Saturday, May 26, 2012

a United Methodist Bishop on the call to prison ministry

"Pastors should be as familiar with the inside of the local jails and prisons as they are the local hospitals." United Methodist bishop Ken Carder--then a young pastor, fresh out of seminary--heard a man utter these words in the 1960s, and they changed the trajectory of his life and ministry.

Before this, Carder had never been into a prison before. Let's be honest, who does visit prisons? As he puts it so well, this world he decided to enter is “a world often hidden from and ignored by congregations and pastors." There are a few, faithful exceptions, but on the whole, this clear scriptural mandate is woefully neglected by the churches in our society--a society so startlingly and disproportionally full of incarcerated or paroled individuals.
And while the Church's ministries here are neglected, he believes the stakes are incredibly high: “faithfulness to Christ's mandate and mission, renewal of the church's witness and ministry, the theological integrity of the church's proclamation, the spiritual vitality of pastors, and the well-being of more than 2 million inmates and their families.”

Bishop Carder discusses this and more in an article in The Christian Century from a few years back. It's a short piece, where he shares a few stories of his ministry and relationships with incarcerated men and women, makes some practical observations here and there for those who want to enter into prison ministry, and tries to show how he met God (the one who said, “I was in prison and you visited me”) in prison. You can read it all online here.

If Carder is right about what is at stake in this matter, then U.S. Christians simply cannot ignore the prisons and our call to go there. If you want to learn more about prison ministry, this article may be a good place to start. For anyone who is interested, I'll also try to make more resources available here on the blog in the future.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Q&A with Eugene Peterson

A while back, the Flunking Sainthood blog at the Religion News Service posted a two-part Q&A with author and retired pastor Eugene Peterson. The first part focuses on Peterson's famous Bible paraphrase, The Message, while part 2 concerns his other writing and particularly his recent memoir, The Pastor--although a number of other issues come up, including some interesting reflections on what and how we read.
Over the years, I have really come to appreciate Peterson, who has written wonderful books on the Psalms, pastoral care, Christian spiritual practices, and a number of other topics. I admit, I don't like The Message. I've tried and tried, but I just can't get past the sheer foreignness of the text when I read it in such a creative and unusual paraphrase. Maybe you've had a similar experience. Nevertheless, Peterson is an exceptionally thoughtful and intelligent man with over 50 years of experience in ministry and a deep knowledge of Scripture which fuel his thoroughly engaging writing. I think he's definitely worth your time.

You can check out the interview over at Flunking Sainthoodpart 1 and part 2.

Friday, May 11, 2012

God actually is quite Great: Annalena Tonelli

Every now and then as I peruse the internet, especially as I read comments on news sites, I'll come upon a remark like this one, that's both heart-breaking and incredibly frustrating:
When a Christian actually does something nice for someone, I'll check into their god.

This attitude isn't really hard to find online. Every time I meet it, part of me wants to say "are you serious? Have you ever heard of Mother Teresa? Martin Luther King Jr.? Who brainwashed you?"
This is probably not the most helpful response, and in many cases it would be completely out of line. There are a lot of genuinely hurting people out there--hurt by Christians, some of them hurt by me.

These 'God is actually quite Great' posts are, in part, a word to these people: the hurt ones and the cynical, ignorant ones alike.
Annalena Tonelli is a woman you would respect. A Christian woman.

In 1969, Annalena Tonelli left her native Italy to teach in a high school in Kenya. Once there, she was drawn to working with Somalian Muslim refugees who eked out a livelihood in the Kenyan desert. Tonelli came to realize that many of her students and their families were afflicted by tuberculosis, and so she returned to Europe for medical studies. After this, she would spend the rest of her life serving in Africa.
Tonelli continued to work in Kenya with nomadic Somali refugees suffering from TB for over a decade. This ended abruptly in 1984 when she was arrested by a military tribunal after she criticized the persecution of a group of desert nomads; she defended these people for the sake of Jesus Christ, she informed the authorities. Tonelli was expelled from Kenya, and so she took her work to Somalia itself.

Historian Dana Robert provides a nice account of her work in Somalia:
In 1996 Tonelli raised money from her friends to open a 200-bed tuberculosis hospital in Borama, a town in the northwest corner of Somaliland, a remote region in Somalia. The hospital was so successful that the World Health Organization named it a "TB center of excellence," and Tonelli was able to attract support from UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and from Caritas, the international Catholic charitable organization. Traveling out from the hospital into surrounding villages, she founded out-patient clinics that treated people for tuberculosis and other diseases. Twice a year Tonelli sponsored visits by eye doctors from Germany, who restored sight to 4,000 people. She opened a school for the deaf, handicapped, and orphaned. Somalis with HIV-AIDS also started traveling to Borama hospital for care.

Tonelli was also known for her opposition to the universal Somali practice of female genital mutilation.
This beautiful life of service to needy Somalians ended on October 5, 2003, when Annalena Tonelli was shot in the head by a man who had been harassing her for a job driving a hospital vehicle. Her murder was decried by dozens of Muslim religious leaders and protested by thousands of the Somalis she loved and lived amongst in Borama.

While a number of Western periodicals reported on the death of this "humanitarian aid worker" without any mention of her devout Roman Catholic faith, Tonelli explicitly named the motivations for her decades of service. When in 2003, despite her desire to go unnoticed, Tonelli was awarded the Nansen Refugee Award by the UNHCR, she explained: "I left Italy determined to 'proclaim the Gospel with my life'... This is what motivates me deep down, along with an invincible passion for the suffering and downtrodden, over and above questions of race, culture or creed." (You can read her full remarks here.)

There are a lot of incredible stories like hers out there. I wish that those individuals who claim they've never heard of a Christian 'doing something nice' would let these stories shape their perspectives more than the angry and hyperbolic rumblings of someone like the late Christopher Hitchens. Christians--individually and institutionally--have been responsible for some terrible things, yes, but they have also worked towards some truly beautiful ends. Other moments from Christian history--say, the Crusades--may be more notorious, but the vision of the gospel that we see in the life of someone like Annalena Tonelli is more true. In these moments we see the most faithful manifestations of Christian belief, the clearest pictures of what this way of Jesus is really about.

This post is adapted from Dana Robert's wonderful treatment of Annalena Tonelli's life in Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, chapter 5.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

5 things Christians need to stop saying about homosexuality (and 1 thing we need to say)

On May 8th, North Carolina will vote on a proposed amendment to the state constitution concerning marriage and civil unions. I'm not convinced most people really know what the amendment they'll be voting on is about (go here for more on this), but at any rate the debate has heated up on bumper stickers and yard signs across the state, and questions about human sexuality are back in the public eye.

As you might expect, in the midst of this conversation Christians are saying all sorts of things about how we ought to think about and interact with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I'm writing this post because, basically, I think almost everything Christians--conservative or liberal--say about homosexuality is misguided and entirely unhelpful. This is a volatile situation, and we need to be so careful, lest we further injure and ostracize those for whom this isn't just some issue for intellectual and theological speculation but something as near and dear as your sex drive or your hopes for a companion to spend your life with.

Below are five of the most common or most harmful things that I hear as I listen. I realize people have strong opinions in this debate. I'm not writing this for the sake of argument. Many of the claims being made most frequently are just confused and damaging, and if I expect anyone to make sure they are speaking soundly and charitably, it's the Christians. That's why I'm writing. If you want to argue with me on some point or another, that's fine. But first, hear me out.

5. "According to Leviticus..." This sounds simple enough, but it has to be said: use Leviticus consistently, or don't use it at all. I don't just mean 'don't condemn homosexuality if you eat shrimp (Lev 11:10-12)', though that's not a bad point. I mean, if you're going to affirm Lev 20:13a--that two men having sexual intercourse is an abomination--then you have to affirm 20:13b as well: "they shall surely be put to death..." You can't have it both ways. If you simply pick and choose here and don't give any thought to why you're doing that, there's nothing to protect you from the charge of hypocrisy.
Furthermore, if you're reading the text closely, you might be a little surprised by what you find. As Jacob Milgrom, the greatest authority on Leviticus in the last century, writes:
Does the Bible Prohibit Homosexuality? Of course it does (18:22; 20:13), but the prohibition is severely limited. First, it is addressed only to Israel, not to other nations. Second, compliance with this law is a condition for residing in the Holy Land, but is irrelevant outside it (see the closing exhortation, 18:24-30). Third, it is limited to men; lesbianism is not prohibited. Thus it is incorrect to apply this prohibition on a universal scale. [Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, 196]

If you want to cite a biblical injunction against homosexual intercourse, go to Romans 1:18-2:11 or 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Leviticus and the 'abomination' language there need to exit the conversation.

4. "It's just like slavery." No, actually, it's not. This is a popular point to raise, but it's a false analogy on several levels. Most obviously, approval and disapproval are just not the same kind of thing; the two issues are addressed in very different ways. But more than that, the New Testament's supposed condonation of slavery is only implicit: an issue like a general emancipation of slaves simply is not addressed directly at any point (which is a far cry from the repeated, direct denunciations of homosexual intercourse). For the most part, the New Testament offers an unspoken acceptance of ancient forms of slavery, insofar as it stipulates right behavior for both slaves and slave-owners without calling for the abolition of the institution (see, for instance, Eph 6:5-9). And whereas the denunciations of Romans 1 are supported by a theological framework, nowhere do the discussions of slavery offer a theological justification for the practice--only a rationale for the particular attitudes and actions expected from the Christians affected by it.
Nor is the New Testament quite so accepting of slavery as many would lead you to believe; in 1 Timothy 1:9-11 the life of the "slave trader" is explicitly denounced as contrary to the gospel. Paul also offers a mild encouragement to slaves seeking freedom (1 Cor 7:20-24), and this is clearly moderated by his conviction that "the time is short" (vv. 29-31). In contrast to this, the biblical witness regarding homoerotic activity (that's such a cold phrase, but it carries the precision I need) is univocal.

3. "It's a choice." I'm not sure how anyone who has actually taken the time to listen to someone who's struggled with his sexual identity could ever say this. If it were a choice, there are a lot of people who have gone through some very dark times who would have unchosen it. Maybe these Christians aren't listening to them.
But this claim demands more than an anecdotal reaction. Let's consider some facts. To my mind, one of the most important pieces of evidence here is twin studies, where sets of identical and fraternal twins are considered. If there is a genetic component to sexual orientation then the correspondence between two twins' orientations should be higher for identical twin than fraternal twins, because genetically identical twins are basically, well, identical. And, at least with males, this is the case in practically every major study. There are some ambiguities yet to be worked through, but, as one researcher summarizes: "the studies generally support a genetic contribution to male sexual orientation, [although] the magnitude of the potential contribution varies widely." Obviously, homosexuality is not a purely biological phenomenon--there are a host of social, psychological, and emotional issues that can come into play--but clearly there is a biological element, and it won't do anyone any good to deny it. Things are more complicated than you'd like to think, Mr. 'It's a choice', and you have to find a way to acknowledge that and adapt.
I doubt even those individuals who claim to have left their old sexual orientation behind will tell you they just made a different choice; they'll probably tell you Jesus delivered them.

2. "They were created this way." I've heard some intelligent, well-educated Christians express this sentiment, and it rankles me. Yes, as I just said, I do whole-heartedly affirm the biological nature of homosexual attraction. But creation and birth are not the same. Humanity was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27); every single human being is born into the sin of Adam (Rom 5:12-19). We are restored to our created nature only in Christ--we are new creations (2 Cor 5:17), being renewed and putting on the new self, created again after the image of God (Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10); we are conformed to the likeness of Jesus (Rom 8:29), who is the image of God (Col 1:15). God's work of new creation is all about the restoration of a broken world and broken creatures that are not what they should be. If you believe in original sin (granted, some do not), you simply cannot collapse the distinction between being created and being born. None of us are what we were made to be. 

1. "There won't be any gays in heaven." This is one of the most disturbing things I've ever heard. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible to suggest that anyone, simply by virtue of being attracted to someone of the same sex, will be excluded from salvation. And the presumption--who would dare speak as if they were the Judge of the living and the dead? If the New Testament tells us anything about who will be in the Kingdom and who will be out, it's that you can't predict it. Tax collectors and prostitutes enter the Kingdom before the religious leaders (Matt 21:31). In Matthew 25 both the righteous and the unrighteous are caught off guard as judgment is passed (25:31-46). And those who cast out demons in Jesus' name, prophesy, and do many mighty works will no doubt be a little taken aback when the Lord says "depart from me" (Matt 7:21-23). 'Judge not' (Matt 7:1; Luke 6:37; 1 Cor 4:5)--and we are specifically called not to judge those outside the Church (1 Cor 5:9-13). These ignorant, terrifying words are contrary not only to the spirit of the scriptures, but to the letter as well.

Of course, there are some Christians who are out there doing the real business of loving their neighbors--gay, straight, whatever--and are saying some good things while they're at it. Andrew Marin is one of them. His fantastic little book, Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community, is peppered with thoughtful words that arise from years of ministry with individuals in the GLBTQ community in Chicago who are wary of Christianity. Read the book. Here I'll just leave us with one word from Marin:
    The Christian community is by and large well intentioned in its interactions with gays and lesbians. We have a tendency, however, to keep making the same mistakes, which end up causing severe harm and reinforce an already negative perception of who we are and what we believe.
    Christians must be the first to apologize, and admit that we have wronged people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. 

One thing Christians need to start saying is "I'm sorry."