged marriages, extreme gender inequality, and a need to reproduce (more kids meant more workers, and could be married off to cement alliances and family ties), sex carried much larger socio-political implications, at a personal level, than it does today.

Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality a symptom of upholding the patriarchy

So that’s the context within which Paul is operating: where sex is a tool (or sometimes weapon) of a patriarchal society.  Paul radically changed the faith landscape of the early church with some very progressive ideas, but in vv. 22-27, he’s upholding the patriarchy in three primary ways:

First, Paul alludes to cultic prostitution.  This continues the tradition of vilifying Canaanite religious practices to uphold Judeo-Christian beliefs and the primacy of Hellenistic culture.  Canaan was a near-by Middle Eastern kingdom.  In fact, it was where God led Moses as the Promised Land.  There were a fair number of related cultural and religious practices between early Canaanites and Israelites.  In order to distinguish themselves as God’s chosen people, early authors of the Bible began to sensationalize some Canaanite religious practices.  Early Greek historians, keen on proving their culture was superior, continued to portray the Canaanites (and others) as barbaric, primitive tribes.   You can read a little more backstory on Canaan (and why they were so reviled by the authors of the Bible) here, but long story short, a lot of vv. 24-25 have more to do with rejecting an entire belief system than specific sexual practices.

Second, control of sex means control of women.  When a woman isn’t allowed to control her reproductive rights, who she marries, or even how she can appear in public because she might inadvertently cause a man to sin, all of her agency is taken away.  Female sexuality was a huge threat to patriarchal societies.  Acknowledging a woman’s sexual desires meant acknowledging that women have desires, and may even – gasp! – want to express them.  If that stopped in the bedroom perhaps that would be alright, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  If women got what they wanted in bed, they may want to start expressing their desires in other ways, like having more control over household finances or having a say in religious matters.  Patriarchal leaders understood this, even if they perhaps did not state it so explicitly.  By tying female sexuality to female morality, men found a way to control women in a physical and emotional way.  This is why Paul condemns women alongside men in v. 26.  It was his knee-jerk reaction to women possibly becoming too free in a society that had long built itself around male dominance.

Finally, I think Paul had a real personal fear of gay men.    A lot of straight men find male homosexuality uncomfortable.  Women walk around in a world where half the population is physically stronger than them, and we are used to navigating this.  But for men it’s the opposite: they’re used to walking around a world where they’re automatically stronger than half the population.  The average man’s fear of being physically overpowered at any given time is much lower than the average woman’s.  In other words, it’s hard for a woman to rape a man. But a man raping a man?  That’s a much more even playing field, and I think this fear of physical overpowerment – however unfounded it may be – is what made Paul (and many other straight men) uncomfortable with gay men.  Add the fact that Paul was “afflicted,” in other words physically incapacitated somehow, he may have felt particularly vulnerable to a physical or sexual attack.

The real message of this chapter is to love and respect God and eachother.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to be completely objective in your writing, however divinely inspired it may be.  I think that’s what we see here with Paul.  He’s telling his readers that, as followers of Christ, it is important to behave in a loving and respectful manner to each other and to God.  He gets back on the right track when he condemns a lot more than just potential homosexuality in the verses following this clobber passage: Evil, greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, insolence, arrogance, boastfulness, disrespect of parents; lack of fidelity, lovelessness, unmerciful.  These charges are all charges that stem from a lack of love and respect.  You don’t deceive someone you love, nor gossip about them nor disrespect them.  If God is someone you love, then you also wouldn’t turn from “the glory of Immortal God” to worship “images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

That’s the larger message of this passage: to act out of love and respect.  It’s hard, people are tedious.  We get tired and aren’t our own best selves.  Sometimes love and respect come with gray areas.  For example, am I acting in my girls’ best interest if I let them sort out sharing a toy, even if there’s some physical altercation involved between them, or do I need to step in and intervene every time?  Arguments can be made for both positions. But we have a lifetime to keep practicing love and respect, and like any habit, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  Hopefully, one of the first things we can leave behind us is clobbering people with maligned Bible passages.