The backlash to gospel singer Kim Burrell’s homophobic rant was swift: canceled national television appearances and the termination of her local public radio show.
But to those of us in religious communities, it’s important to note that, even as the controversy over Burrell’s statement recedes from the national spotlight, the issue of what goes on in the vast majority of American churches remains a festering wound.
In his famous passage on love, Paul shifts our attention from the what to the how:
"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but have not love, I gain nothing."
He’s not talking about the content of our arguments. He’s talking about the process. For Paul, it is not enough that we do “Christian” sorts of actions, no matter how great they are. We must act in a Christian style — with love.
Christian arguments, then, should reflect this style. They should be patient and kind. They should not be boastful or arrogant or rude.
But the reality of our Scriptures and the reality of our God is that love can — and in some cases, should — be tough. This love sees that there must be space for righteous anger. It recognizes that patience can too easily become a luxury for the privileged. We believe in a God who gets angry on behalf of those he loves. We believe in a Jesus who overturns tables in the temple courts.
The problem is that most readers of this article will applaud at either the thought of a kind, patient argument or at the thought of a tough, angry argument. The trick is to deeply desire both.
“What did you do on your summer vacation?”
Even now students may be answering that question in essays at the start of this new school year. Maybe you wrote such a paper years ago. No matter what you did or where you went this past summer, it was almost impossible to escape the heaviness of the headlines. #BringBackOurGirls has become a distant refrain, almost forgotten beneath the crush of summer tragedies:
Thousands of children traveled alone from Central American countries to enter the U.S. as refugees. Ebola deaths spread to more West African nations killing hundreds including many health workers. The forces of ISIS, intent on carving out an Islamic caliphate, took over major Iraqi cities and beheaded a U.S. journalist in Syria. Russia usurped Crimea and threatened the rest of Ukraine. The U.N. refugee agency announced in late August that “the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.” Gaza has been reduced to rubble while Hamas rockets still fly toward Israeli cities. Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African American man who might have started college this week, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the waning days of August.
After such a summer, how can we do anything but scoff at Paul’s words from Romans?
I have often wondered about the trajectories my life has taken. I was raised a Latino Pentecostal in New York City but educated in a liberal arts tradition at Columbia University in Manhattan. I was exposed to evangelical and then liberal Protestant traditions in seminary and graduate school. My theological views have changed over the years. I have moved from Pentecostal to Baptist to Congregational (United Church of Christ) church traditions.
Yet at each step of the way, I have been able to build on the solid foundations of the past in moving to new understandings for the new circumstances in my life. These life transitions never started from “scratch.” Some of these same tensions might have motivated Paul in considering, at least rhetorically, his past a “loss” in comparison to a new way of living and being in Philippians 3:4b-14.
In these days, what are the sources of such life-altering “new knowledge?” There are many places for us to turn. Though I grew up without guns, I was surrounded by plenty of gun violence in my inner city neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the aftermath of the tragic losses of our children and educators in Newtown, Conn., I wonder if we have gained any new knowledge. Apparently, we live in a country that values the freedom to own guns, even overly powerful ones like assault rifles. “Second Amendment rights” are invoked as if our founders could predict the kinds of weapons that would be available to regular Americans today, even with the “militia” (local police forces) that we also have available to us.
The apostle Paul calls the church in Corinth a body — and that’s political language: “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be … As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:18-20).
As Dale Martin argues in his book The Corinthian Body, Paul gets his language about the social body, the political body, from other Greco-Roman speeches and letters. He uses a style of writing and speaking called a “concord” — homonoia in Greek. Politicians would give speeches or write letters trying to convince the diverse people of the city to unite in a common project, to share the same goals for society, to share a common politics. In these “concord” addresses, politicians would call the society a body, just like Paul does in his letter to the divided church in Corinth. We are one body, politicians would say, so we need to act accordingly. We are one — united, bound together. Of course, politicians only made these speeches when they needed to: that is, when dissatisfied segments of society wanted to revolt (see Martin, Corinthian Body, 38-47).
My pastor and I have a friendly tiff going on. He says that Jesus was strictly a-political; therefore Christians should abstain from politics completely. I say that Jesus challenged violent, poverty-inducing, socio-political structures throughout his life and ministry; therefore Christians have a duty to advocate for peace and to speak out for the poor and the oppressed. Both of us are hardheaded, and neither of us cedes much in our debates, but we always walk away as friends, because at the end of the day there’s a key component to the discussion that we both agree on: The Bible is not a public policy manual!
What was most telling about the disagreement between the two men was their discussion of Luke 4. Mohler argued the passage should be understood in light of how he interpreted the preaching and teaching of Paul and the other apostles. This means that when Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor that good news was personal salvation.
Wallis argued that yes, personal salvation is one part of that good news, but that the other part is the Kingdom of God breaking into the world and transforming societal relationships as well. When the Gospel is proclaimed, it is good news for a poor person's entire being, community and world -- not just his or her soul.
First, it was encouraging to hear Mohler spend a lot of time emphasizing that working for justice is essential to fulfillment of the Great Commission. Throughout the night he repeated his concern that a lot of Churches are REALLY bad at making disciples who actually do the things Jesus told us to do. As the president of one of the largest seminaries in the world, it will be interesting to see if he is able to train a generation of pastors who will do things differently. My concern is that he is missing the connection between his theology and the failure of Christians to actually do justice.