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The Bible’s Authority in Its Proper Place

Since my family recently moved to the Portland area, we’ve been looking for churches to attend. Besides visiting a church, the best way to gain a feel for a church is to visit their website. Specifically, their About Us page.

Since examining church websites, I’ve noticed some pretty strange beliefs out there. Many churches have a list of beliefs that are important to them. What is the first belief on many church websites? The Bible.

On one church begins its list of beliefs like this:

  1. The Authority of Scripture
  2. The Nature of God
  3. Jesus, God’s Son
  4. The Holy Spirit
  5. Salvation
  6. Nature of Man (Sorry, women. You apparently don’t have nature … but if you read the description, you might decide that’s a good thing.)
  7. The Role of the Church

Now, those are all important aspects of Christianity, and I don’t mean to pick on fellow Christians, but the order tells us what’s wrong with American Christianity.

We have elevated the Bible above God. It’s time we stop that form of idolatry. Bibliolatry has no place in Christianity. But, unfortunately, the Bible has become another god, above the Trinity, above Jesus, above the Holy Spirit.

I appreciate the passion that many “Bible believing” churches have. That passion is a good thing, but it’s misdirected. Christians shouldn’t “believe” in the Bible. We are not Biblians. We are Christians.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Bible. It’s an important book and has authority in my life in that it points beyond itself to God. But the Bible is not a member of the Trinity. It deserves to be respected, but it shouldn’t be elevated above God.

“Bible believing churches” tend to think that “the Bible is the very Word of God – supernaturally inspired in every word and absolutely free from error in the original documents. God’s word is the final authority in all that it says. Therefore, it must be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”

But the Bible doesn’t work that way. It contains within itself many disagreements about the nature of God and how events unfolded. For example, did Noah take two of every animal onboard his ship, as Genesis 6 claims, or did he take seven of every animal, as Genesis 7 claims? Does God require sacrifice, as Leviticus suggests, or does God require mercy and not sacrifice, as the prophet Hosea claims? Does God punish children for their parents’ mistakes, as Exodus claims, or is each generation responsible for itself, as the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah state? Did Jesus overturn the tables in the Temple at the end of his ministry, as the synoptic Gospels claim, or did he do it at the beginning of his ministry, as the Gospel of John claims?

Those who believe in the Bible’s inerrancy will do all kinds of interpretive gymnastics to put the round peg of the Bible into the square hole of inerrancy, but it just doesn’t fit. That’s because it’s not meant to fit.

The Bible is a document written by human beings who tried to recognize what God was doing in their lives. But it’s not inerrant. Interestingly, if the Bible were inerrant you would think it would tell us. It simply doesn’t use those terms. The Bible never says, “Hi! I’m the Bible. I’m the inerrant Word of God. Believe in me!”

There are disagreements that run throughout the Bible. Those disagreements are one of the things that I love about the Bible! The Bible models for us how to wrestle with God and ask questions about faith.

The Bible contains human testimony about how God works in the world, but it is not God’s inerrant Word. The Bible points beyond itself to God, and in the New Testament, to the God revealed in Jesus. The Bible even claims that Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible itself.

Jesus warned people about elevating the Bible above himself. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus claimed that the scriptures are limited. You cannot have eternal life by believing in the Bible. In fact, when we elevate the Bible above God, it blocks us from our only access to eternal life.

The Bible is important, but we are not Biblians. We are Christians. We are not called to believe in the Bible. We are called to believe in Jesus.

Christians need to put the Bible’s authority back in its proper place. The Bible’s authority rests in the faith that it points beyond itself to the God revealed in Jesus.

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Photo: michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo

Kelly Gissendaner screenshot

To Death With The Death Penalty!

On September 30th, Georgia inmate Kelly Gissendaner was executed. Nay, she was murdered. Execution is but a euphemism for what the state did. In spite of countless emails, strongly backed petitions asking for a stay of execution, and even pleading from Pope Francis, a state within this “Christian” nation declared loudly that retributive justice is the correct form of justice. An eye for an eye is the best we can do.

A Life for a life.

In 1998, Kelly Gissendaner was sentenced to death for her role in the murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Although she did not commit the murder—a man named Gregory Bruce Owen was the one who stabbed Douglas to death—Kelly was given the harshest of penalties because she was the one who masterminded the plan. Then for nearly two decades, Kelly Gissendaner waited to die. But there in prison is where she began to find life. She befriended German theologian Jürgen Moltmann while at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, finding Moltmann’s theology inspiring, as his universalism contends that none are beyond redemption. Gissendaner states:

I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned firsthand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy. I have learned to place my hope in the God I now know.

And in spite of this obvious transformation, in spite of a restored heart, and in spite of Kelly’s Christ-encounter, her life was ended. With the juice from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil still dripping down our collective chins, we cried: “Crucify her! Crucify her!”

Blood for blood.

Who do we think we are? What right do we have to deem who dies and who lives? Wasn’t the woman in John 8 who was caught in adultery deserving of death per the law of the land? And what did Jesus say to those who were armed to the teeth, ready to crush her? “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (8:7)” Who was without sin in Georgia the other day? The judge? The jury? The executioner?

Some “Christian” nation . . .

What is the point of the prison industrial complex if those who find the peace of Jesus are still murdered? Is it in place just so we can feel better about ourselves—so we can have some sense of “justice”? Oh, and what a sense of justice it is!!! Nearly two decades ago a sick and twisted woman showed no mercy to her husband so today, a sick and twisted society shows no mercy to a restored and healed woman!? That isn’t justice. It is murder

Breath for breath.

So now, we await the fates of over 20 human beings who are scheduled to be executed by the end of 2015. Yes, these people probably committed heinous acts. Yes, they were driven by hate and fear and prejudice and malice and contempt. And yes, if they committed those acts against my loved ones, my initial reaction would be to “kill those bastards!” But I’m more Petrine than I am Christlike and I can almost hear Jesus—the very same Jesus who was also murdered by the state—whispering in my ear: “Get behind me satan!”

My honest hope is that the death of Kelly Gissendaner is not in vain. I hope her testimony can be a wakeup call to the citizens of the United States of America. This country needs a shake up anyway! We need a redefinition of “justice”—retribution exchanged for restoration and reconciliation. We need to exchange our desire for sacrifice for a desire for mercy. We need to become peacemakers, not peacekeepers.

In short: we do not need any more scapegoats!!!

RIP Kelly Gissendaner. RIP Douglas Gissendaner. I pray that reconciliation between you both has already taken place. I also pray that the reconciliatory peace of Christ invades every soul immediately, transforming fear into love, hopelessness into hope, and violence into pure peace. Until that takes place, I pray that more and more of my brothers and sisters continue to work diligently toward creating this lasting shalom.

To death with the death penalty!


Image: Screen shot from YouTube: Audio of Kelly Gissendaner’s Last Statement by Gwinnett Daily Post.

Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, October 6, another child of God, Kimber Edwards, is scheduled to be executed for a crime of which he might be innocent. You may read more about his case, and find out how to contact Missouri governor Jay Nixon as well as Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster in order to ask for a stay of execution and a reexamination of the evidence, here.


#PrayerforEveryone: Jesus’ Advice on How to Pray

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. ~ Matthew 5:5-6

Last week the United Nations adopted a new set of global initiatives to be achieved by 2030. They have identified 17 Global Goals that read like the combined prayer list of Mother Teresa, Pope Francis, and Nelson Mandela. Here’s a sampling of what’s on the list: ending poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, access to clean water and sanitation, economic growth, education and action on climate change. The One Campaign, Bono’s anti-poverty organization, has issued an intriguing call for the people of the world to act and pray together to achieve these goals. No matter your religion, you are invited to be part of Prayer for Everyone and engage with your community for a “week of prayer and action” from September 25 to October 1.

Of course Prayer for Everyone shouldn’t be just a one off event. Paul advised us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and Jesus commanded us to pray much more difficult prayers, for the well-being of those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44-45). So praying for the least and the last such as the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged and our environment is a no-brainer. It’s what good people do. The Global Goals are so noble and good, who wouldn’t want to pray for them?

Hypocrites Get Their Reward

Unfortunately, good people are not immune to hypocrisy! When we pray, we are often praying like the hypocrites in Matthew’s Gospel. All too often our Sunday morning public prayers do more to enhance our reputations than help those we are praying for. Because Prayer for Everyone is such an obviously good thing to do that we may indeed “get our reward”, as Jesus says in the famous rebuke to public prayer. Our “reward” is the approval of those in our community for praying such admirable prayers.

We all crave the respect and approval of our peers, so what’s wrong with a little positive feedback now and then? Because as Jesus says, if we “get our reward” from others we may not realize there’s much more we could be receiving from God “who sees in secret”. If we are satisfied with the reward of approval from our peers, we may stop seeking for God’s reward and if we stop seeking it, we will never discover what it is!

Praying Our Worst Selves

For these global goals to have any chance of succeeding, Christian communities need to pray differently. We need to drop any pretense of being good and noble people and pray our fear, anger, resentment and hate instead. These sorts of feelings embarrass us. We know all too well that we are called to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, minister to the poor and liberate captives. But immigrants, war refugees, criminals, the mentally ill, and the chronically sick evoke all manner of unseemly emotions in us. We all know better than to act on these feelings, right? So we pretend before ourselves, each other, and God that we don’t feel them.

I know that praying our unseemly emotions will be humiliating. But our Father who knows everything in secret knows it all anyway. Unless we can admit it to ourselves and pray our deepest, worst selves, God will never be able to transform us, and through us the world. The only way to transform our fear, anger and resentment is to turn it over to God. And the only way to turn it over to God is to give it full expression, to stop pretending we are better and more noble than we are.

Seeking God’s Reward

This approach to prayer may sound risky, but keeping it bottled up is worse by far. Otherwise we run the risk that our noble prayers land on God’s ears a bit differently than we intended! We may sound more like the good and noble Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 who offers earnest prayers of gratitude that he is “not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Of course, the tax collector was praying for mercy. He was not hiding his sinfulness from God, himself, or the community. If your church decides to work for the fulfillment of any of the Global Goals, my guess is that you’d rather have the humble tax collector on your committee than the upstanding Pharisee.

If we hide our need for mercy behind noble prayers, Bono and his Prayer for Everyone campaign could easily be nothing more than a self-congratulatory moment in churches across America. The week of prayer will not mobilize communities for action. Because the good opinion of others works like a sedative on our spiritual lives, satisfying our desires so that we stop seeking the reward that God has waiting for us. I believe that with God’s help we can achieve all 17 Global Goals by 2030 and that Jesus believed it, too. He gave us good advice on how to pray the world to a better place. Let’s give it a go!

Image: Screenshot from Prayer For Everyone website.


The God We Follow: An Unplanned Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to Matthew Distefano’s original article published on Sojourners. That article can be found here. To summarize, that article suggested that God is revealed completely in Jesus as nonviolent and non-retributive. In order to understand those parts of the Bible that attribute vengeance to God, Matthew Distefano suggests we apply the hermeneutic — interpretive lens — of Jesus to scripture.

I did not plan on writing a second part, but one of my friends posed such a great question on Facebook that I had to offer a detailed response. Jim Rogers asked:

I really like this. How might you address it with those who reject the obvious extremes but still get muddled in the literal translations? I am working through this too. I try not to use extreme examples because many will reject such but can’t see their way out of the thorn patch.

To begin answering this question, I would have to take my examples from the global stage to the local one. Sure, we all recognize obvious religious extremes such as the Westboro Baptist Church, Pastor Steven Anderson, and entities like ISIS. However, what are not as obvious are the more restrained examples—the type of subtle violence that one might find in many churches across America.

It can come in the form of voting, campaign donations . . . you name it! Let us take a look.

Since I mentioned Leviticus 20:13 in Part 1, I will use the anti-homosexual “clobber” passage for the first portion of this piece as well.

For the Christian Right—especially here in the United States—this proof-texting favorite (as well as a few others) has dictated their politics vis-à-vis marriage laws. Because of this, the cultural move toward equality for the LGBT community has been painfully slow. Churches large and small continue to attempt to make the moral case for “biblical marriage.” In doing so, they seem to be violating a teaching from the Bible itself, namely Matthew 20. In a July 24, 2015 article, I commented on this:

Jesus also tells his disciples to not declare themselves above the other, but in order to be ‘great,’ they must be servants. (Matt. 20:25 – 28) Jesus himself did not come to be served, but to serve. How is using the political process to enact marriage law based on ‘biblical values’ not ‘lording over another’? In this passage, Jesus invites his disciples to imitate him in serving—putting others ahead of themselves. How can Christians be called to serve all, while at the same time using the political process to interfere with thousands of loving couples (even if they think it is ‘icky’)? How can a follower of Jesus place him or herself over and above anyone, for any reason?

To vote away the right of another in the name of “biblical truth” does not seem compatible with being a leader who serves, as Luke 22:26 states. It is also a form of structural violence, one that does not allow the LGBT person the same civil rights as the heterosexual person.

It is more subtle but still oppressive.

It is as “simple” as a common vote, but its harm is far-reaching.

Just as far-reaching—or even greater—is when one’s hermeneutic directly impacts the foreign policy of a country with a military budget that trumps all others. The Christian Right—at one time spearheaded by President George W. Bush—was all too eager to go to war with Iraq after September 11, 2001. Bush was their guy—a conservative Evangelical who communed directly with God. The President even went so far as to say that God told him to “go and end the tyranny in Iraq.”

While I am confident that the Father of Jesus did not tell the President to go to war with Iraq, I am not so confident that most American Christians would agree with me.

I mean, the Bible clearly says…

  • “Now go and attack the Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”—1 Samuel 15:3
  • “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.”—Numbers 31:17
  • “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘the man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.’”—Numbers 15:35

Jesus’ Abba said it, you believe it, and that settles it!?

Again, not so fast!

As I discussed in Part 1, the hermeneutics of Jesus are through the lens of mercy and grace. To exegete passages like the ones above—which is not the goal of this piece, so I will not be doing so—we would have to keep that in mind.

What my last goal is, however, is to display how Jesus’ hermeneutics then match his actions. Let us take a look at Matthew 26:53, where Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, rhetorically asks:

“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”

The implied answer is “yes,” and yet, they stay at bay.

Then, there is what Jesus says in the midst of his own murder on a Roman cross. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus, in doing only what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19, 8:28, 12:49), offers mercy and grace.

And finally, even upon his return, Jesus comes with the word of peace—shalom. John 20:19 – 21 reads:

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when he had said this, he showed them both his hands and his side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”

So, all that being said—what could following Jesus in hermeneutics and in action do to change things on both a local scale as well as a global scale? What would foreign policy look like if supposed “Christian” nations like the United States followed the model displayed by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to his death? What if those trying to get in the way of non-violence were rebuked a la Peter in Matthew 16:23? What if retribution was removed from the Divine both exegetically and anthropologically by Jesus? What if the church modeled that?

I believe that a literalist reading of Scripture—as well as a nuanced treatment of Jesus’ ethical teachings—without a doubt, leads to extremists. However, it also has led to a version of Christianity that justifies the use of national violence to get a certain result in the Middle East. It has led to structural violence that oppresses entire groups of people. It has led to many more unforeseen consequences, such as the improper treatment of women as well as the justification of slavery. What we believe about God and Scripture will dictate how we view ethics.

So, Jim (and others), I hope this begins to answer the excellent question you posed above. I hope I began to offer some examples of how a literalist reading of Scripture affects the very world around us. This hermeneutic should be traded in for the Jesus-centered one—biblical ethics interpreted through Jesus’ ethics.

Grace and peace be with you all.

Image: Free Vector From Pixabay


American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part III)

Is there such a thing as a sincere liberal Christian, which says that we basically take this document and re-write it ourselves? Is that really Christian? That’s a bigger question for me. And the answer, no, it’s not. I don’t think there is such a thing. To take what is plainly written and say that I don’t agree with that, therefore, I don’t have to pay attention to it, means you’re not what you say you are. – Rick Santorum, BuzzFeed News, 2012

In the third and final installment of this series, I will be changing my approach somewhat. There is a specific reason I am doing this, and here it is:

Because I would be labeled a “liberal Christian” by most in America, I do not want to fall into the trap of playing the victim for my own aggrandizement. Should I take the approach of simply defending myself against the attacks of not being an actual Christian, I fear I will engage in the very same scapegoating much of the conservative Right constantly engages in. Then I can show everyone how much of a victim I am! That would not exactly be Christlike. Instead of doing that, I am going to offer my insight (and hopefully wisdom) as to how to approach my fellow brothers and sisters who take a more “conservative” approach in love. My goal will be to help ease much of the fear some seem to have at the thought of theologies that differ from their own. Then perhaps all “types” of Christians can come together and actually help build each other up and grow.

Santorum’s primary fear in the quote above seems centered on his belief that liberal Christians are “re-writing” the Bible. Because this is not the first time I have heard this claim, I will focus my attention there. First, I would like to attempt to put his fear to rest because that is not what I, or any of my colleagues for that matter, are doing. Now, I will say that I interpret things vastly differently than most Western Christians, but different views aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Our Jewish forefathers often disagreed amongst themselves and, as scholar and historian Lester L. Grabbe tells us in Second Temple Judaism: History and Religion of the Jews in the Time of Nehemiah, the Maccabees, Hillel and Jesus:

Most Jews accepted the sacredness of the temple and the general teachings of the Torah. But there was no official orthodoxy (in the Christian sense), for it is clear that there were many interpretations of the Torah and many different views about how to apply the law outside the temple. (Preface, xii)

One group of Christians need not fear the interpretive methods of another, but in fact should be willing to learn and grow from them. And this goes both ways! Nobody has the complete—capital “T”—Truth.

The second thing I would like to address is the notion that the Bible should be treated as if it had “plain” teachings. And even if it did, there would still be complicated minds interpreting it—and we know no two minds are perfectly alike. It does not matter if you are studying Christology, eschatology, soteriology, or any of the other “-ologies,” there will be differences of opinions. In fact, dissimilar conclusions—even slight ones—will always be drawn when looking specifically at Jesus’ teachings, as most were in parable. Let me list some of them:

  • The Parable of the Lost Sheep
  • The Parable of the Prodigal Son
  • The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Servants
  • The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
  • The Parable of the Mustard Seed

One could spend their entire lifetime deciphering what each parable truly “means”—and even that gets us nowhere because there is no one “meaning” to something that is pedagogical (used for teaching). Moreover, reading a parable literally is as logical as the famous Oscar Wilde quote: “I can resist anything, except temptation.” My point is, without getting into specifics, is that there is no one way to interpret Jesus. Things simply aren’t that plain.

I realize I am not offering a counter-hermeneutic to a flat reading. That is not my point here. But it was my point here, here, and especially here. I would, however, like to pose one question to those who favor a flat hermeneutic: is that how Jesus himself viewed Scripture? I believe that is a fair question—one that I never once heard asked in church. Again, I attempt that here.

So, I know I did not defend whether a “liberal Christian” can exist. Hopefully, if you have been keeping abreast to what I write, the answer is self-evident. Honestly, I would have offered more of a retort but it is so damn easy to fall into the scapegoating trap and I am trying to watch myself. I will, however, conclude by saying the following: Conservatism does not get to claim ownership of the Gospel, even if some of their members refuse to acknowledge a contrary understanding of it.

As a church, let’s stop scapegoating others. That’s not the Jesus way. He refused to create scapegoats. Instead, he chose to serve everyone, and it is my hope that someday I’ll start looking more like him in that regard.


Image: Stock Photo by radiantskies via


An Eid Prayer For Pilgrims In A Violent World

Bismillah Arrahman Arraheem. In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful,

I come to you today, O God, Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds, as Eid al-Adha ascends with the setting sun. Though not a Muslim with a capital “M,” I pray in the blessed name of Allah, knowing that you are the God of us all. I pray in solidarity with Muslims around the world whose hearts, if not bodies, are in Mecca right now. I pray with those who have gathered from all around the world to humble themselves before you shoulder to shoulder with sisters and brothers who hail from other lands and speak in different tongues. I pray to the All Compassionate One for unity in a world that is being ripped apart by cruelty and violence.

Today, millions will gather around the Kaaba, the house that, according to Islam, you commanded Abraham and Ishmael to build together. This is your humble abode, a simple black cube. What makes it beautiful, what makes it holy, I believe, is that it is a centering place for those who come to worship you from all different lands. It is the largest gathering point for those who bear your image – humans created in your likeness – to come and set aside differences and hostilities, to orient themselves in worship of you. The beauty of this day is the unity – the family of humanity – as people of all colors and wide and varied understandings of your will see only your peace, your grace, and your love reflected in the eyes of their neighbors, neighbors from within their own families and across the world. That sense of being drawn together, that sense of unity, must extend beyond this blessed holy day. It must guide all our lives. We cannot worship you shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors one day and turn guns on each other the next.

Today, Muslim pilgrims and Muslims all around the world remember Abraham, the prophet-pilgrim, called by you out of his home, away from his family and village, back to the true worship of you when humanity had gone astray. Abraham, ancestor to Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, was set apart for a blessing not to keep to himself, but to share with the whole world. The blessing you gave him was the guidance to know you for who you are. Set apart from the idols, gods of war and tribalism, gods of greed and vengeance, gods of limited love for their own and wrath for others, Abraham was called to worship the One God of all creation.

Abraham’s obedience, particularly in his willingness to sacrifice his son, will be celebrated. In knowing that you desire our whole lives, both Abraham and, according to Muslims, Ishmael, were willing to obey you unto death. But in sparing Ishmael, you revealed that your true desire is mercy, not sacrifice. You are the one who said that to kill one innocent person is to kill all of humanity. You are set apart from the false gods that have deluded humanity for countless generations by your mercy and love, especially for those who are most vulnerable, those trampled and exploited and oppressed. In sparing Abraham’s son, you revealed that blood shed to honor you is shed in ignorance and misunderstanding. Your blessing to the whole world through Abraham began with this revelation, and we today are still coming to understand it. We have a long way to go, for we continue to kill in your name long after you stayed Abraham’s hand. As millions orient themselves around the Kaaba, let us continue to orient our lives around your revelation.

Generations after Abraham, the Prophet Muhammad inherited not only his message, but also his pilgrim tradition. Muslims know what it means to be a migrating people. The earliest Muslims were driven from their homes into exile and found a new homeland in Medina to escape persecution from those who could not accept your message of love and mercy for the widow and orphan, those who wanted to cling to their wealth and traditions. And just as the tribes of Mecca drove Muslims from their homes over 1400 years ago, today money from Saudi Arabia funds the destruction of Yemen and Syria and other nations as it supports terror organizations like ISIS. The nation surrounding your home, where millions are flocking to pray, has become the belly of the beast. Yet I write this prayer from within the belly of another beast, the United States empire, funding and participating in the destruction of nations all over the world. You built your home in the midst of a sinful world, and you heal it from the inside out through love magnified in those who welcome and bless others in your name.

Oh God, you alone know the extent of the unfathomable crises that shake our world today. While millions of pilgrims pour into Mecca, millions more are making an involuntary journey for their own survival. We are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in 60 years, and all signs point to it getting worse as wars and global warming make increasingly large areas of this home that you have given us uninhabitable. Oh God, you know that while millions gather to absorb the peace that you have promised through obedience, the salaam of Islam, peace alludes millions more who flee for their lives or mourn the loss of their friends, family members, even their own identity as war robs them of everything that made life bearable. You see the broken bodies and the tear-stained faces, you hear the pounding hearts as people run or swim for their lives, you hold the suffering in your hands as their stamina and will to live runs out. On a day when millions gather to worship you, help them, help us all, to remember that we cannot worship you without remembering the suffering of all of your people.

May those who pass through the gates of Mecca today remember how their spiritual ancestors fled for their lives, remember that the story of Islam is the story of the refugee. And may Christians, Jews, and your children of all faiths remember that we are all pilgrims, all sojourners in a world that has yet to repent and reorient itself to your will, your will of nonviolent love, your will of peace, your will of abundance for us all. Until we make this world a place fit for all of your creation to live in the harmony that you intend, none of us are yet home.

Draw the hearts of all your people together on this sacred day. Heal us from our violence, and give us the strength and the will and the love to rebuild this broken world. In your name, O Love, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, Ameen.

Image: Kaaba in Mecca. Image from Pixabay.


Dear Pope Francis

Dear Pope Francis,

First and foremost, welcome to the United States of America. I have heard this is your first trip to our shores and I hope it is a successful one. Your visit is a welcomed one for me as it comes at a crucial time in our nation’s history. In fact, this is a crucial period in world history for many reasons, which I will get into in this letter.

As you well know, our country is greatly divided on matters of politics. There is also a widening economic gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” an increase in racial tension due in large part to the rise in police brutality, and sadly, immense scapegoating of the LGBT community and the Muslim faith. Because of our autonomous view of the self here in the US, we seem to care little for the “other.” Instead of taking the view that we are interdividuals, as fellow Catholic René Girard argued, we, broadly speaking, think of ourselves in purely individualistic terms. This mentality has played a large role in the “me first” perspective of many citizens here. And as such, we have suffered.

In addition to the larger issues of this country—which also includes how we are to address climate change—we even seem to fight over who can attend your functions at the White House. Some have argued that allowing “pro choice” and “pro gay rights” activists to attend your event is anti-Christian. However, your compassionate stance on so many issues looks beyond hyperbolic political rhetoric to human need, and suggests to me that you would welcome all listeners regardless of ideology. Thus, while some may have a dissenting voice against your arrival, I, for one, welcome you with open arms.

If I may be frank, prior to your papacy, I paid little attention to what the Pope had to say. It is not that I disliked the tradition per se; I just found little interest in yet another religious authority’s views. However, with you, it is different. You are arguably the most powerful figure in the world but still seem to “live on the edge of the inside,” as Fr. Richard Rohr would say. I can relate to that position.

The primary stance of yours that I relate to is your passion for helping the poor. I appreciate that you view the world from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. Your ethics seem to line up with those of Jesus, which unfortunately does not happen enough in Christendom. Here in the US, Christian ethics seem more synonymous with crony capitalism and, as I alluded to before, rabid individualism. To stand hand in hand with the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden is to stand hand in hand with Christ himself—at least according to Jesus (Matthew 25:40 – 45).

In addition to your stance on ethics, you have an overall inclusive nature to your theology. This greatly resonates with me. As a Christian Universalist, I am in an interesting place within Christianity. On one hand, I hold Jesus in the highest of esteems but on the other hand, am often accused of diminishing the urgency of “accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” So, when you are quoted as saying the following, I understand the disconnect some have.

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace.

However, in spite of others’ disconnect with a theology that is more inclusive than most are comfortable with, I find it to be the most Christ-centered. And for you to take such an inclusive stance—whether you should be labeled “universalist” or not—is quite bold for a man in your position. I applaud that!

Although I could go on and on about the issues humanity is facing, I would like to mention just one last topic, which is that of climate change. This issue has been at the forefront of political debate for some time now and while some who profit from fossil fuel lobbies would like you to hush up about it, I say: “keep talking!” We live on a fragile planet and everyone—yes, everyone!—is affected. From the “Pacific Garbage Patch,” to places like Fukushima and Chernobyl; from the deforestation of our rain forests to the perpetual state of drought here in California, change needs to happen now. If the change that is far past due actually happens, we all have people like you to thank.

So, preemptively: “Thank you!”

In closing, I hope that your visit goes off without a hitch. More profoundly, however, is that I hope your visit impacts others to take a stand in the name of peace, in the name of unity, and in the name of love. We all have different traditions, cultures, and beliefs but what makes us similar is that we are all made in the image of our Abba. You recognize that and it is a beautiful thing to witness. Keep the faith. Keep spreading the message of peace. Continue loving the “least of these.”

Peace and blessings,

Matthew J. Distefano

Image: Photo by Tânia Rêgo of Agencia Brasil. Available via Flikr under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil license. Size of image adapted.

Copyright: enterline / 123RF Stock Photo

The Day of Atonement and the Surprising Joy of Leviticus

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins tonight at sundown. It’s the holiest day of the Jewish year and it’s full of joy.

The Christian view of Atonement is rarely understood in terms of joy. Instead, it’s often understood like this: You are a sinner and God is mad at you. But not just at you, God is angry at the whole human race. The infinitely holy God created a good world and humans screwed it up. Since Adam and Eve, we have offended God’s infinite holiness. We owe a massive debt to God. Because we are finite creatures, we can’t pay of the debt. Only an infinite payment would satisfy God’s anger. So, God decided to atone for human sin by sending his Son to us, as a fully human and fully divine person to take God’s wrath upon himself, thus saving those who believe in this theory of Atonement.

Many of us grew up with some version of that Atonement theory. It starts with guilt and sin and God’s anger. But that’s the wrong place to start.

Atonement has its roots in Judaism, specifically in the book of Leviticus and the Day of Atonement. Now, if you’ve ever tried to read the Bible all the way through, you likely made it past Genesis and Exodus. Then you came to Leviticus, which, to the modern Christian reader, is like a really bad b-grade slasher flick. Humans feel guilty about sin, so you sacrifice an animal here, poor some blood and guts out over there, eat some food, burn some stuff, and, voila, you no longer feel guilty.

But that’s a misreading of Leviticus. It’s important to realize that Leviticus and the Day of Atonement do not start with guilt. They start with joy. In other words, Atonement isn’t about our existential guilt and offering a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. Rather, Atonement is about humans joyfully coming to God, who has already drawn near to us. Hebrew Bible scholar Samuel Balentine puts it like this in his commentary on Leviticus,

In an evocative reversal of expectations, Leviticus begins with an emphasis not on sin and its required atonement but on joy and its spontaneous expression through voluntary gifts. From a priestly perspective, the God who covenants with such a frail and faulty people still hopes and expects that joy, not guilt, will be the primary motivation for the worship Israel will offer. (Leviticus, 38)

Many people read Leviticus and think, “See, this is why the Bible is so archaic and backwards.” But surprisingly, Leviticus is a huge step forward in the human understanding of the divine – and we are still trying to catch up to Leviticus!

Indeed, Leviticus provides “an evocative reversal of expectations” about our relationship with God. It’s to be a relationship based on joy. How many Christians today start explaining Atonement with joy? Not very many. Atonement usually starts with the idea that humans screwed up, we’re all guilty, and we owe a debt to God.

But a proper understanding of Atonement doesn’t start with guilt; it starts with joy. God created the world and it was good. Indeed, it was very good, according to Genesis. God created bunnies and flowers and books and wine and butterflies and toasted cheese sandwiches.

I love toasted cheese sandwiches.

Yet, we also know that there is something wrong with the world. We know that conflict, rivalry, violence, economic injustice, and war threaten our existence. We also know that each of us has played a role in the problems of the world. The good news, according to Judaism and Christianity, is that God is working in the world to set things right and to set humans free from our sins.

God gives that freedom on the Day of Atonement. Back in the day, the ancient High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. He would put on a white robe and a crown that had the Name of the Lord on it. The High Priest would become Yahweh and be given the title “Son of God.”

As Yahweh, the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to offer forgiveness to the people.  Atonement was about God entering into the world in the spirit of love to set people free and to restore the world. It had nothing to do with wrath. In his book Undergoing God, James Alison states,

The rite of atonement was about the Lord himself, the Creator, emerging from the Holy of Holies so as to set the people free from their impurities and sins and transgressions … it was actually God who was doing the work, it was God who was coming out wanting to restore creation, out of his love for his people. And so it is YHWH who emerges from the Holy of Holies dressed in white in order to forgive the people their sins and, more importantly, in order to allow creation to flow. (53)

The flow of creation is the flow of love. As Leviticus claims, the central ethical teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When we stop loving our neighbors as ourselves, we fall into sin and stop the divine flow of creation.

For Christians, Jesus, our High Priest and the Son of God, enacted the high priestly tradition of Atonement on the cross and in the resurrection. The cross has often been used to make people feel guilty and promote a wrathful god, but the cross isn’t about God’s wrath. Nor should it be used to make people feel guilty. It should be used to spread divine joy. In line with Leviticus and the Day of Atonement, it’s about God coming to us in the spirit of forgiveness. As Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

That spirit continued in the resurrection. The resurrected Jesus didn’t seek revenge against those who abandoned and betrayed him. Rather, he offered them peace.

From Leviticus, the Jewish High Priests, and Jesus, we learn that God isn’t full of wrath. Instead, God comes to us in the spirit of peace and forgiveness so that creation can continue to flow with God’s love.

That’s what Atonement is all about. And for that, we can be joyful.

Photo: Copyright: enterline / 123RF Stock Photo

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The Sky Is Falling! No Really, This Time It Is The End Of The World!

I grew up as a good Evangelical. I held to the doctrine of eternal torment for the wicked, a fairly literal reading of Scripture, and the always terrifying—at least for me—rapture theology. I say it was terrifying for me because I assumed I would be one of the ones left behind. How could I not? As a youth, I cussed, got in scuffles at school and at home, and, if I may be perfectly frank, was all too curious to see the naked female body. This did not bode well should Jesus come back.

Fast-forward to today and the rapture does not seem as scary (I will get into why in the paragraphs to follow). However, those at the forefront of disseminating this theology to the masses are. Those the loudest seem insistent that judgment is coming soon to a “Christian” nation near you. Whether it is the 15th, 23rd, or 24th of September matters not[1]—people like John Hagee and Jonathan Cahn are convinced this is the end of the world as we know it.

God has had enough and the smiting is about to commence.

Before I discuss the rapture specifically, let me at least offer a concession. You may need to sit down for this. Hagee and Cahn may be correct. Something may happen this month. It may be bad. It may involve blood and death and mayhem. But, it will be due to our incessant use of retributive violence, propensity to scapegoat others, and our destruction of a planet the Hebrew writers describe as “very good.”

Let me be clear!

If something horrific happens in the coming month, it will be due to the violence that structures our “powers and principalities.”

That being said—and to the main point of this piece—is that this sort of apocalyptic doom Hagee and Cahn prophesy seem to always accompany a rapture theology. This rapture—whether prior, during, or after the “tribulation”—is primarily derived from 1 Thessalonians 4:15 – 17, which read:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.—NRSV

First, this is not teaching what the dispensationalists would have you believe. The Thessalonians are questioning where to find their hope. What happens to those who die prior to the coming of “his Son from heaven (1:10)”? Will they be seen again? Paul’s answer in 4:14 is “yes,” because “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Our hope not to be snatched away from this “evil earthly realm”—a fundamentally Gnostic belief by the way—but it resides in the bodily resurrection upon Christ’s return.

The second thing I want to point to is that Paul uses language and imagery his listeners would be familiar with. In verse 16, when he writes the phrase “with the sound of God’s trumpet,” he is referring to Moses’ descent from Mt. Sinai with the Law. The reference to being “caught up in the clouds together” comes from Daniel 7:13 – 14, which reads:

13 I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

This passage is about exoneration. N.T. Wright puts it as follows: “The image from Daniel [is] about the son of man ‘coming on clouds,’ that is, coming upward in vindication.” (Wright, Surprised by Scripture, 100–101) In Girardian terms, Jesus is innocent victim—the scapegoated son of man who models what being the True Human is all about. He was sarcastically declared “king” on a Roman Cross, but “in the clouds”—that is to say where true authority comes from—is where his true kingship resides. What this passage is not about is some of us literally blasting off into the clouds to escape this hell-hole of a planet. We certainly do not find that here.

The final thing I will mention vis-à-vis to this passage in 1 Thessalonians is the use of the Greek word apantésis, or “to meet.” This “meeting,” in verse 17, refers to how the citizens of a town would greet a high-ranking official and usher him into the city. The citizens of heaven don’t head off to some remote part of the universe and party with Jesus; they greet him and bring him in for food and wine.

So, what is the second coming all about?

To quote N.T. Wright once more:

The point is that Jesus will reign on the earth, and at his royal appearing the faithful will go to meet him, like the disciples on the road to Jerusalem only now in full-blooded triumph, and escort him back into the world that is rightfully his and that he comes to claim, to judge, to rule with healing and wise sovereignty. (Wright, Surprised by Scripture, 102)

I place a lot of emphasis on this in the final chapter of my forthcoming book, All Set Free. Our mindset, as followers of Christ, is not to view conflicts and wars as something that must happen in order to be “rescued by Jesus.” Sure, these conflicts have happened and continue to happen, but that fact is hardly to be used as some sort of proof of a correct eschatological worldview. The mindset to have is that we are to work diligently toward ushering in the kingdom of heaven—a kingdom where the bows of war are cut off and swords are beaten into plowshares. (See Zechariah 9:10 & Isaiah 2:4 respectively) We are well past due for these prophecies to start being fully fulfilled.

“On earth as it is in heaven” is a common prayer known by (hopefully) all Christians. However, it seems a bit paradoxical when contrasting it with a rapture theology. Bringing heaven to earth is rather difficult if the mainstream body of Christ is off dreaming of the day in which they can “leave this dreadful place.” Assuredly, that is not going to happen. And thank God, really! Once Jesus is recognized as “Lord of all”—once he is met and ushered into the city, so to speak—nobody will be able to help but “give praise to God” in the end (Romans 14:11). What an exciting—and more biblically sound—conclusion to the story!

O the depth of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!—Romans 11:33

[1] I have heard allusions to these dates as the specific dates in which judgment is coming.

Image: Public Domain via Pixabay

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#IwasKimDavis, Or “Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome”

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Mark Sandlin, author of “The God Article,” for starting the #IwasKimDavis hashtag, which helps to curb our tendency toward scapegoating and instead embrace empathy. This is my #IwasKimDavis story.

“If I have to meet more homophobic people, I hope they’re all like you.”

Sixteen years later, these words still sting.

I was a freshman in college. I had converted to Islam two years previous, which is another story, and I was struggling to maintain my fledgling Muslim identity at a college with very few Muslim students. My conversion to Islam and later reaffirmation of Christianity is not particularly relevant to this story, except to say that I struggled to find a way to relate to and worship God that offended neither my heart nor my mind. Bewilderment about the Trinity and horror at the crucifixion as I misunderstood it at the time were some of the reasons why I embraced a faith with the same roots as the Christianity I had been raised with, without the same paradoxes. What’s important to understand, for the purposes of this story, is that I was struggling to be faithful to the God I was trying to understand. I believed this God to be Most Gracious, Most Merciful. But I also believed that this God had designed men and women to complement each other, and that this God had decreed homosexual behavior sinful.

It was, honestly, something that bothered me about Islam. But it wasn’t my central theological struggle, and Islam’s doctrine of Tawheed, the oneness of God, was so much clearer to me than the Trinity that I embraced it, and struggled to be faithful to the One God of all. I was striving to work through my doubts, trusting that God would eventually make things more clear to me. I struggled to live with the disconnect between my heart, which wanted to be an open ally of the LGBTQ community, and my religion, which (as far as I knew, before recognizing Islam’s more complex and multi-vocal history with homosexuality), told me that homosexuality was at best a pathology and at worst willful disobedience. I was new to Islam. I had much to learn. I wasn’t willing to disconnect from it or from the sense of relief it had given to my theological doubts over an issue that wasn’t even central to my life.

But the issue was about to become a lot more significant to me.

I had been somewhat taken aback when I learned that my new friend was a lesbian, because we had been alone together. I’m embarrassed now by how I might have jumped or flinched at the news, but it wasn’t because I felt any animosity toward her. It had more to do with Islamic purity codes, as I understood them, and how I would have to readjust my interactions with her to fit them. She had watched me pray with my covered posterior in the air, after all, and women stand behind or separate from men in the masjid to avoid that very situation! I recalled the hadith “When an unmarried man and woman are alone together, Satan is always a third companion.” We would have to keep the doors open when we visited each others’ dorms, I told her. I tried to tell her about how I was trying to keep up with my faith and how that meant I would try to interact with her as I would with a man, keeping my modesty.

I was almost embarrassed, and somewhat apologetic, as bumbled through an explanation of why I felt a need to change the way we interacted together. I have no idea what I said. But I remember my friend’s kindness as she listened, and her eye contact when I shyly looked back up at her, and she said the words to me that I have never forgotten:

“If I have to meet more homophobic people, I hope they’re all like you.”


I tried to explain that I wasn’t homophobic, or that I really didn’t mean to be. I wanted to acknowledge that I understood and deeply regretted if what I had told her was hurtful, and that Islam’s position on homosexuality was not something I loved about my new faith, but it was something I was trying to understand. I told her I knew it wasn’t my place to judge what was homophobic since I wasn’t the one hurt by it. I said that I wanted her to know that in my heart and mind, I thought she was a wonderful person, and that, if anything, I was a little troubled that her sexuality didn’t bother me, and troubled that I was troubled by that! She understood. And then we probably changed the subject to our mutual love of Disney, or a class we shared, or whatever. She quickly became my best friend. And as an agnostic, she appreciated the beauty that she found in my faith and my faith journey, and she herself became a part of it, as important relationships always become a part of one’s faith.

I eventually let the modesty codes of Islam, insofar as they separated me from my friend, fall away. I believed in modest dress and humility, and that hasn’t changed, but I didn’t want to keep my friend at an emotional or spiritual distance, so I didn’t.

At the time, I sometimes felt as if I was putting my friendship above God, but I was also able to explore my understanding and relationship with God through that friendship. My friend’s thoughts and questions sparked my own and expanded my heart and mind. Still, I had occasional pangs of doubt that I was doing wrong by God. What I didn’t realize then was that my doubts and struggles, and eventually my putting my friendship not above my faith, but above certain interpretations of religious tradition, was a path to a deeper understanding and a deeper love for the God who is Love and wants humans to relate to one-another in love.

Even after reaffirming Christianity because of a deeper understanding of the revelation of God’s love in the incarnation and crucifixion (while remaining ever grateful to Islam and still desiring to keep my love and respect for it), it took a while for me to come to the understanding of homosexuality that I have today. My understanding of scripture, my hermeneutical lens, is still coming into focus, but it is much more clear now than when I was struggling in the midst of fears.

My fear wasn’t really homophobia. And I didn’t want to admit that it was a fear of God, because I was trying, and sometimes succeeding, in believing that God is Love, though I did fear disappointing God. What I really suffered from is what I coin “Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome,” or FHS, and I empathize with anyone who struggles with it or holds it as yet undiagnosed.

I was frightened of disappointing a God whom I believed would be disappointed by a violation of purity codes. I believed that this God was merciful and loving, and that this God would even forgive homosexuality, but not approve of it. But the more I came to know my friend, the more I could not understand God being disappointed in her for something that — not only could not be changed, but had no need to be changed. If anything, I realized that if I considered her potential to fall in love and build a family was at all sinful, that would hinder my compassion toward her, and that was a sin. Loving was not a sin. I came to understand that, and it opened my heart to a deeper understanding of God.

I now see sexual orientation and gender identity through the lens of mercy, not sacrifice. The words of Hosea, repeated twice by Jesus, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” does not just contradict certain elements of the Bible in which God clearly does demand sacrifice. It contradicts an entire understanding of scripture, an understanding that distinguishes in from out, clean from unclean. Coming to the understanding that scripture is multi-vocal, that it speaks of human projection of violence onto God as well as God’s revelation to humanity in the form of Jesus, has made all the difference in the world to me. Every word of scripture is important, but some of it reveals the depths of human sin, including the violence that we were deluded into thinking was from God. Jesus definitively shows that God’s love encompasses everyone. There is no way to hold mercy and sacrifice “in tension” within God. Perfect mercy casts out sacrificial systems that exclude and marginalize, just as perfect love casts out fear.

Among the marginalized in today’s world are those who belong to the LGBTQ community. Some use scripture to justify this marginalization. I really believe they are trying to obey God as they understand God. Yet Jesus embraced those whom the scriptures of his own time marginalized, in order to heal us of our delusion that God excludes people the way we do.

I believe that Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk recently jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the national legalization of gay marriage, is trying to follow her religious convictions. She does not have the legal right to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and I feel compassion for those whose lives she has made more difficult through her noncompliance with the law. I lament the pain she has caused them, pain that may be compounded by other voices that marginalize them. But I also feel compassion for Kim Davis, because I have been her. I believe she is suffering from Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome, and it is not an ailment to be taken lightly.

Kim Davis may or may not feel assured of God’s love for her. I sincerely hope she does. But I also know that we will never know the extent of this love until we come to grasp the fact that God’s love embraces everyone, and that God desires abundant life for everyone, including members of the LGBTQ community. This abundant life often includes a relationship with an intimate partner, which is a human reflection of the depths of God’s love, and God’s love can be equally revealed in a partner of the same sex as in a partner of the opposite sex. I believe this, partly because theologians such as James Alison have successfully debunked the “clobber texts” for me. But more importantly, I believe this because I know that God is Love, that love is relationship (hence the Trinity that so baffled me in my younger days), and that being made in the image of God is to be made for love. Nothing reflects God’s image more beautifully than mutually self-giving love between two people. Knowing this, I understand Kim Davis’s struggle for the sanctity of marriage. Marriage is worth struggling for. But the LGBTQ community has known this all along, which is why they now celebrate their legal right to marry.

I pray that Kim Davis eventually recognizes that right, not just according to the law, but according to the God who is Love, who demands mercy, not sacrifice. Because I truly believe that if she stops trying to prevent others from embracing one another in love, she will find herself embraced in a divine love that is so much greater than she now imagines it to be.

For more on God’s all-embracing love as it relates to this issue, see Adam Ericksen’s article, “‘God’s Authority': Same Sex Marriage and a Kentucky County Clerk.”