Saturday, April 1, 2017

Honest Lent: Whatever Other Command There May Be

Drawing of two cliffs with a huge chasm between them. One side is labelled "Man (Sinful)" and the other is "God (Holy)." Image source.
Today for Honest Lent we are reading Romans 13:8-14. I totally love this part:
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
I love this. This bit is one of my favorite parts in the entire bible. It sums up how I believe we should read the bible.

Back when I was a good evangelical, I believed that as humans we aren't really capable of knowing right and wrong. God gives us a lot of rules and commands, and some of them make sense to us (like "don't steal", obviously you shouldn't steal because it's a bad thing to do to another person), but there are others that we can't understand the reasons for, and we just have to trust God. For example, don't have sex if you're not married. Now purity-culture advocates can give a lot of reasons why "God gives us this rule for our own good", reasons about health risks and emotional risks- and yes, there is some truth to those things. In certain circumstances, it's best to not have sex. (Though it's no secret that I believe following the purity culture rules actually leads to more emotional damage.) But it was never really about that. Purity culture never said "You should abstain from sex because of reasons X, Y, and Z related to your health and emotions and ability to have healthy relationshiips, so of course if you're in a situation where reasons X, Y, and Z don't apply, then it's fine to have sex." Ha. Yeah right. Instead, it's "You should abstain from sex for because of reasons X, Y, and Z, but even if you think X, Y, and Z aren't related to your situation, you STILL need to not have sex, because God said so and God knows what's best for us." It was never really about reasons X, Y, and Z- those were just things we told ourselves so we wouldn't have to admit we were following an arbitrary, legalistic command.

So that's what I believed. Some of God's rules make sense, and some don't, and we have to obey anyway. And when we read the bible, we need to study the ancient language and culture it came from in order to know which rules "apply to us today" and which do not. We can't just use, like, common sense or something- no, we need to find experts in ancient Hebrew literature to read the whole thing and tediously compile a list of commands the writers intended to apply to all people for all time. And then we follow those commands, even if they don't make sense. Even if they seem like a really bad idea. Because we're too sinful, we're not capable of knowing right and wrong. We need to obey what the bible says, and that's that.

But then, one day, I read Justin Lee's biblical argument supporting same-sex marriage. And he said that this passage in Romans 13 tells us that sin is defined as things that are not loving- for example, you don't steal from someone if you love them, you don't cheat on your spouse if you love them, etc. And that this is the way we should read the bible and determine which commands "apply to us today": which ones, when applied to our modern-day context, are loving things to do for people, and which ones cause harm? The bible isn't a bunch of arbitrary commands that we need to study and memorize all the details in order to know what morality is. No, it's all summed up like this: Love your neighbor as yourself. That's it. Everyone can understand that.

I remember being really surprised- I had never thought about sin in that way before. I thought through a bunch of examples of things the church taught me were sins, and it blew my mind that, for almost every single one, I could frame it as treating someone in an unloving way, and identify a specific person who would be hurt by it. The only exceptions were the rules about sex or sexual orientation. Don't have unmarried sex, don't watch porn, don't date someone who's the same gender, etc. There was no obvious "victim" for those "sins". (Which is why I no longer believe they are sins.)

Evangelical theology says sin is bad mainly because it breaks my relationship with God. The church didn't really teach me to think about the person that I hurt through my sin. They basically teach that God is the victim. And that meant I couldn't really distinguish between actions that actually hurt someone, and something harmless like "making an idol" by being "too" interested in some hobby. In a more disturbing example, it means purity-culture Christians can't see the difference between rape and consensual unmarried sex.

But thank goodness for queer people doing theology, showing me how totally messed-up my view of sin was. Now I believe what it says in Romans 13: every commandment can be summed up as "love your neighbor as yourself."

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