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Every Monday (except for vacation), Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a scripture passage and commentary, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers\' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Paul’s Sexual Ethic

Recently I re-read E.P. Sander’s brilliant little book, Paul. Although somewhat dated (1991) and very brief (138 pages), it is the most insightful and engaging scholarly book on the apostle Paul I have ever read. Of the many topics Sanders covers that opened my eyes with new understanding, one was the practice of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world that Paul knew.

In classical Athens, a valued practice of educational and cultural life was for a man to honorably court a boy and become his mentor, teaching him wisdom and courage. It was considered natural that the man should desire the youth since, according to the ancient Greek aesthetic, the young male body is the epitome of beauty. The man, with the boy’s consent, would engage in intercourse between the youth’s thighs. This was meant to be an expression of philos (love without lust) rather than eros (sexual desire), and the boy was not meant to enjoy this physical aspect of the relationship.

From today’s perspective, this prized cultural practice could not help but be abusive and exploitative. The power imbalance between the man and the youth would have made meaningful consent impossible, and the claim of engaging in sexual behavior without sexual feeling or motivation was surely delusional in most cases. Today we would label this cultural practice rape and pedophilia.

Even though Roman society did not embrace this Athenian model of the male mentor-mentee relationship, it still found it natural that a man should be attracted to boys. In general, Greco-Roman society expected men to be sexually active, and it did not matter whether the adult male penetrated a woman or a boy or a prostitute of either gender so long as the man was the active partner. To be penetrated signaled submission and inferiority, a shameful status for an adult male. As Sanders says, “The Greeks and Romans despised effeminacy in men.”

Again, from today’s perspective, these sexual attitudes and practices were riddled with exploitation, hypocrisy, and misogyny (hatred of women).

Paul, like his Jewish contemporaries, strongly rejected these sexual practices. Paul was against premarital sex, promiscuity, adultery, using prostitutes, and homosexuality. It did not matter whether the male was in the active or passive role (1 Corinthians 6:9). Influenced by his Jewish perspective, he regarded all of these exploitive sexual behaviors to be the consequence of idolatry and a form of self-worship (Romans 1:21-25). Homosexual passion and practice, whether between women or men, were for him unnatural (Romans 1:26-27).

Whose sexual ethic was superior: Paul’s or that of Greco-Roman society? Paul’s, surely. He recognized and rejected self-centered exploitation and abuse. He exposed the  double standard that shamed prostitutes while giving a pass to those who used them. In contrast with both Greco-Roman society and his own Jewish training, he honored men and women equally (e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 and Galatians 3:28) and held them to the same standard. I marvel at and appreciate Paul’s ethic.

Nevertheless, I have some questions for Paul. It is unlikely that Paul was aware of sexual orientation: that our sexual attraction for the same gender or opposite gender is more or less fixed at birth or within the first few years of life. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with idolatry or self-worship. I also wonder whether Paul had any experience of two people of the same gender, and of equal power and status, making a lifelong commitment to each other. It seems to me that the dynamics of at least some gay relationships today are far different from what would have been on display in Greco-Roman society.

If we could transport Paul to our society today, would he approve of gay marriage? Probably not. But we need to keep in mind that he was speaking out of his own cultural context and to his own cultural context.

Our ethical discernment today requires that we analyze and diagnose our culture as carefully as Paul did his. Then we must identify the underlying ethical principles that reflect the character of God and apply those principles to our situation.


Can There Be Justice? Can There Be Healing?

Senator Jeff Flake is right: Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of sexual assault against Brett Kananaugh, and his angry denial, are tearing our nation apart. This is nothing less than a national tragedy in the making, giving us a disturbing glimpse into America’s gashed and infected soul at this point in time.

I have read some of the newspaper accounts and watched snippets of the hearings on network TV news. Otherwise, I have not followed this story closely. I have, to some degree, diverted my eyes from this train wreck, not wishing to see the carnage. But we must look–not to stir up further animosity and accusations, but to feel our way toward some kind of healing.

When President Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, he looked like a good nominee to me. Whether his judicial philosophy aligns with mine or not is beside the point. As Barack Obama used to say, elections have consequences; Trump won, and it is his constitutional duty to appoint the next member of the Supreme Court. The Senate’s job is to ensure that the nominee is qualified. From what I’ve read, Kavanaugh is a highly regarded jurist, and his initial responses to questions in the Senate hearings were reasonable.

I felt that the delaying tactics of the Democratic senators, and the frequent outbursts by protesters during the hearing, were unseemly and out of place. Are Democratic leaders still angry at the Republican refusal to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court? Yes. Justifiably so in my opinion. But payback is neither ethical nor helpful but only further entrenches our national dysfunction. So my feeling was: let’s get on with it.

But then came Ford’s accusation. The timing was more than suspicious–almost certainly another designed delaying tactic by the Democrats. But that doesn’t change the fact that the accusation is real and credible and has existed in a therapist’s notes since 2012. The Republicans can rage all they want about the timing, but the accusation itself must be taken seriously.

At first, the Republicans acted like they would take it seriously. They would give Ford the opportunity to testify. But I was troubled that the Republicans were unwilling to let the FBI investigate her claim. It seemed to me the Republicans were only pretending to take her seriously. They would hear her, decide it was a he-said-she-said conundrum, and then proceed with a vote to confirm Kavanaugh. It was all a forgone conclusion, regardless of what she might say.

But Ford’s testimony turned out to be more disturbing and convincing than expected–and the whole nation saw it. I am aware that many people–intelligent and credible people–sometimes have false memories. It is also true that eye witness testimony is wrong a surprising amount of the time. But Ford wasn’t testifying about a stranger assaulting her (in which case misidentification might happen more easily), but about someone she knew. She also named another person (Mark Judge) whom she says was in the room when it happened (and whom she says blanched when approached by her on a following day).

Her story, with its details, is highly realistic and convincing, describing an assault that traumatized her and led to therapy. She is also a person of credible character. There’s just one problem: so far there is no corroboration for her story. No one else remembers this party where the alleged assault happened. On the other hand, Mark Judge’s written denial is noticeably weak: he doesn’t say it didn’t happen; he only says he doesn’t remember it happening. One wonders whether Kavanaugh and Judge were so drunk (Ford says they were “stumbling drunk”) that they have no memory (or an impaired memory) of this alleged event. It also doesn’t help that others have accused Kavanaugh of being not infrequently drunk and inappropriate during his youth.

In light of Ford’s searing account, some Republican senators deflected by angrily turning attention to the Democrats’ stall tactics. But that’s not the issue. The issue is Ford’s accusation. Kavanaugh also sought to deflect from Ford’s testimony by angrily denouncing a supposed conspiracy headed by the Clintons. Whether Kavanuagh’s conspiracy theory holds any water or not (I thought it was odd), he is missing the point. His confirmation is in question not because of Democratic stall tactics or manufactured accusations, but because of a disturbing and credible accusation brought against him by a woman who shared this accusation with others years ago. Kavanaugh admitted he did not even watch Ford’s testimony prior to his own anger-filled attack on the Democrats. He, in effect, ignored her and did not take her seriously enough to listen to her before making his response.

Kavanaugh’s intemperate and defensive response, ignoring Ford and launching a partisan attack, greatly reduced my esteem for him. Even if he did not commit this alleged assault (an assault which he strongly denies he had any involvement in), I now seriously question whether he is qualified to be a fair and impartial Supreme Court justice.

Finally, after being tearfully confronted by two women, Senator Jeff Flake, alone among the Republicans, crossed the aisle and decided he had to take Ford seriously, asking for a one-week FBI investigation into credible accusations. Whether that investigation will be long enough or broad enough is now subject to debate, but the move itself was momentous and done for the sake of justice and healing. Thank you, Senator Flake.

I have no idea what will come out of that investigation, or whether Brett Kavanaugh will be confirmed by the Senate. Whatever happens, our national soul and the fabric of our society will need long and intensive healing. As a citizen of this nation, and as a Christian who believes it is our task to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7), I will seek the following:

  • Justice over partisanship. Ultimately, I am neither for nor against Democrats or Republicans; I am for honesty, integrity, fair play, and doing what is right for the common good, not the good of one party. And I am for protecting the vulnerable.
  • Forgiveness over retribution. If Brett Kavanaugh committed this alleged assault, I can forgive him if he admits it and apologizes and makes amends. I do not believe the indiscretions–even criminal acts–of our youth should shut the door on our potential rehabilitation and redemption. I believe our society, recently seared by the revelations of sexual abuse committed on an unimaginable scale by men in power, is not yet able to balance justice and mercy. Until we find that proper integration, we will not heal.


Neither Conservative Nor Liberal (and Certainly Not Moderate)

1968 was a terrible year.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; so was Bobby Kennedy. Several cities exploded in massive riots and flames. The Vietnam War was raging; hundreds of thousands of young men were being sent there to kill and be killed without making any difference. Huge protests against the war demoralized President Lyndon Johnson who decided not to run for re-election. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into chaos when police attacked protesters in the streets, creating mayhem. The Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey for president; the Republicans nominated Richard Nixon; and, supported by white segregationists, George Wallace ran as an independent with the campaign slogan: “The South Shall Rise Again!”

Today we are in tumultuous times again. Not with riots and assassinations, but polarized nonetheless. We are being compelled to choose sides–with Trump or against Trump, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative–while the moderates get squeezed out.

I have to admit I have never seen the point in having to choose between being conservative or liberal. It is plain to me that both are right and we need to be both.

The word conservative means to conserve. It means to hold on to those things that are perceived to be valuable or useful or good. Being conservative means recognizing the wisdom of the ages and the experience of many generations. Being conservative means holding on to the values and institutions that have held society together–such as religion, marriage and family. Being conservative means honoring society’s authority and laws and maintaining social stability.

Liberal means wanting reform. Being liberal means striving to make things better than they are now–with more fairness, openness, equality and liberty. Being liberal means being open to new information, ideas, perspectives, and ways of doing things.

It seems clear to me we need both for society to exist and to thrive. Being conservative preserves and maintains social order, preventing chaos and violence. Being liberal adapts to new situations and new information, making things work better and be more fair. If we’re only liberal we are in danger of losing our roots: pursuing shallow fads and adopting policies that look promising and are well-intentioned but that turn out to be disastrous. If we’re only conservative, we don’t adapt to change, we don’t learn and grow, we lose creativity, and we settle for the world as it is rather than what it could be. People who are only conservative scare me, and so do people who are only liberal.

Polarization is not only tearing apart our nation, it is tearing apart our families and workplaces and friendships. It is also tearing apart some churches and conferences and denominations.

As Christians it is natural for us to wonder: Which is Jesus? Is he a conservative or a liberal or a moderate? As I read through his teachings, I find a very interesting mix. Under the conservative label I would include these teachings:

  • Not only don’t murder, but don’t insult others and hold on to grudges.
  • Not only don’t commit adultery, but don’t look at others as sex objects.
  • Not only don’t swear falsely, don’t swear oaths at all–just tell the truth at all times.
  • Legalizing your divorce isn’t enough; don’t divorce and remarry–it’s tantamount to adultery. (This could also be seen as a liberal position if Jesus’ aim was to prevent women from being abandoned without economic support.)
  • Enter by the narrow gate for the way is broad and easy that leads to destruction.
  • Don’t give dogs what is holy and don’t throw your pearls before swine. (I have no idea what Jesus was referring to, but whatever it was, it certainly sounds conservative!)

Under the liberal label, I would include the following:

  • Do not judge lest you be judged.
  • Let those without sin throw the first stone.
  • Jesus lets his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath and he heals people on the Sabbath, giving the excuse: the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.
  • He and his disciples don’t ritually wash their hands before eating or fast on a regular basis, and Jesus ignores many other religious traditions of his society.
  • He eats with tax collectors, prostitutes, those who ignore the law, and the ritually unclean.
  • He tells Martha that Mary has made the right choice by sitting with and joining the male disciples.
  • He is followed by and financially supported by a group of women.

Is Jesus ever a moderate? Rarely. Here is the only example I could find:

  • When he sends out his disciples he tells them they will be sheep amongst wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (a bit of balanced, prudential advice).

But there is a whole body of teachings that don’t fit under the conservative, liberal or moderate labels. I can only call them radical:

  • You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you do not resist an evildoer.
  • If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek.
  • If someone forces you to go one mile, go two.
  • If someone sues you for your shirt, give your pants also.
  • Give to everyone who begs from you, and loan out money to anyone who asks.
  • Sell all your possessions and give to the poor.
  • Love your enemies and pray for those who abuse you.
  • Jesus tells a paralyzed man: Son, your sins are forgiven!
  • When his family comes to take him home for proper care, he refuses to acknowledge them. Instead he turns to the crowd around him and says: You are my mother and brothers and sisters. (So much for family values.)
  • When a man asks to follow him but requests time to bury his father, Jesus answers: Let the dead bury the dead, but you come with me.
  • He says: Anyone who loves parents or children more than me is not worthy of me.
  • Anyone who does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
  • Whoever gains life will lose it, but whoever loses life for my sake will gain it.

What this shows me is that Jesus is neither conservative nor liberal and certainly not moderate. He is is something else. He transcends our political ideologies. He will not be boxed in. When Christians are facing a controversial issue, we should not be asking: What would be the conservative thing to do, or the liberal thing to do, or the moderate thing to do? Instead we should ask: What embodies the Spirit and way of Jesus? The answer will almost certainly surprise us and challenge us, combining complete grace and an incredible demand, putting things together in a way that gives us a divine perspective we’ve never quite had before.

Jesus does not want conservative churches. Jesus does not want liberal churches. Jesus wants radical churches that will follow him into God’s deepest will.


The Quest for a Nonviolent Religion

The good news is, human beings are a lot less violent today than at any other time in human history. The bad news is, religion has been–and continues to be–a major contributor to violence.

Those are a couple of the points that I gleaned from reading Steven Pinker’s important and optimistic book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and he has amassed a mountain of statistics and charts demonstrating something that may seem counter-intuitive: human beings have become progressively less violent throughout history: from hunting-gathering societies, to agrarian-based city-states, to empires, to democracies.

Even in the last fifty years there has been an overall dramatic decline in war-related deaths, crime, and violence toward women and animals. Obviously the progress is not a straight line; it contains many dips and fluctuations. It is also possible that catastrophic chaos may yet lie ahead. But the discernible trend is toward less violence in a wide range of categories, and people alive today have less of a chance of dying a violent death than at any other time in human history.

What accounts for this remarkable progress? Pinker credits several factors, the first being the rise of centralized governments: “A state that uses a monopoly of force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence-reducer that we have encountered.” Other key factors include the spread of commerce, feminization (women having more power), an expanding circle of sympathy (aided by literacy, novels and cosmopolitanism), and the rise of reason (aided by education).

What’s missing from this list is the influence of religion. According to Pinker, religion hasn’t helped much at all; on the contrary, it’s the primary culprit causing violence. After an unflinching analysis of the violent history of the world’s religions, he concludes that religion has caused far more harm than it has prevented. Of course, violence has other causes as well: codes of honor and vengeance, ignorance, and fanatical ideologies. Pinker believes that any system that presumes a holier-than-thou morality is a problem. “The world has far too much morality,” he says. “If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.” That’s probably true.

And yet, Pinker’s analysis of religion is one-sided. He under-appreciates the many religious texts (of many religions) that urge the doing of justice and acts of compassion, and the effect those teachings have had. He makes passing reference to people such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but fails to give them their due influence in reducing violence while striving for more justice. Most troubling to me, he dismisses the very positive–even essential–role religious-based communities have had. A variety of studies suggest that many religious communities successfully nurture altruistic behavior, and that without a spiritual basis, the ideals upon which a society stands are weakened. Pinker thinks the way forward for humanity is through reason alone–a stance that I find shallow and  naive.

Nevertheless, Pinker makes a very valid point. According to various polls, religious people in the United States (in particular white evangelicals, but other groups as well) are more favorable toward war and the use of torture than are nonreligious people in this country. That is a startling statistic that reveals how religion is easily high-jacked by fear-based tribal impulses. As researcher Jonathan Haidt would say, religion binds us together, but it also blinds us. The violent attitudes of many religious people (Christian or otherwise) has devastated the credibility of all religion in the eyes of a growing number of people (the “nones” in our society).

For a particular religion to have credibility today and into the future, and for it to contribute to this great human movement toward more equality and reduced violence, it will need to be committed to nonviolence as a primary and guiding value. A trajectory toward nonviolence should be a fundamental moral principle for evaluating the validity of any religion. The more a religion promotes nonviolence and human well-being, the more valid that religion potentially is.

Some religions–such as my own–have a commitment to pacifism. As much as nonviolence is Pinker’s moral polestar, he does not regard pacifism as the best option for reducing violence. “Only preachers and pop singers profess that violence will someday vanish off the face of the earth. A measured degree of violence, even if only held in reserve, will always be necessary in the form of police forces and armies to deter predation or to incapacitate those who cannot be deterred.” I agree. But here is another constructive role a religious community can play that Pinker overlooks: the minority witness that lives out an ideal, perhaps influencing and pulling society closer to the ideal, even if society as a whole can never entirely reach it.


What Makes Us Equal?

The American Declaration of Independence contains the remarkable claim that “all men are created equal” (today we would replace the word “men” with “people”). All of our laws are based on this principle. Everyone is supposed to be treated the same in the workplace, the marketplace, and the court of law. Justice is supposed to be blind to our income, ethnicity, and gender. When our society fails to treat everyone the same, we loudly claim that this is wrong. Nearly all of us take the principle of human equality for granted.

But what is it that makes us equal? We are not equal in intelligence, ability, appearance, or health. So in what way are we equal? Our value as human beings? But how are we equal in value? We vary in our productivity and in the benefit we provide to society. We differ in our willingness to abide by moral norms and in the level of harm or discomfort we create. So in what way do we all have the same value?

Even today, not all societies believe that we are all equal based on some sort of intrinsic value. Throughout history, nearly all societies would have denied such a notion. Men have been viewed as more valuable than women; royalty more valuable than commoners; masters more valuable than slaves; citizens more valuable than foreigners. But then came this radical idea that everyone–regardless of class or gender or ability or morality or race–is equal. It has been a powerful idea. It has been viewed as a profoundly moral idea, overthrowing the older notions of society and law.

But where did this radical notion come from? Not science. Where then? It is a spiritual idea.

Human equality is based on the belief that all human beings share the same God-given dignity. Equality is not something we have discovered through some sort of measurement or investigation or scientific method; rather, it is something we embrace based on a spiritual belief. The Declaration of Independence itself claims it is “self-evident” that we are equal and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. If we take away this spiritual basis for human equality, equality vanishes.

Yuval Harari, in his popular book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, states that there is no objective basis for our belief in human equality. “We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.” I would agree. This particular spiritual idea that we are all equal has enabled unprecedented levels of social cooperation and the betterment of humans all around the world. But Harari considers such an idea as essentially a fiction, and therefore fragile. “The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures.”

But this puts Harari, who is an atheist, in a dilemma. He claims that an “imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population–and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces–truly believe in it.” But how can we believe in a superhuman order if we also believe it is only a human-made fiction? We can’t. To build and maintain a society we have to truly believe–just just pretend to believe–in a superhuman or spiritual order. Specifically, to believe in human equality we have to believe it is an idea that transcends us, that it is true in a way that is deeper than merely social agreement.

To believe in human equality is to believe that truth is greater than materialism or naturalism. As we strive for ever-more sublime visions of human (and animal) well-being, we are groping toward a deeper reality. We are striving toward notions of goodness and justice that have no objective existence in our universe, but are nonetheless true.

Modernism, which limits truth to naturalism, ultimately leads to atheism and the denial of human equality. Postmodernism, which claims there is no basis for truth at all–that there is only preference and power–leads to agnosticism, tolerance for anything, and nihilism. These two philosophies are ultimately empty. They do not and cannot create well-being. But a spiritual approach to life–that the deepest truths transcend us and nature itself–has the potential to lead us to meaning and well-being. Indeed, a spiritual approach to life is the only viable approach to life, the only way to be social beings, and it is our only hope for equality.

For this reason, we are all more spiritual than we think we are–regardless of our claims of being atheists or agnostics. Thankfully, we are always undergirded by a spiritual givenness. So let’s embrace it–and grow.

Helping Isn’t Simple

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of my ministry is that helping people–which I thought would be simple–is not.

It’s not simple saving a troubled marriage. Despite my best counseling efforts–guiding couples in constructive communication and mutual listening and understanding–most couples that have come to me for help ended up getting a divorce.

It’s not simple helping homeless people find a decent place to live. Despite short-term housing options, their addictions, personal choices, and personality disorders have usually put long-term solutions out of reach.

It’s not simple helping failing children succeed in school. Despite tutoring, a chaotic home life has undermined progress.

It’s not simple helping veterans haunted by survivor’s guilt or traumatized by violence. Despite offering unconditional love, solace, and rituals of forgiveness, they have sometimes wandered away or taken their life.

It’s not simple lifting friends out of poverty. Despite financial help and careful budgeting, underemployment, lack of benefits, unforeseen crises, and compromised health continue to torpedo the best laid plans.

It’s not simple helping ex-offenders begin a new life. Despite providing help in housing and setting up support groups, finding employment is difficult, and counter-productive habits have often unraveled the new start.

It’s not simple helping people suffering with depression. Despite medication and providing friendship, the underlying condition has often defied resolution.

It’s not simple helping those plagued with doubts, aimlessness and hopelessness. Despite sharing God’s love and vision for humanity, many have continued to struggle to find their purpose.

But sometimes helping is so simple I don’t know how it happened. I sat with a man whose wife had cancer. I don’t remember saying or doing anything. But he claims I helped him pull through, and is forever grateful.

I suppose we help a lot more than we realize. When we care for others and do simple things that demonstrate that care, we create a whole energy-field of help and love that helps sustain the world around us.

Nevertheless, offering meaningful and long-term help is usually quite difficult and complicated, and the helper’s own brokenness sometimes makes the problems much worse.  This in turn necessitates creating legal protocols and complicated procedures that serve to protect those receiving help, but those same procedures also make providing help more difficult.

It is with horror that I have read the accounts of clergy sexual abuse and church cover-ups. The problem is much more prevalent than I naively imagined when I entered the ministry. And yet, if I think about it, I myself experienced something akin to abuse. Some years ago I had an encounter with an older clergyman–a mentor–that left me confused and unnerved. He said it was a test of trust, and later he called it a joke. It was neither. It was manipulative, selfish, intimidating, and entirely inappropriate. And it shook my confidence in my ability to say no. The fact that even caring ministry professionals sometimes commit boundary violations has made legal protocols and complicated procedures necessary today.

And yet, I regret that those same procedures have sometimes made helping others more difficult and have cultivated a culture of legal protection rather than a community of open honesty and trust. I serve on the governing board of my regional conference, and our meetings are often dominated by discussions of legalities and possible liabilities instead of serving needs.

Inevitably, some rules meant to protect become rather pointless. In my previous church they decided to make a rule that all doors in the church had to have a window. That’s a reasonable rule meant to discourage the possibility of inappropriate behavior. My office had two doors, neither of which had a window, so windows were installed. But a couple coming to me for counseling objected to the lack of privacy and confidentiality, so I asked the elders if I could, when engaging in counseling, cover the window that faced the public hallway. They said yes. I noticed that one of my associate pastors also covered her window whenever she was breastfeeding her infant, and another associate pastor covered her window whenever she didn’t want people to see how messy her office was. What was the point of putting windows in the doors of the pastors’ offices if we also had the discretion to cover the windows?

I would prefer to do ministry without restrictive rules and regulations; I just want to help people as directly, freely, and immediately as possible. But that’s a naive view of the world and human nature. And even if I could do it that way, helping people isn’t simple anyway.



BlacKkKlansman and Apu

Yesterday my wife and I went to see the new Spike Lee movie BlacKkKlansman. Three of Lee’s previous movies (Do the Right ThingGet on the Bus, and Malcolm X) opened my eyes to the black experience in America, challenged my thinking, and gave me new perspectives. This movie did as well (though I found parts of it cartoonish, stereotypical, over the top, and too tidy). But I’m not interested in reviewing this movie; instead, I’m interested in a question raised near the end of the movie.

The main character, Ron Stallsworth, is the first black cop on the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is dating Patrice, the president of the local college’s Black Student Union. At the end of the movie, Patrice asks Ron if he is going to remain a cop. He says yes, to which she responds, “I can’t share a bed with the enemy.”

Ron and Patrice stand for two different stances toward the white American establishment: working within it to reform it, and rejecting it as hopelessly racist. For Patrice, it is naive and impossible to reform the police department: it is the local epitome of white power that oppresses and keeps in place black people. Only the application of some form of external force (black power) can possibly bring some justice and dignity to black people.

Not surprisingly, I as a white person tend to agree with Ron: the answer has to at least include blacks working within the white dominated system to change it. I support black power–the empowerment of black people–but I also want to see an integrated society of mutual enrichment, mutual power, mutual well-being.

What troubles me the most about Patrice’s position is that it seems to lead logically to the conclusion that the races should be kept separate, dependent on their own separate systems. And how is that going to work? Would we even want that to work? Isn’t that what today’s KKK wants?

A related question about race popped up in today’s editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The editorial lamented the current controversy over Apu, the Indian-American manager of the Kwik-E-Mart in the animated series The Simpsons. The controversy seems to have two aspects to it: Is the character of Apu a racist depiction of persons from India? And is it appropriate for Apu to be voiced by a Caucasian? The editorial dismisses both concerns. The editorial also seems to dismiss the broader controversy over cultural appropriation. Let me offer a few thoughts which I think may connect with my concerns above.

Whether Apu is a racist depiction, I do not know. My impression is that the character is handled with more respect than most characters on The Simpsons. But I’m not Indian. However, I do agree that it is inappropriate for a white person to be voicing an Indian character. I remember watching old Charlie Chan movies in which the famous detective was played by a white man made to look (not convincingly) Chinese. I remember an old Hitchcock movie in which an entire band is made up of white men in blackface. Even the much-praised, and more recent, movie, A Passage to India, had a white actor portraying an Indian holy man. We simply would not do this today. It is offensive. Whites should not be in the position of controlling how other races/ethnicities are depicted. Characters of a particular ethnicity or race should, when possible, be played by persons of that ethnicity or race. It is more authentic and fair. It also provides movie and TV roles to minorities who struggle to find parts in Hollywood.

This issue also came up when Scarlett Johansson was going to play the role of a transgender person. Such a role should go to a person who actually is transgender. This does not mean actors may no longer depict something they are not–that’s what acting is all about. Rather, whites (or straights, or whoever has the most power in a society) should not be controlling the depictions of others, especially others who are often stereotyped and marginalized. For the powerful to be in charge of depicting the powerless (even innocently or sympathetically) is a way of keeping the powerful powerful.

So I agree that Apu should be voiced by an Indian actor.

However, I agree with the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial when it concludes that we have taken rejection of cultural appropriation too far. I think we all should be free to make use of each other’s cultures. Music, language, clothing and customs flow automatically back and forth between cultural lines in the United States, enriching each other and constantly creating new syntheses and new cultures. There is no such thing as “black culture” or “white culture” or “Latino culture” or “Asian culture.” Each of these has many different cultures, and all of them have been influenced by each other and other cultures. Also, there is no intrinsic connection between a person’s race and his/her culture. Culture is an artifact constantly influenced by its environment; it’s not our biology. To say that whites should not be putting out hip-hop albums is, it seems to me, to try to keep cultures separate and to refuse integration in our society. I can understand resentment toward whites who are once more making money off of something that did not originate with them, but we are all making money and pleasure off of each other’s contributions. We are all making art off of each other’s influences. That’s how beauty and creativity and culture work. I think it’s also how we become a more integrated society of equal value.

The Book of Revelation looks forward to a new heaven and a new earth. Its vision of perfection includes people bringing “the glory and the honor” of the world’s various ethnicities and races into the New Jerusalem (21:26). This cultural mix is a necessary part of what makes us whole.