The long and dangerous road of theological tradition

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold anti-gay signs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXUI58


By Joe LaGuardia

As a requirement for her Master of Divinity degree at the McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, the Reverend Karen Woods wrote a thesis on race relations in the local church.  In it, she argues that slavery, discrimination, and contemporary conflicts surrounding race did not suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Rather, the dysfunction of racism grew out of long theological traditions that manipulated the Bible to justify one race’s subjugation over another.  Sadly, although our ancestors were people of their time, this theological context sat squarely on a certain systemic interpretation of the Bible that dehumanized people.

Woods’ thesis reminded me that beliefs surrounding a variety of issues these days result not from spontaneous decisions or platitudes, but from long-held convictions and traditions that require (consciously or otherwise) theological gerrymandering and interpretative acrobats over a long period of time.

If we are still embroiled in the consequences of racism even today, then it should not surprise us that contemporary debates over other hotbed topics will last well into the next generation of Christendom.

Traditions and experience inform how we read the Bible (if we read the Bible at all), and shaping our reading of God’s Word according to such embedded ideologies threatens to undermine the authority of Scripture.

The worst part is when we declare that God agrees with our positions rather than change our minds when we know some things simply contradict Christ’s or the Bible’s teachings.

M. Craig Barnes, writing for The Christian Century, wrote of the dangers associated with biased interpretations of scripture.  He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln lamented the toxicity that imbues any theology that forces ideology on humanity’s understanding of God.

According to Lincoln, “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s]aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln went on to declare that the institution of slavery–250 years in the making–will not come untangled as easily as many people in the Union had hoped.  Yet, it was imperative to “finish the work we are in” so as to bring about harmony to a nation divided by political ideology.

Lincoln hit the problem squarely on the head.  Our debates surrounding the most pressing issues of the day such as gun control, environmental stewardship, war, immigration and refugee policy, and federal budgets must indeed play out in the philosophical and political arenas, but must avoid any declaration that God is taking one side over another.  Otherwise, we too will be embroiled in divisions that rend the very fabric of our nation.

Ultimately, when a Christian surrenders to God, she surrenders her “rights” in this world in order to become a fully-recognized citizen in God’s kingdom.  It is to sacred Scripture that a citizen of the Kingdom submits, not to any man-made document or system of government.

God’s call is a singular mission to march towards the cause of the cross.  This results from self-denial and, sometimes, death, if not physically, then of those embedded convictions that conflict with Christ’s values.

Most significantly, submitting to Christ’s lordship means divesting our theologies about God and social politics that perpetuate some of the more hostile elements of faith that play out in our places of worship, politics, and the public square.  Without this important reformation in our churches, we remain steadfast in the very bigotry that our faith condemns.

Without analyzing the long-held beliefs that shape our worldview, we fail to “be transformed in the renewal of our mind,” as Paul so aptly commands in Romans 12:1-2.

My prayer for the New Year is that we will have robust debates in an otherwise uncommon election season, but that we will not use religion as a weapon to wield rather than a balm to heal, and that we will use Scripture to transform our thinking rather than support our myopic opinions about so many issues we face today.  May Christ, not the fascination with our own interpretations of Him, be Lord over our lives.




The Human Tragedy in Asia

As of the writing of this article, the death toll resulting from Japan’s natural disasters has topped 10,000 people.  My heart breaks for all those who will never see their dreams realized and never be able to sing or dance or laugh again.

Yet, this number is just a fraction of lives lost in Asia due to gender discrimination.  I don’t mean to dismiss the loss of life in Japan, but I think recent events require us to take pause and remember that people die in Asia every day, not from natural disasters, but from political and economic decisions driven by gender inequality.

A recent (14 March 2011) Newsweek article by Niall Ferguson highlights a statistic by noble laureate economist, Amartya Sen, that places the number of deaths due to abortions, infanticide, and “economic discrimination” at 100 million.  That’s the population of about 1,190 Rockdale Counties.

Scariest thing: the statistic only includes females.

For decades, Asia’s economic engine has valued men at the expense of women.  Apparently, women in Asia (and India) can neither contribute to the household nor obtain professional positions.

Furthermore, several countries have birth quotas.  All of this means that females are aborted or neglected more often than males.  A 9 March 2011 Baptist Press article by Tom Strode claims that female suicides come to nearly 500 a day due to China’s one-child policy.

And as the wheel of time turns, those figures add up.  Consider that Asia would have to be hit with over 3,000 earthquakes and tsunamis like the one that hit Japan in order to lose that many people.

All too often, Christians see abortion as a local, or perhaps national, issue as they navigate women’s rights and medical ethics in the 21st century.  I fear that there is little consideration of the larger tragedy on a global scale.

We can have our debates concerning abortion in this country, but it seems to me that the call to bring a pro-life message overseas is just as urgent.  It is hard to fight for the right of unborn girls (and children in general) around the globe, however, when we continue to struggle with gender inequality in our borders.

Women in the United States continue to make about three-fourths the salary that men receive in comparable positions.  Only 3 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are women, and roughly 16 percent of Congressional seats are filled by female representatives (16 percent in the Senate, and 17 percent in the House according to Kathleen Parker writing for said Newsweek).

Religious institutions are no better: Many places of worship and denominations still deny certain positions to women.

Female minorities and refugees make up the majority of victims in the underground sex trafficking rampant in cities such as Atlanta.

Jesus’ challenge from Matthew 7 comes to mind: “Thou hypocrite; first cast the beam out of thine own eye.”  For our nation, gender inequality and injustice is still a beam deeply rooted in the eye sockets of society and culture.

It would help to reclaim gender equality as a biblical core value.  This must transform everything from the Catholic priesthood to ordination in the farthest reaches of church life.  It must impact how we preach and how we do worship.

(And a word to folks in my own tradition: I encourage the Southern Baptist Convention to take a second look at the U.N. treaty regarding the Convention of the Rights of the Child; which the SBC has opposed since 2000; and also reconsider putting into place a denomination-wide policy regarding sexual misconduct that includes a public sex offender registry.)

Reorienting pro-life legislation to encompass the dignity of all women, as well as  one that advocates for minorities and the poor, will also increase the quality of life for women in our midst.

When Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow Him, He wants to transform the very political, social, and economic systems in which we find ourselves.  Working on behalf of women in particular can help save lives beyond the occasional natural disaster or two.