Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ableism as Trinitarian Heresy | How Assuming Jesus was a Healthy White Guy Breaks Theology

A decade back I was at Le Chateau Montebello near Montreal for a theological conference, listening to Hans Reinders, professor of Ethics at Vrije Universities (Amsterdam) talk about faith and disability (

Hans woke me up. He had raised his profoundly disabled child to adulthood. Living long-term with his child while teaching ethics, he had come to ask a very important question, "Does what we are capable of doing define our humanity?"

One of the greatest sins of Christians is to simply not question our presuppositions enough. There's a lot of closed-minded bigotry disguising itself as faith. So I was thankful for this challenge to my own assumptions. I started in some limited ways to listen more to those in communities of the differently abled to learn from them how they thought about their own gifts and situation.

Around that same time, I became more aware of our own denomination's Differently-Abled Youth Leader Event. Together we learn to accept the abilities and gifts people bring to community rather than assuming that different abilities count as "dis"-abilities.

Later, I remember reading Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree ( a few years back, and learned that many in the deaf community do not believe that deafness is something that needs "fixing." In a sense they are "defiantly deaf," lifting up the gifts and abilities that come with being deaf rather than hearing.

One might radically propose: is being able to hear actually a disability?

Theologically, what gets wrapped up in all of this are notions and assumptions of "what God wills." What parts of creation are fallen? Which parts are good? Who gets to decide?

I think at the root of so much of this are assumptions about what counts as the "perfect" human being. On average, I think Western culture has assumed that the healthy white male is the epitome of what God wants. So we depict The Human One, the Son of Man, in this way, Jesus as the virile, healthy white male.

If this is the definition of humanity, then everything else that diverges from that model is a threat. All kinds of systems kick into play: disgust, fear, othering.

Any depiction of Jesus that brings him into proximity with human divergence from the norm is a threat, because Jesus is supposed to be our salvation, and salvation is becoming "perfected humanity."

Somehow in this way of constructing things, we overlook so much of who Jesus actually was, not to mention so much of Christian Scripture, which celebrates and lifts up weakness (2 Cor. 13:4), injury (Galatians 6:7), Paul's thorn in his side (2 Cor. 12:7), the marks in Christ's resurrected palms (John 20:27), and celebrates not just one way of being abled, but the many, storied abilities that the Spirit brings (Romans 12:6).

This is why ableism and white supremacy and patriarchy are theological issues, because in the end they are a denial of Christ and his benefits as well as the Spirit and her gifts. Our increasing awareness of the problems of defining abilities incorrectly is not just some contemporary spirit of the age: it is a discovery in the present moment of the implications of Trinitarian theology.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A theology of bad blood

In January, I spent an uncomfortable couple of days reading A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement, 1932-1940. I was surprised, over and over, by how many Lutheran theologians in Germany tied Christian faith to racial purity. Specifically, blood purity. Most of them believed mixing blood lines was tantamount to heresy. Failure to maintain blood purity placed the salvation of true Christians/Christianity at risk.

I'm always taken off-guard by the regular mention of blood in our hymns and in Scripture. Blood carries much meaning.  Blood finds its way onto the screen in Kill Bill and zombie films and I wipe it off skinned knees and it has a menstrual flow and I give it through a needle to a bank, and Jesus bled it as he died.

I shouldn't be so surprised, then, by it's use in scripture and hymn. 

But when I shared a post yesterday about intersexuality, the rapid and dramatic responses I got to the post made me realize--all lot of the people bothered by the conversation and inquiry, they believe in blood purity!

For example, one person argued that God sent the flood in order to purify the Nephilim blood line from its mixing with humanity. This particular Missouri synod Lutheran actually believes that God was trying to purify humanities bloodline corruption through the flood, and then finally purified the human blood line in Jesus.

Really, he thinks this. Never mind that the Nephilim reappear in Numbers. Never mind that Jesus didn't pass on his blood line through descendants. Somehow the purity of blood matters.
So apparently the issue with intersexuality, the reason it causes such great anxiety among these racial purists, is because intersexuality represents to them a weakening somehow of the blood line. Blood carries DNA. 

If Jesus is intersex, another person argues, then Jesus is "imperfect." Never mind that I was not arguing directly that Jesus was a specific kind of intersex, or not. I was in that other post simply offering a meditation on how we can hear Scripture better if we pay attention to Jesus' transgressive relationship to all forms of cultural norming.

But listen to what is happening here. Somehow it is heretical to speculate that Jesus is intersex, because that indicates he was imperfect. Bringing Jesus into proximity to something that is considered "unclean" somehow sullies Jesus--either is character, or his nature, I'm not sure which.

But that isn't how this whole thing works. Jesus didn't redeem a fallen humanity by becoming a genetically perfect human being (whatever that might be).

Jesus doesn't redeem humanity by restoring a pure bloodline. He redeems humanity by taking on humanity. Jesus takes our place, that we might occupy his. Whatever genome Jesus took on, it was his taking on of a genome, being found in human form, the humbling himself, that offers redemption.

In other words, Jesus being born of a virgin means he brings into himself all the blood, every blood. 

Welcome to Jesus, y'all, a mixed blood God and man.

We can't know if Jesus was intersex. We only have the witness of the saints, which confesses the miracle of the virgin birth and the full humanity of the man, Jesus. But it certainly is salvific, healing, to confess clearly that there isn't just one "ideal" human form.  It's a relief to many, actually.

Your salvation isn't at risk because you have "bad" blood. Jesus has experienced everything that humans have (without sin). So Jesus knows what it is like to have an empty womb. Jesus knows what it is like to be infertile. Whatever is considered impure in the world, Jesus goes and gets dirty with it. Not to strain out all the impurity and retain all the truly pure ones. No, Jesus goes and trades places with such blood, that all the blood might be all the blood.

What I think many readers of my last post totally missed was how conventionally traditional and biblical my argument was (although I should add, many other readers did see this, acknowledged it, found it helpful). I adhered closely to Scripture, to the tradition, and then offered a reflection on it that provides comfort and gospel for those who sorely need it. That's not heresy, my friends. That's the good news of Jesus Christ, who is so fully human that all of humanity, not just certain pure blood lines, are now "new blood!"

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Was Jesus Intersex?

Let's talk about this, y'all. Since gender identity and fluidity are a big part of the national discourse lately, and also in the churches, it makes sense for us to consider the relationship between Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of the Word, and intersexuality.

First disclaimer: I write this with the full intention of supporting those of varying gender identities, and as a Christian am opposed on moral and theological grounds to discrimination against anyone based on their gender identity. That such discrimination is often couched in religious terms, and perpetuated by the churches, grieves me.

I think it's important to look at Jesus as regards his gender because it can offer us some unique insights... so here goes.

What we know about Jesus' gender is rather complicated. Clearly, Jesus represented as male (his phenotype). He was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Luke 2:21), and every indication we have during his earthly life was that he lived as and was understood as a man.

Since he was crucified naked, and there were many eye-witnesses to this, and his circumcision, and more, I think we can confidently conclude that Jesus was male as regards his phenotype.

But in terms of his genotype, frankly, we have no information. The Shroud of Turin notwithstanding, we do not have a DNA sample to work from. We do believe, based on the creeds, that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, so we can say confidently that the Word became flesh, took on a human genome, and lived among us.

But we do not know the structure of that genome. We only trust that God took on a genome.

Furthermore, we confess as a faith community that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. Okay, I admit, there is some discussion in the exegetical community about the origins of the term virgin to pertain to the mother of Jesus, because Matthew appropriates language from the Septuagint, Isaiah 7 in particular, which may actually be "young woman" rather than "virgin."

But the broader New Testament witness, the narrative itself, as well as the theological tradition of the church catholic, holds to the virgin birth, so as a Christian and theologian I do also. Jesus was, as Scripture says, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, a virgin (Luke 1:34-35). There is no explanation of the how. It just is.

Well, we know a few more things about conception than they did back in the day. One thing we know: a woman provides the X chromosome, and the man provides a Y chromosome. In the case of parthenogenesis, an exceedingly rare occurrence among higher life forms, the chromosomal structure would typically be a duplicate of the X, or just a single X. The one thing that would not be present would be a Y.

Now, of course, if we are allowing that the conception by the Holy Spirit is a miracle, which it is, then of course God could provide a Y chromosome. But if it is a miracle, which it is, then just as easily God could have had Jesus be phenotypically male but genotypically female.

In the end, we don't know. All we have is what we have: he was a man, he was born of a virgin, and God was involved in his conception.

Presumably, we can assume that God does not have DNA, or a Y chromosome, even if a lot of people wish God had a Y chromosome, and some others hope she didn't.

Of peculiar interest for our not knowing about all of this is the fact that Jesus never married, and never had children, so the passing on of genetic material from one generation to the next did not happen in his case.

This is another way in which Jesus was transgressive. He didn't procreate.

Lately, in a few circles, I have pondered the question with which I began this post, "Was Jesus Intersex?" I have been surprised by the confidence, and the vehemence, with which people say "No!" I think sometimes they say "No" because they know very little about intersexuality. Other times, I think it is simply very important to them that Jesus was a male both phenotypically and genotypically.

Honestly, I don't understand why they are so vehement. I can't think of any way it matters doctrinally. The church is committed to the saying unequivocally that Jesus was fully human. I don't know anywhere in the tradition where the protein strands of his cell structure are the basis for a confessional position of some kind.

All of this leads me to believe that perhaps offering a more fluid, intersex Jesus offends some sensibilities because people like to put Jesus into safe categories. Perhaps they would much prefer that Jesus was a traditional, masculine, heterosexual, domestic contributor to society.

It's quite a bother that Jesus wasn't. Instead, Jesus was a-traditonal, strangely open in the way he related to men and women, single, unemployed and homeless.

He was even more transgressive than that, when it comes right down to it. He ended his life offering his body and blood for his followers to eat. He was taken up in theological tradition as the groom of the church, so he is married (eschatologically-speaking) to the Beloved Community.

He initiated a faith tradition that drowns the faithful in the waters of baptism that they might die to themselves in order to live, and he sent a life-giving Spirit to his followers so that he might no longer be just himself, the fully human one, but rather the entire community gathered up into God.

Which is to say something far more radical than Jesus as intersex. Christians actually think that all of us, corporately, ARE Jesus. Or married to him.

Why does this matter? Some people will argue that all of this is baseless conjecture, idle speculation. I argue that the things we already assume about Jesus' gender identity are themselves idle speculation that most people now accept as fact. So re-considering some of our assumptions is a good thing.

It's a particularly good thing to re-consider assumptions that keep Jesus from being as fully human as Jesus actually was. According to Hebrews, we have Jesus the high priest who is able to sympathize fully with the human condition (5:15). For those who are intersex, there may be great comfort in knowing that Jesus' own genetic composition is potentially similar to their own.

At the very least, knowing that Jesus' incarnation and life transgressed many of the preconceived boundaries is worth remembering. I'm reminded of this every time a non-Christian joins us for Christian worship, and they see us eating the flesh and blood of our Lord.

We've gotten so used to the transgressions we know, while living in fear of the trans-whatever we don't know, or don't understand.

We should also be reminded that Jesus himself taught about intersex people. In Matthew 19:12, he teaches about "eunuchs" who have been so since birth. This is to say, as much as some Christians like to emphasize Old Testament passages that see gender as binary, Jesus himself taught about and was aware of a greater level of gender fluidity.

This Jesus, rather than the rigid Jesus of binaries and dominance and control, is the Jesus I think it is worth contemplating whenever the topic of minority communities come up. One could only wish that more people who get their shorts in a knot over gender identity would first teach themselves a bit more about the gendered experience of intersex people, and not reify their own personal experience as the only or pure one.

This same Jesus who was aware of and sensitive to the existence of intersex people, deeply sympathetic to them, had a heart for the vulnerable. The very next thing he does in that gospel is welcome children and bless them. The disciples don't get it, and immediately try to keep children from being brought forward, but Jesus sternly rebukes them, and says, "It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs."

Such a transgressive Jesus is a bit hard to take. But it's the only Jesus we've got, whatever his genome may have been.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Is thinking about Luther a waste of time? | Luther and Liberation

Luther and Liberation:A Latin American Perspective. Second Edition, Revised and Expanded. Walter Altmann, translated by Thia Cooper. Fortress Press, 2015.

"Jesus takes our place, so we can occupy his" (#OccupyJesus)

Altmann's classic, based on lectures he delivered in Buenos Aires in 1983 commemorating the 500th anniversary of Luther's birth, has now been revised and expanded in preparation for 2017 and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It could equally be sub-titled, "Reading Luther with clarity." Whereas non-liberation oriented works on Martin Luther will unfortunately serve as placeholders in introductory courses on Luther and the Reformation, the real strength of Altmann's approach is to present Luther's robust theology less flattened by European and Western perspectives. Let's hope Altmann's book becomes the standard reference work for Luther in seminary and college classes.

The two longest sections of this book are devoted, first, to doing theology in a new interpretive key, and then conducting exercises on Luther's ethical positioning in light of this new interpretive key. Altmann book-ends these two long chapters with an opening chapter offering an overview of Luther's theology and work, and a concluding chapter on Luther's legacy, with a special eye toward the reception of Luther in Latin American liberation theology.

Altmann earns his credibility throughout this book, with his close attention to Luther's writings, and broad awareness of Luther's historical context, coupled with a careful reading of his own Latin American context. He also earns credibility by asking excellent, poignant questions, like Is thinking about Luther a waste of time?

An enormous effort has been made, beginning in the 19th century with the publication of the Weimar edition of Luther's works, then continuing with the Luther Renaissance led by Karl Holl, to know Luther well enough to answer the question, What did Luther really want? But Altmann, operating out of the hermeneutics of liberation, knows this means we need to also ask an additional question, And us, in the end, what do we want? (326).

In practice, this means Altmann will need to contend with the traditional loci of Luther studies--justification by faith,  evangelical freedom, the cross, vocation, Scripture, Church, sacraments, kingdoms theology. But Altmann at each locus does a two step analysis, first carefully spelling out with remarkable clarity why Luther's theology was so radical in his own day, then articulating how shifts in context means we can approach that same locus in liberation perspective now in our day.

He writes, "Being Lutheran, therefore is not something that is acquired once and then preserved, but it is something that must be obtained each moment, in renewed faithfulness to the gospel. It is a permanent task. Therein lies the truly problematic aspect of the confessional fixation of Lutheranism, even in the sense of a particular church (Lutheran), because there it is supposed to be possible to fix and thus preserve, with the person of Luther, the contingent and instrumental identity of the Lutheran cause. In any case, a process so dubious came, without doubt, to block to a large extent the 'free course of the gospel,' preparing the path for what Steck calls the 'very problematic road from Luther to Lutheranism" (336).

So, for example, there has been a transition in what reform means, and the context for reform, from Luther's era to our own. Reform of the Church, in our political, social, and economic systems, is a peripheral concern. People do not hope for liberation from the Church. Instead, people look for liberation from the political, economic, and social system that discriminates, marginalizes, and deals death.  Altmann hones in on what is liberative in Luther's theology: "try this grace, live by this faith, and you also will find forms of life non-compliant with poverty, as well as modes of action that open the path to a dignified life in solidarity" (92).

Altmann repeatedly flips orthodox, confessional approaches to Luther that have re-asserted Lutheran theology as a tool of the hierarchy. He notes, we can "register what was revolutionary in Luther's ecclesiology; in it we find a communitarian emphasis, the liberation from institutional tutelage, the understanding of the ecclesial structure as reformable and for service, the preference for the weak, the mark of the cross, and primacy of the word of God... on the other hand, the necessary liberation from dominant political tutelage only happened in assay" (141).

Playing the notes of traditional Lutheran studies--promise, protest, gospel--Altmann turns them in the direction of liberative practice, inspiring those who live by faith not to submit or be passive, but to get involved, protest, live new life. He believes involvement in this critical moment is important especially through popular organizations (think here of #blacklivesmatter), joint action groups (worker justice centers), unions, and parties organized at the grassroots. Our current system of injustices will be overcome most effectively when Christians of all kinds are encouraged to participate in these, and especially when the voice of the poor is organized to speak with its own voice, having first heard the address of God's love. This is because "the addressees par excellence of God's love are sinners, the needy, suffering people, the marginalized, the weak, the sick, in sum, 'the poor'" (35).

If we want to comprehend Luther's concept of vocation for today, in light of Latin American liberation theology, we should place it in proximity to identification with the cross, understanding justification by faith as the very freedom to take up the cross. "This means: to place 'vocation' and the 'holiness' of the secular profession into a broader context, where today history is made, that is, in the context of the social organizations and movements" (349). This kind of reading of Luther, always with an eye both to what Luther wanted in his context, and what we want in ours, is the way to proceed on the path Luther started without rigidly attempting to repeat it.

"It is essential for preachers to serve as the voice of God's judgment [of earthly rulers]. In this point, Luther moved to criticize the classes of preachers who avoid this mission. He distinguished, between these, three types. First, there are the infidels and lazy ones, who through convenience and fear of reprisals prefer to omit this. In second place, there are the sycophants, who for their own interests and connivance support the political arbitrary actions [of oppressing the people]. Finally, there are the slanderers, those who prefer to criticize privately, sneakily, but do not have the courage to make it public in worship.  

Against all these, Luther contrasted the true preacher, who does not shirk the task of critiquing injustice and oppression, does not defend their own interests, and does not bend out of fear of the personal consequences of persecution that they may come to suffer... Truly, one must note: it is impossible to legitimately use Luther to argue for the autonomy of the political and the Church omitting itself from politics, restricting itself to the so-called spiritual realm.

We conclude that this dualistic view of the so-called 'doctrine of the two kingdoms,' separating gospel and politics, church and state, cannot be legitimately attributed to Luther." (200)

"It is significant that Luther himself could open cracks in the construction of the first monolithic view of his schema of authority and obedience. There remains a theological task for us: to proceed on this path and deepen these perspectives, in a sense of active solidarity, centered on achieving justice and peace. We are Christian people who live in different times and contexts, and with a new awareness of the prevailing social and political structures in the world today. It is not for us to repeat Luther's words, but in a radical critical freedom, commit ourselves to a creative reconstruction of his basic discoveries and perspectives" (302).