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Monday, April 18, 2016

Is There Choice in the Kingdom of God?

A tract which seems to have been slightly edited to say, "What am I doing here? Does God have a flan for me?" Image source.
Any of y'all who grew up in purity culture: you MUST read Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, by Dianna Anderson. I'm planning to write several blog posts about it; today our topic will be individual rights.

Throughout the book, Anderson very much emphasizes this idea: your body belongs to YOU. You have the right to make choices about what you do with your body. You have the right to decide what to wear- you don't have to follow the modesty rules that require you to take horny men's opinions into account when you choose clothes. You have the right to decide what sex means for you, and in what circumstances you would like to have sex. You have the right to not have sex.

She also talks a lot about how the church often teaches that we do NOT have individual rights; that by becoming part of the body of Christ, we are all accountable to each other, and we have to listen to other Christians' opinions on what we should do with our bodies.

She is SO RIGHT about how Christian culture teaches that we don't have individual rights. And it is really really really good and meaningful and healing for me to read that I have the right to make my own choices about my body. This is SO EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED TO HEAR.

In a post from 2014, Are we better off if God controls people?, I touched on the topic of our rights vs God's plan. Here is the important bit:
A long time ago, when I loved God so much and constantly thought about God and prayed all the time and did everything I could to follow and obey God, sometimes I wanted God to control me. 

Why? Well, because I thought there was some specific “plan”, some one thing I was supposed to be doing, and if I was just connected to God enough, I would be able to know very clearly what it was.

...

I don’t believe that any more. I don’t think there’s one specific plan that each person is supposed to be doing. I don’t believe God wants God’s followers to be cogs in a machine- a machine which would run much more smoothly if the cogs would quit thinking for themselves. I don’t believe that the kingdom of God is compatible with individual people losing their freedom.

I believe we all have choices and skills and creativity, and there are a lot of directions we could go with it, and a lot of them are very good. And the freedom to make those choices is a core component of the world as God intended it to be.
We are really talking about two competing views of the role of choice in the kingdom of God. In the first view, the view I used to believe, God has a plan, and acting according to that plan will produce the best results in our lives. The closer our "relationship with God", the more clearly we can know God's plan. (For example, it's common for Christians to teach "the closer you are with God, the more you will know God's will, and you can pray for things according to God's will, and they will happen- your prayers will be powerful.")

In this view, we don't have the freedom to make big life decisions. We have to figure out what God wants, and then do that. And when you start with the assumption that Christians do not have freedom in this sense, you can extend it to any choices, really. Including what to wear. We can't choose for ourselves; we have to find out what God's rules are and obey them.

The second view of choice in the kingdom of God (the view I hold now) says that human freedom is a foundational component of the kingdom of God. Whereas in my previous worldview, I would have said the ideal case was to be godly enough to know with 100% certainty what you're "supposed to" do in every situation, I now believe the ideal world is one in which we are able to make our own decisions, and there is no "supposed to."

In the first view, the kingdom of God is one where we give up all our rights. In the second view, the kingdom of God is one where everybody's rights are fully protected.

Let's look at some examples of this whole "we need to give up our rights" thing, shall we?

When a woman says she wants to be a pastor and that it would be wrong for the church to bar her from certain leadership positions based on her gender alone, sometimes people will respond by telling her it is wrong for a Christian to advocate for her own rights. They don't respond to her actual argument about how the bible supports equality between men and women; instead, they tell her that she isn't even allowed to make an argument. How dare she be ambitious like that- Christians are supposed to give up their rights. Even if she is correct that God totally thinks women can be pastors, she cannot be the one to say it. It's selfish.

Another example: so, conservative Christians teach that women need to submit to their husbands, and husbands need to love their wives. However, suppose that the husband is not treating his wife in a loving way. Some people would say that, since the wife needs to submit, she is not allowed to take any actions which would hold her husband accountable for not loving her. Even though she is correct in her claim that her husband is sinning, she doesn't actually have the right to even make that claim. Her husband is in the wrong, but it would be wrong for her to do anything about it. (To be fair, this seems like a pretty extreme view, I'm not sure how common it is among the "wives need to submit" crowd. Sounds like something Debi Pearl would teach.)

And of course, modesty. Modesty culture be all like, "Yes, you have the right to wear whatever you want, if a man lusts, that's his own sin, it is not the woman's responsibility... BUT you should give up that right because of your Christian commitment to help your brothers."

(Hmm, kind of awkward how the only examples I can think of for the "you need to give up your rights" teaching are about how women need to give up their rights.)

This teaching is so wrong. The kingdom of God is a world where the rights of the most vulnerable people are protected, where we don't force victims to suffer because Christians aren't allowed to advocate for themselves. It is a world where people have choices- where you are in contol of your own body and your own personal decisions, and there isn't some specific "God's plan for you" that you're required to do. It's a world where being a member of the body of Christ doesn't allow you to police other members' personal decisions. (When I use the term "personal decisions" I am talking about choices that don't harm other people. If you're harming other people, you totally should be stopped.)

In the past, I believed the perfect Christian life was one in which I had no choices, where I would know God's will with 100% clarity and I would never think for myself. I now believe human creativity is an indispensable part of what it means to be made in the image of God. God did not create us to be mindless followers. God created us with the ability to innovate, to discover, to approach life in our own unique ways. We reflect God's image when we make our own choices rather than waiting for God to tell us what to do.

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note: So, I could have titled this blog post "Is There Freedom in the Kingdom of God?" but evangelical Christians use the word "freedom" in a sneaky, backwards way. For example, they say, "You're not allowed to have sex before marriage. So no, you don't have the freedom to do that. But when you follow this rule, you will be free from all the terrible consequences that come with the sin of premarital sex. If you sin by having sex, you will be a slave to it. You will not be free. So actually, by following God's rules, you are more free."

"Freedom" is something that Christians are very happy to claim Jesus gives us. "Choice", not so much.
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posts I've written about Damaged Goods:

Sex Was Just Not A Thing That People Did

Is There Choice in the Kingdom of God?

A Sexual Ethic Based On BEING REASONABLE

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