Redeeming Holiness

I do not seek to convert anyone with this post. What we are dealing with in the current tragedy within the Uniting Church is not about logic. It is about the fear which can only be overcome by love of God irrupting into our lives.

Neither do I pretend to speak for LGBTIQ+ friends. I have little comprehension of their pain. Indeed I owe these friends much for their compassion and uplift of me.  I write of my own journey and the insights that have done much to free me in this, and in similar disputes.

For a long time, I was driven by a fear that God might not love me.  I read the gospel of Matthew as a young man, and concluded, "I'm not sure if I believe this, but if it's right, I'm on the wrong side of the fence." My first joyful faith soon devolved into a hard-line fundamentalism which sought to fence God in close, so that I would be safe. My conversion was undergirded by fear which I soon forgot, because I considered I had "found the answer" to life and its purpose. So for most of that time my fear was largely unconscious, and I had no reason to question if my desire for holiness was anything more than an  appropriate response to God's love for me.

The instinct for holiness is good. It is a recognition that God offers something completely other; something so completely other that it wipes out our universal experience that all our best desires and best efforts as people, inevitably fall apart, and begins to heal us.

I see my life from those early days, until now, as a slow growth, and more importantly, a slow reforming of my understanding of holiness. I now see two choices: holiness shaped around a certain way of being good, or holiness as allowing and striving for the inclusion of all people into the gathered people of God. And both choices, ultimately, are only our limited response to the holiness that is God.

Holiness as inclusion is a reflection of the fact that God loves us; that God loves all people, and that God loves all people just the same. God loved us when we were yet sinners. (Romans 5:8) Holiness as inclusion is the long, slow learning that God and earth are not against us; a slow learning which begins from the time of the exile (if not before) where Genesis was shaped to contradict the theology of Babylon. Babylon understood that  people were essentially the hated slaves of the gods, who acted capriciously and arbitrarily towards them in a world of chaos. Israel saw that what God had made was good.

This understanding and emphasis will lead us to become a certain sort of person. We will become more generous, and more compassionate, as the Spirit of God works in us. We may even look to be a "good" person. But this process is much different than striving for holiness by being good for God. Indeed, it is not too much worried about being good. It becomes free of the driven need to be good, for it is no longer afraid of God.

What, then, is wrong with striving to be good?

Using goodness as a measure of holiness assumes that some folk are bad; that good is not-bad; we are good in contrast to our formerly bad sinful selves. But in this attempt to find holiness— understand: this is what I did; it is not a theory I am laying on someone else— in this attempt to find holiness, I define goodness from a standpoint that assumes my apprehension, (the double meaning is deliberate) and my analysis, of the world is correct. This assumption ignores the fact that the perceptions on which I base this analysis are always and necessarily limited. On that basis alone, I know my understanding of "good" can only be partial and faulty.

It gets worse: The doctrine of original sin suggests that not only is our reasoning faulty, but that it is, as we say, sin-full. By definition, my idea of the good is not only faulty, it is perverted. My idea of what is good is formed and informed by a sinful society. There is, at this level, no such thing as a fully objective reasoning based in unassailable facts! I can reason — that is a style of thinking which seems seeks to be careful, to be rational, and seeks  to account for my prejudice, and so on,  but my reasoning begins from underlying axioms which I must assume, with only my best instincts to guide me. And we know in the church, if we take our doctrine seriously, that our best instincts are limited and perverse. The starting point of all our thinking— the thinking of all of us— is corrupted by original sin. There is no one righteous, not one. (Romans 3:10-12)

Of course, my early response to this was to appeal to "the inerrant Word of God," but that inerrancy was, of course, an assumed axiom designed by fearful people; which is to say, was based upon a corrupt mind and spirit.

To appeal to revelation alone, to make that our axiom, as it were, is to be blind to the fact that there is no un-interpreted fact. The "fact" of God speaking is an interpretation of a phenomenon. The burning bush was an interpretation by Moses— necessarily.

Moses heard God telling him— as did Joshua— to destroy peoples; a genocide.

17You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded ... (Deuteronomy 20:17)

We now know enough to ask— if we are honest— what difference there is between Moses and Joshua, and Hitler.

The Exodus is a terrific story... [but]  attached to the story of freedom from bondage is a tale far less humanistic: the commandment to annihilate the peoples of Canaan during the conquest of the land. We should not forget that this is one of the most detailed set of instructions for genocide we have from the ancient world. Ofri Ilany

What we understand as "good" changes, and if God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, (cf Hebrews 13:8, Malachi 3:6) what is good and holy changes because we realise, we dis-cover (as James Allison would say,) it is revealed to us, that our understanding of "good and holy," and "pleasing to God," is always limited, always falls short, and is always corrupted.

When we define good, and therefore define that some people are bad, we immediately move to the imperative to exclude the bad. For how can we be holy if we allow the bad to remain among us? Holiness based on goodness necessarily excludes those whom God has loved while they were yet sinners.

And worse, holiness based upon goodness is to privilege my own sin. Let me take you through a thought experiment. Trigger warning: I am about to bluntly summarise attitudes which are often called "homophobic," but which I think, are also finally the same deep, barely conscious, fear that God does not love a person and will reject them; the fear which I slowly recognised within myself.

When we are in this phobic or fearful place, we are not yet able to see a definition of holiness by the exclusion of LGBTIQ+ people has its roots in our fear, and we are certainly not able to see that our effort at holiness is driven by any fear of God on our part. Holiness by doing good, by keeping a standard, is a strategy to blind us to, and to relieve us from, our fear that God does not really love us.

And to be clear: Fred is utterly wrong in his assertions below that there is something sinful about being LGBTIQ+;  utterly, blindly wrong. Our sexuality is a gift from God, and no one has the right to define or name our sexuality for us, or to categorise us by it.

The thought experiment.
Fred and I have much in common, including this: We both fear for the survival of our grandchildren in the societal collapse we see is inevitable; a collapse caused by the changing climate we humans have caused by our greed— by our sinfulness, in fact. When we meet at the Froth and Fodder café near my church, and I ask how he is doing, Fred has tears in his eyes as he recounts the joy and terror he felt as he nursed his son's newborn daughter. "When we hit 1.5 degrees warming, she'll only be 22. What are we doing to God's Earth?"  

But we are not meeting to discuss this. As friends, we are meeting to try to find some common ground in the controversy over the full inclusion of LGBTIQ+ people in the life of the Uniting Church, an argument The Assembly first began to address in 1982.

It has divided us two. I have removed my wedding rings and will not conduct any marriages until the decision of Assembly in 2018 is respected and confirmed. Fred thinks Assembly was utterly wrong in its decsion. Fred is not happy about the ordination of LGBTIQ+ people, either. And we talk and talk.

"How can you allow these people to live in such sin? How can a church condone sinfulness by marrying them and blessing their sin!?"   

We get nowhere— you know that disagreement over this subject mostly ends in stalemate. When our basic axioms differ we cannot agree. And if our basic axiom is founded in the anxiety that God will not love us unless a certain measure of goodness is adhered to then we cannot give way, for our life depends upon this holiness. When people raise arguments in Synod referencing events such as Joshua 7 (the argument sometimes referred to as not allowing "sin in the camp,") what they are saying is that they are afraid of a God who does not love them, but will punish them.

Eventually, I snap, "The problem is that you are privileging your sinfulness over mine, and you are privileging your sinfulness over the sinfulness of LGBTIQ+ people."

 "So they are sinful then?"

"No more and no less than you or I. You are merely privileging your sin— excusing it, and so you cannot fathom that sin and holiness are completely inadequate terms for a discussion on marriage, or on belonging to church."

He asks me how it is that he is privileging his sin. I point through the café window, past my bike chained to the veranda post, to the Kmart car park.

"You drove here in a brand new Holden Captiva— you didn't even buy a little Yaris or a Prius. You and I both know these things are destroying the world, and yet you brought you bought a new one—  you drove it here while weeping for your son and your granddaughter. What will she think of you?"

"That's offensive! What else can I do— ride a bike around my parish?"  He smacks at my helmet sitting on the table.

"Yes, you could."

"You have a car."

"I do. An old van I drive only if I have to bring someone to church. But I rode here, the whole 40 kilometres. I will ride to visit a congregant this afternoon, and I'll ride home. You live in the inner suburbs— what is it? 8 kilometres? 25 minutes on a bike? I do it several times a week. Do you even have a bike?"

I can see the answer is no.

"So you have chosen not to buy a bike. You have chosen to buy a four-wheel drive to drive in the city.  You have chosen what you know is sin. Yet you deliberately excuse yourself from adding to the human sinfulness which may kill our grandchildren and half the world when you could choose another way.  You are privileging your sin over mine. The word for that is hypocrisy."

And as the anger of our argument grows, the reader can see that holiness based upon goodness devolves into winners and losers, and is already unravelling into violence. And everything we do to seek to reconcile begins in defensiveness because we fear— we know— that our place among God's gathered people is at risk... and if we are driven out, our deepest sense is to wonder whether God loves us.

In fact, I was initially puzzled why I was so viscerally invested in the early arguments within my Synod about the inclusion of lesbian and gay people in the church—  I really had no idea of the wider spectrum of human  sexuality. My levels of compassion were, frankly, underdeveloped, and I had no idea of the suffering LGBTIQ+ people suffered. And then I realised that even at the beginning, I instinctively knew that if there was no room for my friends, there would soon be no room for me.  Holiness as goodness needs a scapegoat who is bad. Once the scapegoat is cast out, it needs to find another one. As a couple of much older friends who had escaped from a cult said to me, "Andrew, we spent 40 years of bible study watching to see who would make a mistake so we could all jump on him."

Is Fred a "straw man" developed for my convenience here? I think that in Romans 1:18-32, Paul's diatribe against sinners is the same argument. He says in Romans 2:1, "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things."  Even if I were to accept that same gender relationships were sinful— and they are not— I could only condemn them as a hypocrite who pretends his own sinfulness does not matter. Sinfulness and goodness are no criteria for judgement or exclusion; they are inadequate for speaking about holiness. They use oranges to judge apples.

Could it be that holiness is not about us, at all?
Could it be that holiness is about God?
What if holiness is the Christ dying on the cross—  
choosing not to win
choosing not to exclude
choosing to be the rejected one
and embracing the sinners?

In Matthew 25 there is a profound parable about those who thought they were headed for the Kingdom but found they were among the goats. It is the last revelation of the Messiah before his crucifixion.

I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” (Matthew 25:42-43)

What we often fail to recognise about that parable, precisely because God in Christ has already taught us so much about inclusion— which is to love—   is exactly who the sick, poor, naked, and hungry were; what it meant to list them. The list is not about doing charity. The list is about sinners; they were sinners. They were the ones who had lost out in the battle to define holiness. And they were in that position because holiness defined by a corrupted understanding of goodness, said that human misfortune was God's punishment for evil. Understand that the definition the sinners of Jesus' time were not somehow bad, or even just worse than the rest of us, in the eyes of God. Sinners, then and now, once defined as a particular group of people, are a human construction which God does not recognise. To call people sinners, or even only worse sinners than us, or unrepentant sinners, is to attempt to excuse ourselves; we sin. We do it knowingly and deliberately. We choose.

The fact that Jesus is actually recounting a list of sinners in this parable, is why the Pharisees in John chapter 9:34, although so desirous of serving God  say to the man who was born blind, "'You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?' And they drove him out." They were not trying to be nasty;  it was simply obvious that he was born entirely in sins, for he was born blind. Clearly, he was a sinner. He was an affront to the holiness of God. He should be driven out, and kept out, of God's holy community— or at least kept on the boundaries in the back pew with no leadership roles, as a visible reminder of our righteousness.

Terrifyingly, even the disciples of Jesus ask, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Even they did not see they were now living on the edge of the days Jeremiah foresaw, when people would not die for the sins of their parents. (Jeremiah 31:29-31.)

Even more terrifying, if we insist on the holiness of people; that is, holiness by a human measuring of God's goodness, we become blind. The end of chapter nine is full of threat. If the Pharisees were merely physically blind (9:41) they would be free of sin, but they have a far deeper level of blindness, so their "sin remains "; they are trapped by it.

What does all this mean? It means that Jesus is saying that when folk did not visit the prisoners, feed the hungry and welcome the strangers—   which in the society of the day meant to include them in society, or to in other words validate the invalids, he is saying that they did not visit, feed, clothe, and include, the rejected sinners of society. Which means that what I would hear at that moment in the drafting pens of Matthew 25, if I had remained as Fred, is that just as much as I did not visit, feed, clothe, include,  and marry, LGBTIQ+ folk… just so much did I not do it for him.  God came among us in Christ, in LGBTIQ+ folk, and we cast him out and crucify him again just as often as we cast them out. As much as we invalid the faithful partnerships of LGBTIQ+ folk, just so much do we sicken the Christ.

If there is such a thing as a Day of Judgement, we will all be drafted into the pen with the goats. We will all question the king, and he will answer all of us in the same way as Matthew 25, only naming for us the people through whom we excluded him and drove him out. And then, he will welcome us all into the place of his sheep, if we are able to hear him,  because God welcomes all people, and excludes no one. The Christ comes back from the cross on which we hang him and says, "Do not be afraid," and "Peace be with you."  This is holiness, and our only approximation to holiness is to seek to follow him in this. The threat of John 9 is that we may not even be able to hear his welcome.

The fundamentalist who still lurks in me is ready to fight back.

"If human reasoning is so corrupted, how does your reasoning here had any precedent or advantage over mine? Indeed how can we know anything?"

And he is right. We have to trust our basic axioms, our basic framework. We have to trust our sense of what undergirds holiness. So, have we gained anything in this long essay, or are we back at the beginning?

What we have gained— what we have been given— is a life to observe— two lives, actually. One is the life of Christ. Christ embraced the LGBTIQ+ people of his time. This statement may lead to protests that there are no LGBTIQ+ people in the Bible — which is true. And that fact should leave us very careful about using the Bible and Jesus' name to condemn them. To repeat: Jesus embraced the outcasts of his day. He embraced those called sinner by those who privileged their own sin, and pretended they were righteous before God, even though there is no one who is righteous, not even one. So today he embraces especially those of us who LGBTIQ+. And he embraces even those of us who reject him for our own version of holiness, if we could only see that this is what he is doing for us.

The other life to observe is our own. What has our intuition about the nature of holiness taught us? What has it done to us? Has it freed us, or are we bound, tied up in rules and arguments about doctrines and orthodoxy? Has it enabled us to love? Have we brought healing, or have we condemned and driven out? Are we going in the direction of freedom, or into a kind of slavery? Are we at peace in the world, or afraid? I know the direction my fundamentalist self was going, and am still unable to comprehend what turned me around; I can only say "God."

And then my former self asks how we can ever have discipline? How can we keep safe from evil people if we let them all come into the church— invite them in, even? And I remind myself that if my friend marries a person of the same gender, it does me no harm at all. It is a completely different action to the person who gossips, or to the wife beater, or to the sexual predators, who are clear and present danger to the community and to its most vulnerable members. Even then, in keeping the congregation safe, and in including all the sinners as Christ does, the very last thing to do, and which I must then own as a comprehensive failure of love, is to push them out or the congregation.

And of those who say LGBTIQ+ people are the clear and present danger, are evil, are possessed by demons—  this was said to a friend this last Synod—   I ask, "Are you sure that it is not  you who are possessed;  possessed and  blinded by a demon attitude that cannot see sheer God-given humanity in front of you? Are you sure that it is not you who are the problem?"

For those of us who want judgement, here it is: in John Chapter Nine, in the beginning, the blind man has no idea who Jesus is— he cannot even physically see him. At the end of the chapter,  he worships Jesus. (9:38). And the self-appointed holy people move from initial scepticism, through abuse to victimisation and total blindness.  (I owe this observation to James Alison.)

God judges no one. God will abandon no one. We are the ones who judge, and what happens when we abuse and cast out others is that we become more blind, and slowly lose sight of the Christ. We are our own judgement locking ourselves away from the love of God;  God who will none the less wait all eternity for us, just  as God now waits for Westboro, Hitler, Caesar, and even for Satan.

We are talking about things we do not know, here. We are using images and stories to imagine the love of God and the danger of rejecting that love.  I do not believe in hellfire and damnation, but there is witness in the Gospels to a blindness which should hold a similar terror for us.

But if we will love
which means to have compassion
which is to sit with the rejected
and to feel their pain and
live in their danger, then
we will see the Christ.
Our eyes will be opened
to see holiness at last.

This is why, I think, the Spirit led Assembly to adopt two equal views on marriage.  Our only holiness lies in not excluding people. If people leave, they leave. But to drive them out by insisting on only one view of marriage— either one— is to fall into holiness as goodness and exclusion.

 Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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