Christian Considerations Around The Topic Of Abortion

TW: ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, death

Many churches will be jubilant today. This message is for devout Christians who are celebrating. We are going to talk about what happens when wanted pregnancies end in abortion.

There are no surprises in what I’m about to say, but Christian soldiers, I need you to hear this and pay attention. I need you to share this and decide how you will protect unborn life and still protect women, fully-realized, fully-developed image bearers of God. If you truly care about life and not just control, I need you to decide what you will tell the politicians in your state to set as policy to achieve what you sincerely believe are Godly aims meant to preserve life.

Please stay with me. I’m not going to make a case for why you should change what you believe. I am only interested in you advocating for policy that is scientifically sound and that will preserve women’s lives as well as potential babies. I say potential because whether we think it is alive or has a soul or not, a lot can happen between conception and a birth.

Non-Christians or pro-choice Christians: I will not be making arguments around women’s rights to bodily autonomy here, as those aren’t motivating to this audience. Please don’t take me as saying those rights don’t exist in my opinion.

Men, I need you to pay double attention. We don’t know enough about women’s bodies full stop, and even less if we are in churches telling us that women don’t have any right to lead men. The creator of the universe created science, and there are rules for how things work that weren’t specified in detail by prophetic nomads in the desert thousands of years ago, yet still accurately describe how the world works.

Women, forgive me and correct me if I get anything wrong. My intent is to clear common misconceptions driving the conversation among regular people, not to mansplain pregnancy to Christian women who know their own bodies.

What Is Abortion?

First, I want you to know what abortion means. Abortion refers to any procedure that removes an embryo or fetus from a woman. It does not specify whether the procedure was elective or medically necessary. It does not specify whether the fetus or embryo are viable or not. I’m going to talk about some common cases that require abortion that will be prohibited under the new state laws besides the usual “rape and incest” clauses some of you seem to grudgingly accept.


Miscarriages happen between 15-25% of the time a woman becomes pregnant, mostly in the first trimester. There are a number of reasons they can happen, but commonly it is due to fetal/embryonic non-viability. A woman’s body will usually expel the fetus or embryo along with the gestational material. At six weeks, the fetus is the size of a grain of rice. At the end of the first trimester, it’s about the size of a plum. So the experience is traumatic, because most miscarriages actually noticed as such rather than as a heavy period are wanted pregnancies, but we’re not talking about something that would be experienced like a birth.

Sometimes, the woman’s body does not expel the non-viable material. And sometimes, the miscarriage is after the first trimester, where the fetus has developed further before dying. In these cases, the primary way to remove the material is by dilation and curettage, opening the cervix and removing the material directly from the uterus. This is what people typically think of as an abortion. Other ways can include the use of drugs like misopristol that will induce the shedding of the material, and these are also considered abortion.

You’ve seen me use a lot of terms here, and I want to be clear. The fetus or embryo in the cases I’m describing is dead tissue. It has not developed to viability and will not develop further. There is no chance it will become a baby. And if the woman is not shedding, the result of this dead tissue in the body will be sepsis or death of a woman.

In states trying to criminalize every actor involved with an abortion, doctors simply will not perform these procedures and take the risk of being accused of illegal activity. Those women who cannot leave their state will risk sepsis and death. And those who can risk prosecution if it is ever found out that they did.

Complete banning of abortion prohibits the removal of dead tissue that will never become a baby and that can endanger a woman’s life. Complete banning of abortion adds to the burden of women who wanted pregnancies but had them end through no fault of their own.

Ectopic Pregnancy

About 1-2% of fertilized eggs lodge in the Fallopian tube or elsewhere outside the uterus. This number can double for assisted reproduction, where children are again always the goal. It is effectively impossible for an embryo to develop to term outside the uterus. It can, however, grow, but the prognosis is damage to the woman’s organs and death. At the minimum, waiting until the situation is an emergency puts the woman’s fertility at risk, even if her survival prognosis is good. The treatments for ectopic pregnancy are surgical or procedural removal of the embryo or fetus, which is also classified as abortion.

Complete banning of abortion means that every ectopic pregnancy is a death sentence. The US maternal mortality rate is 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. This would push that number as high as 1,000 deaths per 100,000. Somebody check my math here, but a complete, nationwide ban on abortion when one percent of pregnancies end in a life-threatening condition should mean 40 times the number of women would die. In practice, it would be lower, but only because those with means would go to other countries and those without would rely on underground medical care. Even this would result in more complications and more loss of fertility. The death rate goes up either way.


Abortion procedures are a part of women’s health care. Women who wanted their children very much sometimes need abortions. The policy being advocated for by conservative Christians and their favorite politicians will deny that health care.

The pro-life Christian’s goal in this as I understand it is to prevent elective abortion, to prevent a baby that could be born from being killed before it can be born. You have two choices:
A ) Advocate for policy that allows women to get health care in the above cases I mentioned, knowing that some elective abortions will slip through.
B ) Advocate for the current policy prescriptions completely banning abortion procedures, knowing that more women who carry wanted pregnancies will die.

Ultimately, this is your dilemma. You cannot choose to eliminate legal abortion completely and preserve the lives of born women who are here, because this is not a moral problem caused by promiscuity or some other sexual sin. I focused on purpose on wanted pregnancies that end in a requirement for abortion.

Please think about this, and advocate for women’s lives, too.

Lil Nas X and “Where The Devil Reside”

Silhouette of man with wings standing on a hill. The sun is rising or setting directly over his head.
Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels

Lil Nas X recently released a video for his song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” that features him in a CGI garden making out with a serpent and later giving the devil a lap dance. He followed this up by releasing a custom-modified set of sneakers with a Satanic theme and even one drop of human blood in the air pocket mixed with the red dye. Naturally, large parts of the Christian community are up in arms.

I am a product of the particular form of Christianity practiced here, so I won’t assert that I was completely comfortable watching Lil Nas X cavort with demonic-looking figures. But art isn’t supposed to necessarily be comfortable. (If your initial response to that is “but that’s not art”, I’ll gently remind you that while not every expression is art, the range is probably broader than what any one person would accept.) I did notice two things though.

First, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mainstream music video where a man sexualizes himself the way a woman might be expected to for the benefit of men the way we’ve seen in countless videos. That alone was interesting, and for the LGBTQ+ community, possibly groundbreaking. We’ll set aside for the moment the question of whether that sexualization is a good thing, and focus on the fact that it is bringing other sexual identities out of the shadows. (It’s also possible that not being a member of that community and being at an age where I’m rapidly entering the lawn-guarding stage of my music appreciation career, I am not aware of other work that’s been done.) Second, I didn’t realize his real first name was Montero. Singing an eponymous song while literally wrestling with his demons sheds a whole new light on the meaning and intention behind the work.

Hell has a checkered story. The Bible doesn’t talk about Hell as we know it. Jesus in the original untranslated text talks about Gehenna, which was a valley in Jerusalem that was considered to be cursed because ancient kings of Judah sacrificed children by fire there. Rabbinic literature talks about it as a kind of purgatory, but one’s stay there is seen as temporary. Other faiths’ concepts, such as the Greeks’ Tartarus, a place of torment that corresponded to one’s sins in life, later influenced Christian conceptions of what Hell is. Gnostic beliefs about the separation of the spirit and the body, also influenced by Greek philosophy, fed the frequently taught notion that the body and the world the body lives in is corrupted. The word Hell itself comes from the Anglo-Saxons that were converted several hundred years after the life of Christ. And the medieval artistic imagination completed the vision as we see it: a burning, desolate realm, where a goatlike humanoid supervises while legions of abominations roam free and torture the souls of the wicked.

American Christians are also very afraid of Satan. Satan comes from Semitic language roots as a word for “adversary”. Theologically, depending on one’s reading of the Bible, he’s both the one who is the prosecutor arguing before God why you should be locked away in Hell and the undercover police officer setting you up to commit the crime. Americans have a particularly literalist interpretation of Biblical text, and as such tend to believe in a personified being. There have been times when I’ve referred to some of the more fundamentalist practices of Christianity as “devil worship” because they spend more time in practice expressing their fear of what the devil is doing or what will do next than their faith in God. The Gnostic-influenced dualism ascribes nearly as much power to the devil as to God, making him god-like in his reach and capability. In their eschatology, God will ultimately prevail, but only after a pitched and difficult battle.

Many of the more conservative forms of American Christianity continue to look at our “fallen world” and see evidence of the devil’s work throughout. They are deeply concerned that the mainstream society and culture, as it grows increasingly tolerant and expresses broader points of view, will at least turn its eye away from God altogether and at most explicitly worship God’s adversary, granting him more power. To maintain the purity of the Church, many small-c churches have forgotten how to love people as they are and create a welcoming refuge from the fallen world. Instead, they construct an ever-increasingly-complex set of rules and practices, and in order to be a part of the community, your beliefs must line up just so. Otherwise, while you may attend and even volunteer your talents in service to the body, you will not be fully allowed to participate in the life of the church, lest you lead others astray. I experienced some of this in previous churches due to my willingness to even hold explicit uncertainty rather than accept literal interpretations of Scripture. LGBTQ+ parishioners have experienced it all the more.

The stereotypical conservative position is portrayed as “gay bad, stay away until you decide to live the way God intended.” I have attended churches with a more nuanced position, but still one that in practice did not let people fully participate in the life of the church without choosing celibacy and singleness. If they do choose that, they’ll then still often be pressured to find a heterosexual partner and marry, as official leadership and unofficial authority is primarily only available to married men, and to women only indirectly through their husbands. There’s a whole separate thing about how celibacy and singleness should be first-class concepts in the church regardless of one’s identity and orientation, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

All this context is the place from which Lil Nas X is drawing this song. He grew up outside of Atlanta, the son of a gospel singer. He tried to “pray his gay away” and couldn’t. I do not know the exact church framework he grew up in, but it stands to reason based on his documented handling of coming to terms with his sexuality that he grew up in a conservative Christian context that saw no place for him as he was. His supporters, and many LGBTQ+ people that I have seen express opinions on it see it clearly as him embracing the things about himself that his upbringing told him would send him to Hell. Some gay people who were raised in a conservative Christian context struggle with the imagery as well, but hold the tension and understand the message.

Let’s get back to the latest Satanic panic. American Christians are concerned about the devil, or as many call him due to some choice lines from Paul, the god of this world, taking over the mainstream culture and ruling over all except the small remnant who choose to profess Christ. Videos like this to them are just evidence of attempting to corrupt the children directly, normalizing worship of the devil and practice of evil. Variants of these ideas are informing cult practices like QAnon that have infested white evangelical spaces.

in my experience though, I have only met 3 kinds of people Christians would call “devil-worshippers”:

  1. People who practice pre-Christian faiths (with a partial exception made for Judaism) in as close to their original form as possible
  2. People who practice reconstituted faith systems drawing from pre-Christian beliefs like Wicca or Thelema
  3. People who don’t believe in anything and who are trolling Christians (the Satanic Temple is a good example of this)

I’ve had personal relationships with people in all three categories. None of these people are plotting to take down the Christian God or corrupt God’s followers for the benefit of their own deity or pleasure. Evangelism is not a universal religious practice, and they are not seeking converts either. Only the most militant atheists, who ironically are often backlashing against a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, are concerned about ending belief because of the great harm they’ve seen believers do to each other. Most atheists and believers in other deities or systems just want to be left alone to live their lives as they see fit.

My own afterlife theology is evolving. I don’t know exactly what happens after this, though I think the Hell we constructed out of burning trash heaps and medieval visions isn’t how it works. I am also not sure I believe in an incarnate adversary-in-chief, though I have experienced spiritual warfare firsthand and know there are malevolent forces out there beyond our scientific understanding.

What I do know is that our church that is so deeply concerned with the devil has so much molestation and abuse of all kinds in it, either in the homes of parishioners or in the offices of leaders, that it’s not even considered a stop-everything moment when yet another leader or priest or counselor or parent is exposed for what my friend rightly calls “spiritual murder”. I have seen churches manipulate and emotionally abuse people as well, causing great damage and distress, and driving people away from a faith whose only face for them is the church leadership. And let’s not even get started on the horrors of genocide, slavery, segregation, and colonization that were justified by twisted forms of faith that have still not fully been unwound.

I remember watching an episode of “College Hill” of all things, a reality show where Black college students live together in a house with the expected ensuing drama, and during a trip to the woods where everyone bonded, one girl talked about how she was molested weekly downstairs at the church while service was going on upstairs. And while she was supported and received sympathy, no one even saw that as surprising or remarkable. No one went to the church with pitchforks and torches. It’s just the way things happen, so watch your kids and good luck. The problem is so endemic among Catholic priests that it’s become a distasteful joke. Even our secular religion of sports is now showing itself to be a center of abuse from the same coaches that pray with young athletes on the field.

I do not believe that there is something fundamental about Christianity as a system that causes this. I think, and the world shows, that this is a universal human capability. Part of the ability to choose between good and evil is the ability to choose evil, and in that regard, we need no devil to tempt us. The power is its own temptation. I do believe that fundamentalist praxis that brooks no dissent, no understanding of metaphor, and no reflection, and that forgets the core revolutionary charter that Jesus set out, opens us up to calling, as Isaiah 5:20 says, “evil good, and good evil”. The repression of fundamentalism allows no escape for our evil urges, no way to put them in disinfecting sunlight, so they sit inside, fester, and grow.

Despite the fact that it’s not Christianity itself that is broken, but its practice here, we are not excused from the duty to change the practice where we can. We are not excused from welcoming our neighbor as they are without qualification. We are not excused from protecting the vulnerable and casting down the haughty and those who would abuse their sacred responsibilities. Something is broken in a faith practice that shakes its fist at a young man dancing on another man in red makeup while it sits mute, shame-faced, and silent while children are broken and women are murdered both spiritually and literally for the warped desires of men.

Lil Nas X is mocking a practice of faith that failed him and finding freedom in that. We need not celebrate it if we don’t personally connect with it, but we have nothing to fear from it either. The onus is on those who believe to create a practice of faith that is so full of love and justice that there is nothing to mock.

“Future-Present” Tension and Gospel Ambassadorship

American Christians, especially those that identify as evangelical, love to “share the Gospel”. In many small group circles and among friends, weekly check-ins may include a delighted, “I shared the Gospel 3 times this week!” or a dejected “I didn’t share the Gospel with anyone. I need to do better.” We keep a scorecard, like golf, or bowling.

I was reflecting with my friend Dan Crain, a pastor and community leader I’ve co-led a Be The Bridge group with and become good friends with, today about what it means to be a peacemaker on behalf of Christ. I had a revelation in that moment. Those of us who profess Christ in this particularly American way think of ourselves as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, bringing good news to the people of Earth. But this model separates us from the people who we wish to see join us in our understanding of who Christ is. In order to fully understand our purpose, we have to get a bit transcendental. We have to step outside of the present tense and operate with multiple views of time. In this way, we obtain a fraction of the view that a God that lives outside of time has.

Romans 5:6-8 talks about how Christ died for us while we were still weak, while we were still sinners. Christ’s act at one point in time in the past reaches into our present, pulls us out of a present depravity into a future hope of reconciliation of all things. Most of us accept that truth and rejoice. We gleefully report, as Paul did in Galatians 2:20, how “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

But we don’t follow the next step. As we declare ourselves peacemakers and ambassadors, we proclaim we are already citizens of Heaven, and we’re coming to broker a deal with those unfortunates that haven’t filled out their applications yet. To get a complete understanding of this, we must combine our perceptions into a “future-present” view of reality.

The future tense speaks of things that will be. The present tense speaks of things that are, right now. As Christians, we live in the intersection of the present, our flesh with its infirmities, the brokenness of the world we see around us, and the future, a kingdom and family that we will be a part of for eternity. Christ mediates this transcendent breach in the order of time’s arrow and allows some portion of us to live in that future as if it were the present! We get to experience glimpses of the full acceptance of God and the completion of our future hope in our present.

This is undoubtedly good news. However, the part that we miss is that we are also still beings of the present. We are not God’s diplomats, sitting at the table overseeing the reconciliation between some sinful “other” and God. We are the rebellious, haughty party sitting at the other side of the table from our neighbor. We have been wronged, yes, but we have also done much wrong. And we are in need of an external mediator to complete the reconciliation to our neighbor and to receive the wisdom our neighbors have.

When we approach mission or literal evangelism in this way, we carry a humility and an openness that allows us to experience more of the fullness of God. We gain the capacity to learn how to more rightly see God from our neighbor rather than educating them on our narrow and limited glimpse and attempting to snuff out their light or make it shine on our particular frequency. We can meet needs without thinking we are the Provider of Good Things. We can carry the layers of our intersectional identity in the present while neither giving them primacy over our future identity nor diminishing them to irrelevance when they shape so much of how our present is experienced.

We are each carrying different, infinitesimal sparks of that incomprehensible glory, and only by recognizing our true position, as a member of a warring faction that is only now learning to lay down their arms, as a humble creature that has far more to learn than it has to teach, can we share a true Gospel laden with future hope that speaks to a present reality.


Fifty years.
Fifty years since one of the greatest theologians and social activists of the 20th Century was shot down.
Who is Rev. Dr. King to you?
To too many Americans, he is a messiah of cheap grace, who finished the work of racial reconciliation in his blood, because it was too hard for us. In this false good news story, we are now clean, blameless, and above reproach. For this group of us, challenging systems and behaviors that persist is insulting, unreasonable, and unfair.
To many more of us, he’s a Great Figure of History, like Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and so on. For this group of us work is important, formative, but vague and disconnected from our daily lives.
As I meditate on his life and death today, I think about how far we can progress in fifty years. When I went to my college Reunions parade for the first time in the 90s, the fiftieth anniversary alumni had their first black members. My class wasn’t at the proportion of the country as a whole, but there were hundreds of us. When my father registered people in the Alabama countryside to vote fifty years ago, the experience seemed more like one of the countries we cluck at today, with citizens afraid to vote because what might follow was state-sanctioned murder by the white members of the community. Today, it’s a short and easy trip to Memorial Drive to vote early, or across to a nearby church to vote on the day. I’m far more worried about being late for work or late for dinner as a result of voting than I am about making it back home.
Despite this, we still have problems. Racial animus wasn’t erased, it was buried. Individuals who actually got to experience life with people from other racial groups were better for it, as we found none of us neatly fit into the stereotypes and tropes created to keep things as they were, or created to protect the vulnerable. (As an aside, something you must understand is that while white stereotypes can be hurtful and unfair, they were created to protect vulnerable people of color in a system designed to keep them oppressed and to eliminate those who got out of line, while stereotypes about people of color were designed to dehumanize and justify the continuance of same system. So while we should let go of all stereotyping, the hand-wringing and false equivalence should be released as well.) But as black people moved in, white people moved out. Old laws that were explicitly, undeniably racist, were not removed from the books, but simply (usually) not enforced.

Grandparents and parents who grew up in a system designed to protect their benefits and raise their preferences at the expense of everyone else taught their children how unfair it was that these people now were getting such large slices of the pie. Looking at the slivers being cut for others, they’d say, “Why, there’s hardly any left for us! We used to have the whole pie, and now these people who didn’t even help bake it get to eat it up. What about us? We’ll starve!” All the while, their eyes remained averted from the kitchen where the pie was made.

We plow on as resolute and relentless individuals, completely unaffected by the portions of the past we find distasteful, and clinging to those portions of the past we think are critical. We have had no lament about where we have been, no place to process any sense of collective shame or guilt. We have had no reconciliation. Given this, is it any surprise that we have elected leaders at multiple levels of government who are individualistic, who have no sense of shame or guilt, who have no ability to weep with those who weep?We could speculate about what King would do or say if he were still here to guide, to be a conscience, but there are only a few people who have studied him enough to be qualified to do that. What I’m more interested in is what I’m going to do and what you’re going to do.

If you are white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of non-white people in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • When I disagree with non-white people about where we are on race in this country, do I look for other non-white people to validate my beliefs?
  • Have I ever borne an emotional burden about something they’ve experienced regarding race with a non-white brother or sister?
  • Have I ever felt shame or guilt, untempered by resentment or resistance, around the way things are in this country, even if they’re not my fault?

If you are not white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people of different ethnicities than myself where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of someone non-white of a different ethnicity in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • Do I center the pain of my ethnic group and compare it quantitatively against the pain other ethnic groups have experienced, or do I lament with other stories of injustice?
  • To what extent am I complicit in holding up systems of power that unfairly preference those that have historically held power?

The reason why none of these questions are reciprocal toward white people is because since white is the historically dominant group, all of these preference raising questions come naturally. It’s not anything magical about the notion of whiteness; it’s just how cultural dominance works. You will be in relationship with the dominant group in some form. You will be under leadership from someone in the dominant group. You will understand their preferences and cater to them if you want to thrive. So for those of us new to this conversation, please understand this isn’t a finger-wag at something you were born with. This is about being intentional about dismantling imbalances in systems of power.

When I hear King the philosopher and social activist speak, I hear him asking us to seek the Beloved Community. When I hear King the pastor speak, I hear him asking us to lay down our preferences at the Cross and seek the well-being of our brothers and sisters at both an individual and systemic level.

Looking at 2068, what kind of country do we want for our grandchildren? Do we want a country that’s still in a cold Civil War that’s now 200 years old? Do we want a country that sits in resentment, fear, and individualistic separation? Or do we want to make the braver, harder, choice, and plow forward in love, letting lament and a sense of righteous shame break our stone hearts and remake them as flesh, then letting our collective love and intimate knowledge of each other heal and reconcile?

It sounds like a pipe dream when you put it like that. But just sixty years ago, I’m sure someone sat at their dinner table and thought “I appreciate what King is saying, but he’s crazy. Things will never change.”

On Reconciling Christian Principles with Government Programs

President Trump recently proposed a budget which makes a number of cuts to discretionary spending across government agencies. Liberal-leaning folks are predictably up in arms. Conservatives range from mild concern to relief that Trump is finally realizing Grover Norquist’s dream of “reduc[ing] [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” People on the left are wagging their fingers about the hypocrisy of professed Christians being so concerned about performance of programs designed simply to feed the poor and hungry. Conservatives answer with their standard retort that being Christian doesn’t mean you advocate that the government do everything. To them, it’s the job of churches and private citizens to step in and take care of the poor and needy. Who’s right?

As usual, the answer requires a bit of nuanced thinking. Conservatives have a point about their Christian obligations not extending to an explicit call to fund government programs. Other than giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus himself says little about how we respond to government authority, though he says a lot about how we should individually behave. Paul says more, generally telling us that we should generally abide by the government’s rules and authority, even if we are encouraged to live in a socially countercultural way and not allow human law to subvert God’s law. Generally, the commands on how to live and treat people speak to individuals, not governments. So it is technically fair to say that there’s no call in the Bible to engage in aid through taxation or government programs.

That said, it requires a narrow interpretation of the Bible to assume then that government programs that execute Jesus’s mandates are inherently bad, or even just inherently worse than a church or individual doing the same. While I cannot presume to know the mind of God, why would God not be pleased about a government that distributes some of the taxes it collects for programs to help the poor or needy? Corruption is certainly found in government, but what is forgotten by many who prefer limited government is that government is ultimately just comprised of people, just like any institution. Churches and individual hearts are no less susceptible. In fact, churches have to be on special guard because of their perceived proximity to God’s desire for humanity.

Another challenge with the standard conservative Christian position on the role of government is that churches have both an inward-facing and outward-facing obligation. The churches may have mission that they engage in locally or far away, but a primary objective is the cultivation of spiritual life and community among their attendees. While it would be better if people gave more in general so that church coffers were overflowing and churches were able to step into the breach for the needy across the nation, that’s simply not the case for most churches. The churches that do have lots of money often struggle with the challenges Jesus warned us that money brings.

Also, the outward-facing missional work of a Christian church is usually tied to evangelism, the spreading of the Gospel. Conservative Protestant denominations tend to interpret this fairly literally, with telling the message being as important or more important than showing and patiently modeling in one’s life. So, then, what if a person refuses the Gospel? What if they don’t wish to come because they know that that’s what will be served with their soup and bread, or with the clothes they are given? I’m not encouraging anyone to shut their mouth about the Gospel. I’m just asking if the church expects that it can be effective at meeting all types of needs.

On top of all this, the Christian church is no longer hegemonic in America. By this I mean that it’s not the default, dominant framing for most citizens. As church membership declines and more people turn away from faith as it’s historically been understood, the weight on the shoulders of each remaining member increases. It simply isn’t reasonable to assume that the church can serve the needs of everyone.

Even if other people start chipping in out of pocket, we’ve already seen what that looks like. Go to GoFundMe and see which medical requests get funded and which don’t. Popular, well-connected, attractive people get more money than the unpopular, the undesirable, the forgotten. We give to people we care about or think we care about, dropping $25 here, $100 there, while we leave the masses of the invisible at the margins and mercy of government programs that we want to cut so that “real charity” can begin. Why do we think a post-tax world would look any different than GoFundMe writ large, with individuals and small shelters and nonprofits spending more time putting on a good face for well-heeled donors than servicing the needy?

This is the part where some would point out that the liberals or non-religious people out there should put their money where their mouth is and give a lot more to charity. The response: they do give, in the form of taxes. The government is able to achieve some economies of scale with the support programs it funds. Taxes are also a great way to get everyone to participate in programs that improve the state of the society as a whole rather than relying on the goodness of individual hearts. The concern often raised following this assertion is that too much government money is going to the undeserving. I always find the notion of being deserving of grace to be a funny thing to be promulgated by people whose entire faith is predicated on receiving a gift that they did not deserve.

Moreover, when we unpack the notion of an unworthy recipient of government largesse, we often find ourselves envisioning someone very different than ourselves, someone with a different style of dress, different way of speaking, different way of acting, possibly different complexion. Our biases have a way of working themselves into our decisions about who should get what, whether it’s our tax dollars our just our attention.

I consider myself fairly generous, but I hold too tightly to my money, forgetting that I’m only a steward. I don’t manage as well as I should. Why would I assume my neighbors would on average fare any better? I’m always in favor of examining places where we can cut spending waste, where private organizations can serve people more efficiently than government organizations, or where government organizations can be restructured to be made more nimble. What I am not in favor of is the replacement of tax dollars that are helping millions with a reliance on the kindness of each of our individual hearts and our willingness to cheerfully give. I fear that switching to that model will find us coming up painfully short, with a net increase in suffering, all so that we can be satisfied that someone isn’t getting what they don’t deserve.



Which Bible Hero Are You?

No, this isn’t a Buzzfeed quiz.

I was talking with a Christian friend at breakfast the other day and he raised the point about how his Christian friends who are having problems always are likening themselves to Bible heroes. “This is my Gideon moment.” “I feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel right now.” That sort of thing. Even for those that don’t believe, historical stories with general applications are likely to be useful ways of putting problems into context.

The problem that he, and I, have seen, is that Christians often want to identify the story before the experience is over. Following the tradition of Christian writers and speakers I respect the most, I’ll use myself as an example. When I decided to prepare to run for Congress recently, I received the instruction to do so as a specific and direct call from God in a way that I had only heard a few calls in my life. In my fear, I likened myself to the prophets. I read the call of Jeremiah and was encouraged. “I’m like Jeremiah”, I thought. “God will put the words I need in my mouth and if He wills it, I will be given authority.”

Well, as my last post pointed out, I ended up not running. I wasn’t discouraged by this at all, but while talking about the experience with the friend I had breakfast with, I realized I actually felt something like I imagine Abraham did when he found out he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his son. Abraham brought his only son to a mountaintop to sacrifice him because he believed God told him to. He was stopped at the last moment by an angel and was given a ram to sacrifice instead. Obviously, running for Congress is not exactly the same as sacrificing a child (and, to my knowledge, child sacrifice is not yet required to pass legislation). However, I can relate to the idea of being given an incredibly difficult task, preparing for it because God said to, and then being relieved of having to do that task at the last moment.

If I had become too fixated on the Jeremiah analogy, I might have decided that God was going to raise me up, miraculously put hundreds of thousands of dollars at my disposal, and magic up my speeches so that I would win the hearts of the people in the face of a race that I had no statistical reason to place higher than fourth. In my fixation, I wouldn’t have heard the still, small voice telling me, “Well done. You may go.” when it became clear that I wouldn’t win this particular race at this particular time.

In the same way, if we decide too soon who we are in the story, we restrict our ability to follow the path God has actually written for us. Sometimes the lesson is different than we think, or contains parts of multiple stories we know to form a new story. Sometimes the lesson is a simple idea (albeit a challenging implementation), such as patience, or trust. Our goal is to stay grounded and move in faith, one step at a time, knowing that at each step we will be given what we need. I emphasize the word need because what we need doesn’t always look like what we would like most, or what is most comfortable. In doing so, we let God tell us our own story.

So next time you’re searching the Bible to figure out who you are most like in this moment, ask God to help you to have patience and trust as He reveals the story He’s writing with you as the hero. The Biblical stories are a great source of wisdom and encouragement, but only time tells our story, and we cannot predict or optimize it by being more devout or well-read.

Injustice for All?

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper “no.”

-Rorschach, “Watchmen”

One of the most insidious legacies of racism in our country is unequally applied justice. Poor black and Latino neighborhoods are overpoliced. “Respectable” black people with no criminal record have a fear of police, and most have stories about themselves or a friend getting unduly pulled over and/or poorly treated, or worse. Many white people find these stories hard to believe because they are so out of line with their own experience. In the places they’ve been, police have often been helpful protectors, occasionally even looking the other way for minor infractions.

I have lately been watching the reaction to Otto Warmbier‘s case. As a tourist in North Korea (pause to let that sink in), he attempted to steal a banner to bring home as a souvenir for which he would be rewarded. The North Korean government caught him, arrested him, and sentenced him to 15 years in their prisons. There is now an outcry to seek clemency and bring him home.

I have also seen the coverage of a recently discovered heroin epidemic here in Atlanta. The episodes of reporting are given sympathetic titles like “We All Make Mistakes” and “Please Understand”. (Seriously, go look. I’m not making this up.) The photos of victims of the epidemic are shown to humanize them, show what good kids they were before something unknown drove them into the path of addiction.

Many of my black friends have greeted these stories with snorts of derision. As black Americans, we know all too well what a mandatory minimum sentence can do, turning a youthful error into a lifetime’s failure. We have seen drugs destroy our communities in the 70s and 80s while the rest of America looks on and wags their finger, whispering under their breath, “I knew it.” or “Just say no. How hard is that?” Even now, as traffic stops turn into homicides, we see characters defamed and radicalized. Where were the cries for mercy then? Where was the humanization? Can you even imagine West Baltimore, Chicago, or South Central Los Angeles getting that kind of careful, loving analysis?

I have no objection to telling the truth. Whether Warmbier’s case warrants mercy is irrelevant to the point that he took the world to be his playground and thought that the privileges he enjoys in this country were transferrable to what is possibly the most dangerous country for Americans in the entire world. The circumstances that led the kids in affluent suburbs to use heroin neither fall neatly in the bucket of personal responsibility nor in that of externalities. That said, I grow concerned on two fronts.

I don’t want my heart to grow hard. If a white person, or any other human, is hard done by by the police, or has a hard experience that tears them apart, I want to feel compassion for them where they are. I see case after case of black injustice though, and I find the same thoughts entering my mind as those I see from my peers. “Well, I guess they’ll see now.” “Welcome to reality.”

At a more philosophical level, I am concerned that our desire to see the shoe on the other foot will lead to a tolerance for injustice. As we fight for people we know and love personally, who look like us and face the same struggles, we must never forget that our goal is to intersectionally end injustice wherever it lives. I shouldn’t want for them what I know people that look like me get. We shouldn’t want that for anyone.

I won’t deny, there is a grim satisfaction to see someone find out a truth the hard way when you know they wouldn’t believe you if you told them in advance. However, those of us who are coming from any non-dominant axes of privilege have to find an extra measure of grace to see us through, and to always see what the privileged and comfortable let themselves be blinded to. What’s worse for us, we have to see it and dispense said grace to everyone.

This is an area where I find Christian theology, properly applied, very helpful. The notion of the Imago Dei, that each human being is an image bearer of God, helps us apply this lens of grace to everyone, even those who by their actions or by our judgment may seem to be the least deserving. This is a bewildering concept to those who do not believe; how could [insert evil person from history here] be an image bearer of God? One answer: the same way a dirty and cracked mirror is still a mirror.

I also find the teachings of Jesus to be useful to help remind me. Jesus was clear about overturning systems of injustice or rules that sought to preserve comfort and ease of a few at the expense of many. Jesus went to those who, by conventional wisdom, were the least deserving, and pulled them closest to him. Then he called us to do the same.

I don’t want to take Rorschach’s stance. More accurately, I don’t want to want it. I see the wave of detritus frothing like a disaster movie, the unclean and unclaimed legacy of discriminations and denials. I see it in this election cycle threatening to choke us, set us back decades. As the authoritarian cavalcade reaches into the lives of those it was designed to protect, I want to reply to their “Save us!” with an icy “No.” But as a person who believes what Jesus said, I’m called to try to find the balance between calling out the unevenly applied care and caring for the wronged, even when they might have wronged me given the chance.

I am still figuring that one out.

Sin Substitution – A Useful Technique

This post goes out mostly to my Christian friends, as evidenced by the title. If you’re not Christian, don’t tune out though. . . there may be something useful in here for you if there’s something you do that you’re not happy about and would like to change. Please don’t let the religious terminology cause you to miss something that might help you be a more compassionate and joyful person.

I was talking to a good friend of mine, Rudi, about a problem we were seeing that was being dismissed. It’s not the type of thing you’d typically get up in arms about.  He jokingly said, “well, I’ve got this woman on the side, but no big deal, God understands me.” The implication was that we wouldn’t casually commit adultery and assume it’s a sin that God would shrug and go “oh well, you’re just weak, I get it, it’s cool bro.” So why do we make that assumption about other sin?

Sexual sin gets us, well, all hot and bothered. It’s easy to identify and point out, even if we don’t all agree on what constitutes an actual sin. Some of the no-brainers like murder and theft, we all agree are wrong; it’s easy to identify unjust taking of life or property. But what about those secret, soft sins? What about how jealous we are of our friend for whom everything seems to come so easily? Or how reliant we are on money for our sense of self-worth? Or how unwilling we are to listen when someone is lovingly correcting us, because we know we thought this through and have to be right?

One of the most helpful things my church taught me was a fresh perspective on idolatry. We tend to think of only the most extreme cases when we’re thinking about idolatry; people like the junkie who lost everything, or the slave to lust who blew up his or her marriage. But how many times have external factors in the world changed our emotions and claimed our focus? We wring our hands, weep, and fret over that relationship we couldn’t have or that isn’t going as well as we would like. We rack our brains to come up with a way to make a little more money so we can feel safe. We are raising our love or our money in these situations as idols with the power to determine our joy or take it away. Another perspective, taught to me by a church a while back, was that the definition of worship is what claims your time. Again, in these situations, our energy is not focused on what God’s will might be for us, but on what these things can do for us.

A useful technique to evaluate whether you’re being dismissive of your sin is to perform one of these substitutions. Take your problem that you don’t find abhorrent, but that you feel in your conscience is wrong, and substitute it with one that you do find abhorrent. Most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable stealing a car from a parking lot, for instance. So pretend instead that instead of chasing money, or worshipping a guy, you were stealing cars and couldn’t stop. What do you think God would have to say to you about that sin then, if you were to ask? What do you think your conscience would say to you? And how serious would you be about fixing it? When you’ve got a good handle on the feeling of conviction, and your feeling about how earnestly you’d like to change if you were that person, keep those feelings and apply them to the current situation.

A non-Christian objection to this notion of sin is that it’s a cosmic guilt trip. I view it a bit differently. One of the things that I find most interesting about Christianity is that everything works in reverse. We don’t fight our human nature and act good so that we can gain the favor of God and be spared wrath. Rather, because we believe a triune God sent a part down as a human to pay the debt we had accrued for past, present, and future wrongs, we fight our human nature that just wants to rack up more debt and serve ourselves and instead seek to know, reconcile, and ultimately be united with this being.

This is why Christians prefer to seek conviction over guilt. Conviction tells you something is wrong, just like guilt does. Guilt, however, carries a seed of wrath; you are either planning on punishing yourself or awaiting external judgment. Conviction carries a seed of forgiveness; as we turn back to God and renew our commitment, we receive the forgiveness that permeates the entire universe and binds its brokenness. I use “receive the forgiveness” rather than “we are forgiven” because it’s easy to confuse the latter with “we’re forgiven because we repent, conditionally”. Forgiveness sits in God’s open hand, and it’s on us to take it and choose its joy and consequence. Of course, we can choose not to take it, but that’s not denied forgiveness; that’s rejected forgiveness, rejected by us.

Oddly, I feel compelled to answer the obvious question my title engenders at the very end: what is sin? I’ve been taught and believe that sin is that which separates us from God, or is anything that we place above God in priority. However, what if your understanding of God is different, or you are currently having trouble believing that there is a God at all? If you’re currently in that place, I think it’s useful to think of sin as something that causes us to choose ourselves over others, or to choose a short-term victory over a long-term one that we know we could have if we persevered. Sure, there are edge cases, but exploring at the margins doesn’t help us get to the center of a truth; it merely tests the limits of that truth. The center is where we wish to be for now, so ask yourself: where am I choosing my desires over the legitimate needs of others? Where am I chasing a short-term win that is destroying my long-term prospects? Then, try swapping that problem with a more serious and urgent one and see where it gets you.

The “Genderqueer God” and the Affirmation of Identity

Here in Atlanta, it’s Pride weekend, where LGBTIQ (and imagine A as well in a few cases) people and their allies celebrate the freedom to define themselves and their identity. While walking in Midtown this Friday, I passed St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. They had an electronic sign in the front posting messages about services as well as affirming messages such as “you are a child of God and you are welcome here.”  One message gave me pause, and it was this:

Sign reading

My personal theology is evolving, but is fairly liberal. I am pretty comfortable with “live and let live” with respect to people’s personal identities, and am staunchly in favor of civil liberties for all people regardless of orientation or identity. However, this made me angry to read in a way that I didn’t expect. Intuitively, it felt like a willful misinterpretation of Christian beliefs as stated in the Bible. Since I consider myself fairly liberally-minded, having what I viewed as a conservative reaction bothered me. I decided to do some research and reflection rather than assuming that the statement was wrong or accepting it on its face.

First, we should define the term “genderqueer”. Wikipedia defines it as:

“a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity.”

For those just joining the bleeding edge of identity concepts, cisnormativity refers to the bias toward a understanding of the world where men identify only as men and women identify only as women.

Given this definition, at first, the statement sounds a little less crazy. God is not defined as male or female and does not conform to the gender binary. We refer to God as male because we grew up in (and the books of the Bible were all written in the context of) a patriarchal society. I actually would rather refer to God using the pronoun “it”, but that word is loaded with problematic nuance that doesn’t work in English. Does this mean that we can refer to God, then, as “genderqueer” and have that be as accurate as saying “God is not male or female”? I’ll get to that in a minute.

The verse referred to in the image, is Deuteronomy 4:16, which reads:

“beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female”

I’m not sure what this verse has to do with the assertion that God is genderqueer. As far as I can tell, this is a restatement of “don’t make graven images”, which is part of God’s drawing of a distinction between the Hebrews and the other people of the area, who worshipped multiple gods and viewed idols as focal points for worship. I get that it’s asserting that God’s likeness can’t be captured as male or female, but it goes on in the next verse to say you can’t use animals either. So let’s look at a verse that has some more relevance; Genesis 1:27:

“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”

So if man and woman are both created in the image of God, this would mean that the image of God encompasses both masculinity and femininity. More evidence that God does not conform to the gender binary. So we ask again, does this make God “genderqueer”?

I’m not a minister, and not even particularly well read on theology and religion, so I welcome thoughtful insight and counterpoints from pastors and ministers out there on this. However, one key theological tenet that I have taken to heart is that one cannot submit the Creator of the entire universe to the Creation that was made. When we define God as an old white man (or even just as a man), we are reducing God to conform to the rules of that creation. However, by the same token, if we try to box God into any characteristic of human identity, we’re doing the same thing; conforming God to the creation made by God.

God does not have a gender; God created gender, and created each person that subscribes to a particular gender identity as well. The irony of using that part of Deuteronomy to justify the assertion that God has a particular gender identity that is affirming to the non-standard binary is that in making that assertion, we are creating a different kind of “graven image”. We are trying to fit God into our understanding of how things should be so that we can comprehend, and be more comfortable, and have God accept us.

This is where the beauty of the Christian understanding of grace comes in. Those who believe in this believe that God created each of us the way we are, complete with our strengths and weaknesses. We don’t need to reduce God to make God accept us where we are today. Now, once we take God’s proverbially outstretched hand, Christians differ on what outworkings there may be on that based on your gender identity and sexual orientation. Some believe that having a non-standard identity or orientation means that you must live with it without changing it or acting on it. Others believe that there are paths for everyone to experience the fullness of earthly love, partnership, and self-definition in a way that is not offensive to God and in line with each person’s identity and orientation. Picking a side there is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Ultimately, though, if our affirmation is in an acceptance of the grace outlined in the Gospel, we don’t need a God that looks like us and behaves like us to be validated and affirmed.

Why Bernie Sanders’ Speech at Liberty University Matters

Preface: This does not constitute an endorsement for Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. While I like a lot of what he’s saying, I’m as yet undeclared.

On September 14, Bernie Sanders, the unabashedly liberal populist candidate for President, went to Liberty University, a bastion of conservative Christian thinking and teaching, to give a speech. One would think at first blush that there wasn’t much common ground, given his differing views on abortion, gay rights, and the role of government than most of the attendees. However, this speech is significant for a few reasons.

Sanders opens with stating what he believes that is different. He’s pro-choice and pro-gay marriage and doesn’t try to dissemble or make that palatable. He then follows with:

I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.

The Fox News climate (which birthed the less blatantly partisan but still strident MSNBC response) leads to a framework where those who disagree with us are at best, deluded idiots, and at worst, enemies trying to destroy “our” America. For us to move forward, we’re going to have to acknowledge that people who disagree with us have something valuable to say.

As a liberal minded person, I enjoy how Sanders then unpacks the hypocrisy of the self-serving theology that the Republican party has taught. I want the government out of my decisions (unless it’s who I partner with or whether I have a child). I care about the rights of the unborn (but am indifferent their needs when they become children). I should be able to acquire as much wealth as I want without being taxed, and it’s your own fault if you can’t do the same, because you didn’t work hard enough or pray hard enough. Your mistakes should be punished to the fullest extent of the law; there is no mercy for the criminal.

In a gentle, non-accusing way, Sanders walks through how injustice permeates our country, largely due to the adoption of conservative ideology. He even asks at one point, encouraging the listeners to check their moral compass rather than their talking points, “You have to think about it and you have to feel it in your guts. Are you content?” He then reclaims the language of morality and family values that the Republican party has been so successful at appropriating and redirects it toward wealth inequality, health care costs and challenges, and excessive imprisonment.

So this is all well and good, but why does it matter? First, it’s critical that politicians (and their supporters) not forget that most passionate people believe they’re really pushing for what’s best for the most people. You can be misguided or base your position on an invalid premise, but that’s not the same as being willfully ignorant and hateful. We have to make arguments with people that we don’t agree with and meet each other on common ground. This means that both that I have to engage and consider conservative language and that conservatives arguing with me have to think about and respect my framing.

Second, the conversation Sanders is trying to have outlines the true complexity of the Christian message. Jesus spoke a lot about wealth inequality and caring for those who cannot care for themselves. He also said that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. I find that the Christians that are seeking hardest to meet and follow Jesus don’t fall neatly into conservative and liberal buckets. They mourn the loss of unborn life but work to create a world where abortion never needs to be the best available choice, and they care about children after they’re born. They don’t see a provision in the Bible for a spiritual marital covenant between gay people but don’t see being homosexual as inherently wrong either. Since these Christians know rules don’t save people and government marriage is a contract, not a covenant, they see no need to prevent governments from declaring people married. They personally give generously of time and money to help those that are struggling, whether or not they are in favor of higher taxation to help facilitate that.

For me, I think if you find Jesus easy to follow and everything makes perfect sense, you’ve missed something important. The political and theological intertwining that has taken place among Republicans leaves many of them far too certain, unable to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” as Paul encouraged Christians to do, but expecting and insisting upon a “good life” by standards of the flesh, which involves pleasure, comfort, and self-serving rather than sacrifice for others and altruism.

If you believe in conservative politics and conservative Christian theology, I encourage you to look at the world, unfiltered. Look at inequality, injustice. For a moment, stop justifying and determining who deserves what for a moment, remembering what Jesus was willing to do for the utterly undeserving. Remember how you said you wanted to be more like Jesus. Then think about it, feel it in your guts. Are you still content?