|When||May 03, 2007 from 8:00 pm CT|
|Location|| The First Congregational Church of Wilmette|
1125 Wilmette Avenue
Wilmette, IL 60091
On May 3rd, 2007, Reverend Paul Nuechterlein discussed Christian Theology and Holy Relationships with an audience of 15 at First Congregational Church of Wilmette, United Church of Christ. Nuechterlein started by challenging a popular misreading of the biblical text that has led many churches to exclude gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) people from the marriage sacrament. He concluded with presenting a theological interpretation of the biblical text that is formed by the unconditional love of God – a love that includes all people. The imitation of the unconditional love of God is what makes it possible for any Christian to be in holy relationship with another. With this understanding, GLBT people can, and do, live in holy relationships. Nuechterlein breaks his discussion into five steps, to which we now turn.
1. “Orders of Creation”
“Orders of creation” theology is the primary argument most Christians use for excluding GLBT people from marriage. This theology states that God ordered everything in creation, including marriage and Sabbath observance, to be a certain way. The Genesis story has led “orders of creation” theology to conclude that humans are naturally heterosexual, so marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Naturally, then, homosexuality would be against God’s orders. Nuechterlein gives a quote from a study his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, performed: “Thus, we affirm the biblical teaching of God’s gift of marriage as ‘a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman.’ The heterosexual order of creation was given for our good then and now.”
Not all theologians accept this view of the creation account. History shows that “orders of creation” theology can be used to support oppression and exclusion, such as: sexism, racism, and homophobia. Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer went against the “orders of creation” theology used by many of his fellow German theologians to support Hitler. He called this theology false, and stated that “In pseudo-Lutheranism the autonomy of the orders of this world is proclaimed against the law of Christ.” For Bonhoeffer, the “orders of creation” must be interpreted through the lens of Christ.
2. Mimetic Theory
Nuechterlein asserts that René Girard’s insights into mimetic theory help us renew our interpretation of the creation account. Genesis 3-4 reveals the universal human predicament. Humans influence one another to desire similar objects. This desire leads to rivalry for the objects, which leads to intense personal rivalry and violence that threatens the community.
Paradoxically, the solution to the threat of violence against a community is violence. Focusing violence onto a single, arbitrary individual appeases conflicts within a community. This is called the scapegoat mechanism. For a moment, unanimous violence directed against a single victim, the scapegoat, brings peace to the community. This peace is only temporary, as the true problems within the community are never dealt with. Violence will swell again.
Christian theology states that Jesus unveils the foolishness of the scapegoat mechanism. Jesus refused to give into the idea that violence could end violence, stating in Matthew 26:53, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Jesus implied here that he could have fought violence with violence, but he knew that would only lead to more violence. Indeed, if Christ had taken up the sword, the Christian imitation of that violence would eventually have led to total destruction.
Jesus opposed some aspects of “orders of creation” theology. In the Gospels we see that some religious leaders opposed healing on the Sabbath. These leaders rooted their claim in the creation accounts of Genesis 1. In a compassionate response to human suffering, Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Jesus countered the oppressive “orders of creation” theology by stating that the Father continues to work in creation, and so must we all; the Father gives life on the Sabbath, and so must we all (John 5).
3. Science and Creation Theology
Nuechterlein gave a brief excursus here concerning science and creation theology. He pointed out that many Christians have come to accept that the creation of the universe happened in a gradual process, not in seven days as the biblical witness accounts. If we are open to what science has to tell us about the creation of the world, “why not also be open to what science says about gender attraction?” Ancient writers had no conception of sexuality. There was no heterosexuality or homosexuality. People just assumed that men were attracted to women and vice versa.
4. John 9
Here, Nuechterlein referred to James Alison’s first chapter in Faith Beyond Resentment. John 9 gives another example of Jesus attacking the problems within creation theology. The chapter states that while Jesus was walking with his disciples, they came across a man who was born blind. Jesus’ disciples, who still didn’t understand just how good the news was that Jesus brought, asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus stated the man’s innocence by replying that no one sinned to make him blind; the man was just born blind. A strict interpretation of creation theology led some to conclude that anomalies within the created order are the result of human sin. The blind man provided an opportunity for Jesus to teach about cruel practice of human exclusion and the good news of God’s inclusive love.
Jesus healed the blind man, hoping that this would bring him back into the community. Some of the religious authorities (not all, see verse 16) believed that Jesus was not from God, but from the devil. Since the authorities could not come to a conclusion, they asked the formerly blind man himself what he thought about Jesus. The blind man replied that it is obvious Jesus is from God, for he performs acts of compassion through healings. The writer of John tells us that the man’s bold response angered some of the authorities, who replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” They proceeded to cast him out of the community.
Jesus responded to this act of exclusion with his own judgment, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” For Jesus, the point was to show the importance of a compassionate community. This story reveals that even if the other were to become like us, we are still prone to the practice of exclusion. Jesus critiques this practice in favor of inviting all into the community.
5. Romans 1
Romans 1 is interpreted by many in a way that excludes GLBT people from the Christian community. A few questions need to be posed. First, what does the text actually say about judging others, specifically homosexual relationships? Second, what’s this business about God’s wrath?
Nuechterlein refers to chapter 8 of James Alison’s book Undergoing God to show that this interpretation takes the passage out of context. We often stop reading at the end of chapter 1, but that’s not how Paul wanted us to read the letter. Paul didn’t break up his letters into verses and chapters. Verses and chapter were medieval additions. If we want to stay true to the text, we must read the beginning of chapter 2, which continues Paul’s argument. In chapter 1, Paul wrote to his fellow Jewish Christians who thought they were better than the Gentile Christians because the Jewish Christians did not participate in destructive Gentile practices. Indeed, Paul stated that many Gentile practices led to destructive behavior such as the list found in verses 30-32: “envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” And, Gentiles should know better, for “they know God’s decree.”
Up to this point, Paul agrees with the Jewish Christians. He even sets up a “we good Jews” versus “those bad Gentiles” scenario. If chapter 1 is as far as we are willing to read, we miss the heart of Paul’s argument. Chapter 2 starts, “Therefore you have no excuse, O Man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the same things.” Paul makes an important move here. After agreeing with the Jewish Christians that Gentiles have some pretty strange and destructive behaviors, Paul tells his fellow Jewish Christians that they have strange and destructive behaviors, too. They are guilty of doing the same things!
Mimetic theory also helps us understand the historical aspects of cultic sexual worship. Mimetic theory states that in order to ease the conflicts within a community, frenzied acts of violence were ritualized among members of the community. This ritual violence concluded when the community became united in collective violence against a single victim. The same process was happening in cultic sexual worship. It started with frenzied sexual contact culminating in violent, sacrificial acts, such as castration. The whole process was thought to have been ordained by the gods.
The danger Paul warned against in Romans 1 was the ritualized sexual idolatry of Gentile cults. Sexual idolatry remains a concern today for both heterosexual and homosexual Christians. The biblical remedy for all forms of idolatry, including sexual idolatry, is an invitation to live in mutual love with God and with one another. The question becomes, “Can we be open to same-sex covenants as a recognized instance of such mutual love?” Nuechterlein believes we can, through good interpretation of the Bible that takes into account its literary, cultural, and historical context. Interpretations that force Paul’s first century critique of the frenzied, ritualized sexual contact in Gentile cultic worship onto the mutual love of 21st century homosexual relationships are questionable, if not poor. Indeed, Paul was not critiquing loving homosexual relationships; he was critiquing meaningless sexual contact devoid of mutual love. What was unnatural for Paul was random sexual contact outside of a mutually loving relationship.
There is still the issue of God’s wrath. Are homosexuals outside of God’s love? This chapter of Romans is part of Paul’s overall argument to transform our idolatrous notions of a wrathful god into the God of love shown through Jesus Christ. Paul mentions “wrath” 12 times in his Letter to the Romans. Only the first time does he connect wrath with God. For Paul, the only way we can talk about God’s “wrath” is by saying that God allows us the freedom to be wrathful with one another. God does not actively inflict wrath on human beings, we have learned to do that well enough on our own! The primary way that inflict wrath onto one another is through acts of exclusion – acts of scapegoating. For more on this, please see Nuechterlien’s fantastic essay at:
Nonviolence and the Christian Faith
Understanding the literary, cultural, and historical contexts of the biblical texts helps us to understand the human tendency to define ourselves over and against another person or group. This takes place through the scapegoat mechanism. This mechanism allows us to feel better about ourselves by excluding another person. Excluding another from our community implies that the other is excluded from the love of God. Jesus and Paul both show us another way. They show us that God’s love is a personal love that includes all people. Jesus invites humanity to follow him in imitating the love of God that invites all people into community.