"Equality" and "Identity" on MLK Day 2011
I am grateful today for all we are celebrating as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. My world is a richer place because a single person was willing to stand up for what he knew to be true and right, even though it cost him so much in his life and brought about his death. He changed our view of each other and of the world, permanently I hope.
I was thinking yesterday about how much religion and culture and worldview are just an extension of language. They are a shared representation of a reality that we can communicate about only because we have not only the words but the bigger concepts behind them as a construct of a shared understanding. And so often we are very unable to communicate because of the deep divide in our cultural or religious understanding of God's world, and so we lose much.
I listened to a friend talk about his view of marriage and scripture and marital ethics, and realized just how deeply patriarchal culture is still rooted in my real world, despite the friends around me who embrace gender equality. This friend who was sharing with me would certainly say he supports gender equality, and that he has been an active mentor and advocate for real women in real roles in ministry and community. Yet he still views the patriarchal worldview that is the "language" of our scriptures as an optional way of seeing the world, and does not judge it as evil but only as typical of another time. He is careful to not alienate those who see complementarian gender roles as scriptural, and reveals in many ways that he is at ease with white male power as long as he is the beneficiary and not the oppressor.
I see some of the conservative approach to Christian scripture as short-sighted and responsible for not only an inability to communicate but also for an inability to be real disciples, here and now. I do see scripture as the source of my worldview and daily practices, and the means to know God and the way God has revealed the Godhead to the world, but I also do not try to live a life where I primarily speak Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic instead of English, but use what we know of those languages to be able to understand scripture in my own English thoughts. In the same way, I learn all I can of the history and culture and worldview into which Scripture was written, and I use what I know to translate it to the world in which I live now.
I value the way we are all different, and do not think "equal" translates to "identical", but I do think it must translate to equal access to being heard, equal access to life paths, equal access to what we call "civil rights", and equal freedom to own and use capital and to exercise control over ones' economic path. We are still decades away from that being a full reality.
Women and men are not identical. If they were, there would be no great issue in making "gender equality" more of a reality. The challenge is to understand what is real and valuable in generalized understandings of gender and to understand what is much more culturally influenced, and to create a society that honors gender while still honoring freedom and equal access to life choices and capital and education and opportunity for genuine leadership in every arena.
I think the same is true of ethnic identities: we do not have to obliterate our different values and historical or cultural orientations in order to create a society that honors the ways that we are unique and the unique voice we can bring to our world while at the same time creating deliberate ways that society will be held accountable to provide equal opportunities and freedoms and resources to those that come from or embrace different identities.
A starting point for those of us that still claim a high regard for Scripture and Judeo-Christian tradition is a firm understanding of history and the cultural realities that were the behind the language of Scripture. For instance, I have heard it said that women were excluded from Jesus' words about divorce in the Sermon on the Mount because they were not the ones being addressed or because they were not at that time able as they are now to exercise the ability to divorce a spouse, but that with the change in culture today we should hear the words as applying to both genders equally. This misses the reality in the culture of Jesus' day and earlier Jewish culture that the women not only could not divorce but that they would not, because to do so would have required them to leave their children with their ex-husband, who in practical fact was the owner of his wife and children, and would have thrown them into a life with few economic options for survival or happy remarriage.
It is a better translation of Jesus' words from that culture and language to this one to understand that Jesus was protecting not only "the institute of marriage" but even more so the emotional, social, and spiritual well-being of women and children in a patriarchal culture in which they were mistreated just by the fact of being in that culture, even under the "headship" of the most godly and kindly of men (let alone under the typical socially-accepted "headship".)
A godly culture today will not preserve slavery or an old view of "covenant marriage" with words of ignorant complicity in a continuation of a cultural reality that Jesus was challenging (women forced into dependent relationships by the culture and men forced into the position of "owner" by the culture.) A godly culture today will honor the reality of the emotional entanglements of marriage and child-bearing even in the most gender-equal world and will seek to encourage practices of marriage and commitment that protect all impacted by those commitments. Agape/Hesed translates very easily to people who keep their commitments, are honest, seek to protect the helpless and dependent, and to provide increasing competence and independence or inter-dependence of all.
A godly culture today will not allow the culture formed by years of misinterpretation of scripture to serve as an idol that we encourage others to worship, most especially at the expense of real obedience to the real risen Jesus.
As an Evangelical committed to the authority of scripture and of shared community, today on MLK day I call on us all again to real Biblical literacy, that drinks deeply of all that our scholarship tells us about the world and languages in which the books of our cannon of scripture were written, and that thinks and prays deeply - together in community - about the ways that scripture translate to the values we are exhorted to have and the virtues we are exhorted to practice.
I call most especially for 4 values and their corresponding practices:
1) value the life-giving power of church-affirmed sexual union enough to affirm how destructive it is to not provide every social and legal help to a continuation of "marriage" when two people have shown themselves to be committed to a life-long relationship: to protect and help those individuals, their children, and the others the dissolution of their relationship would impact
2) value the reality of gender identity and the differences between our practice and perception of male and female and other: to provide for opportunity and choices and resources that allow the practice of traditional roles as well as the practice of new ways of expressing the fullness of all God created in each one of us as unique individuals and not keeping anyone imprisoned in an other's view of their gender
3) value the reality of TRUTH and lies and distortions enough to teach plainly all we know about our world and our selves and our scriptures and our God, and all we know to be falsehood: to provide true freedom of speech while also responding to hateful or false speech with censure when we know it to be lies or violent
And lastly, 4) value the clear and unequivocal call of Jesus to love each other and those who are our enemies and those who are strangers more than we value our own perception of our own best interest: to support and protect those who are immigrants (illegal or not) and those who are needy (dead-beats or not) and those who are different (mentally ill or not) even though it costs us "the American Dream" individually as we all invest in a future of opportunity and equality for all our children and grandchildren.
I am not calling for a departure from "good Christian ethics and values", but rather for an embracing of them like we have never seen before. Let us be people who honor the Other above ourselves, and feed the poor, and visit those in prison, and have real humility and mercy. Let us be people who know Scripture increasingly well, as we actually live it out and actually teach the reality behind it and know the REALITY behind it.
May I increasingly learn how to do this in my own life, and have at least a tiny impact on those around me that furthers the purpose and life whose huge impact we honor this day.