Bonus Post: So Why Be Good?

My last two posts have been about the universal reconciliation I believe all of humanity can look forward to, and how sin is just another word for animal instinct.  I want to head criticism off preemptively, because I can hear the argument now:  “If we’re all saved and sin doesn’t exist, why bother following Christianity? Why bother following any religion, actually, or even worrying about being good?”  In other words, can we be good without the impetus of damnation or salvation?  It is, ironically, a question from which many atheists have to defend themselves.

The Humanist Connection

At the risk of pissing off both Christians and Humanists, I think the answer lies, at least partially, in Humanist beliefs.  Humanists International says “human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives.”  Human beings have the ability to reason, to be empathetic, and have the capacity for a wonderful imagination and problem solving.  Whether you believe (as I do) that these are God-given gifts or simply the product of millennia of evolution is beside the point: we can all agree these abilities exist.  We are a communal species, and as such, individuals benefit when the community benefits. Monkeys know this – they sleep together for protection and scream warnings to eachother.  Lions know this – cubs are co-mothered and co-nursed by all the females within the pride.  I could go on with crows, ants, and really any other communal animal.  So, if animals with no religious beliefs (as far as I know), no promise of heaven or threat of hell, can behave in a way that is beneficial for their society, can’t we as humans do so as well?

Humanists believe so.  The Humanist Society of Western New York puts it this way:

“We owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet. A belief that when people are free to think for themselves, using reason and knowledge as their tools, they are best able to solve this world’s problems. An appreciation of the art, literature, music and crafts that are our heritage from the past and of the creativity that, if nourished, can continuously enrich our lives. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy of those in love with life.”

Isn’t that a statement we can all agree with?

I also just want to point out the many secular societies that are doing good without any religious impetus: The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, The Nature Conservancy, and you know I’m going to go ahead and list Planned Parenthood, too.

Getting back to Christianity…

This is quickly turning into a defense of Humanism, so let me tie it back into my own beliefs. As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to “do good.”  Not because I will be “saved” for doing so, but because I want to show my gratitude to my God, who has given me so many beautiful gifts: this earth and all its wonders; art in the form of music, painting, and dance; the promise of a life hereafter.  I believe that everyone on earth is my sibling in Christ, and as part of my family it is my responsibility to help them, just as one would do for their flesh-and-blood family.  I act – or at least, I try to act – out of love. My underlying motivations might be slightly different than that of an atheist or agnostic, but the end result is the same: the ability to care about and for humanity without needing to be scared into it by the idea of damnation or bribed into it by the idea of salvation.

A follow-up question might be, “so why keep reading the Bible?”  I do believe it was divinely inspired.  That does not mean I think it is infallible, or a perfect recording of history.  The key word is inspired here, people.  And it continues to provide inspiration, today. I view the Bible as a guide – something that can be read over and over to reveal new truths, help us meditate upon ourselves and society, and give us an idea of what is important to God.  Is it the only way to know God? No.  I think prayer is important, too (even though I’m terrible at it), and honestly just going outside and marveling at nature is probably the best way to be humbled and awed before God.

“Human decency” is a phrase for a reason: It’s something we’re all capable of, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof).  Honestly, if you are only good because somebody is making you be good – whether it’s God, a parent, a parole officer, or whoever, then you’ve got some serious soul searching to do.  So why be good? If for no other reason, be good because a rising tide lifts all boats.  Gratitude to a higher power is optional.

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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.