Same-Sex Love and the Trajectory of Scripture

In 2001, William Webb wrote an influential book called Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. In it, he argues that the Bible has a trajectory toward the abolition of slavery and the equality of men and  women, but not the acceptability of same-sex love. And thus he argues that if we follow the trajectory set by the Bible, we are wrong to compare LGBT issues to these other emancipatory issues.

What Webb’s argument fails to see is that the Bible’s warrants against same-sex love are primarily based on the inequality of men and women. The understanding of nature/phusis presented in Leviticus and drawn on by Paul and other NT writers is a natural hierarchy, with men above women. (On this, see the fuller treatment here.) Webb is quite right that the trajectory of scripture moves away from that hierarchy, but misses what this means for same-sex love.

If the trajectory points away from the subjugation of women, it also points away from the parallel “proper sexual roles” of men and women. The emancipation of same-sex love (indeed, queer love in general) is thus as much a part of the liberation that Christ proclaimed in the Reign of God as the breaking of chains and the recognition of the equality of men and women in the image of God.

Thinking Theologically About Race and Racism

The disjunction between racism and the communion table is clear. Racism and the eucharist “signify opposing horizons of meaning.”[1] Both implicate bodies, but whereas the eucharist incorporates individual bodies into the one body of Christ, racism “focuses on and interprets the [individual] body through an aesthetic scale that hypostatizes phenotype; it rests on the separation of humanness from the body.”[2] Moreover, as the eucharist disrupts our individualistic lives, it also prompts us to deconstruct our individualistic readings of the world. As the one cup and one bread bespeak unity, in which distinctions of gender, race, and class are overcome, such distinctions established in society become increasingly problematic. As we commune, we are disciplined into an imagination of unity, and are accordingly driven to work toward radical reconciliation in our social worlds.


However, a misunderstanding of the level at which racism functions remains one of the major obstacles on the path to reconciliation. In common parlance, most individuals use “racist” and “prejudiced” interchangeably, to indicate any kind of distinction an individual makes toward another individual along perceived racial lines. This enables individuals to object to broad accounts of racism on the grounds that they personally do not hold animosity toward people of another race. Collapsing racism into personal prejudice permits those who benefit from present arrangements of the social order to object to structural critiques with charges of “reverse racism.” Because this conflation of ideas cannot yield an accurate critique of structural racism in society, it cannot begin to address it. Consequently, Christians who reduce racism to personal animosity are left with few options to combat the structural racism embedded in American social, political, economic, legal, and ecclesial life.

Such insipid responses tend to take one of two forms. The first is a pietistic appeal, in the form of the claim that, in the words of youth evangelist Greg Stier, “Only the gospel can obliterate racism,” because “only the gospel can conquer evil in the human heart.”[3] In anticipation of the grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, Stier wrote an article addressed to Christians of Ferguson and St. Louis, in which he offered five pieces of advice: pray, speak gently, “obliterate racism in your own heart first,” offer healing rather than hatred, and ultimately, evangelize.[4] Likewise, popular preacher Perry Noble wrote in the aftermath of the same decision,

You are free to have an opinion about what’s happened and what is happening in Ferguson and all over. But what matters is not our opinions, but God’s perspective. It’s not about what we think should happen, but about what God wants to happen. What Is The Answer? The Gospel—period![5]

Neither of these writers clarifies exactly what is meant by “the gospel,” unless it is simply a synonym for evangelism. The implication seems to be that Christians are not racist and that racism is the direct byproduct of there being too many non-Christians in a given population. Neither writer states this in so many words, and probably would not, because when made explicit the claim is absurd. Nevertheless, while prayer, gentleness of speech, and evangelism are laudable acts, advocating them alone is a vacuous response to such complex social issues. A second solution that follows from the individualistic understanding of racism is recorded by Harvey. She writes that “for many justice-oriented Christians, our lack of racial mixing on Sunday mornings is a problem. For some it is even ‘the problem’ when it comes to the continuing presence of racism in the church.”[6] Accordingly, the language of “reconciliation” often means no more than achieving numerical parity within individual congregations.[7]

The significant divide for those advocating for multiracial congregations is between predominantly African-American congregations and predominantly white ones. The majority of historically black churches were established out of the sinful legacy of white churches, whether during the era of antebellum slavery or the enforcement of Jim Crow laws.[8] Harvey is thus skeptical of reconciliation paradigms that seek numerical parity without redressing the history of relationship between white and black churches. In particular, she is concerned with white churches who want to become more diverse without changing their current power structure or culture. She cites with approval the comments of Chris Lahr to a white audience, “Most people of color don’t want to go where whites are in charge. If you want to be part of a diverse congregation, go to an African American congregation or a Hispanic congregation, lay down your power, and learn from them.”[9] Given the power and privilege that whiteness carries with it in American life, Harvey does not believe that mere diversity within congregations, even where it is achievable, sufficiently addresses the underlying issue of racism.[10] She calls instead for a reparations model, following the pattern of the Black Manifesto.[11]

The Black Manifesto was the product of the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC), which met from April 25-27, 1969.[12] The following Sunday, James Forman, one of the principle authors, disrupted worship at Riverside Church in New York City. Though the minister, choir, and the majority of the congregation walked out in protest, Forman read the short manifesto and its demands.

We the black people assembled in Detroit, Michigan, for the National Black Economic Development Conference are fully aware that we have been forced to come together because racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor….We are demanding $500,000,000 from the Christian white churches and the Jewish synagogues. This…is not a large sum of money, and we know that the churches and synagogues have a tremendous wealth and its membership, white America, has profited and still exploits black people. We are also not unaware that the exploitation of colored peoples around the world is aided and abetted by the white Christian churches and synagogues…Fifteen dollars for every black brother and sister in the United States is only a beginning of the reparations due us as a people who has been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and persecuted.[13]

The Manifesto specifies the allocation of the $500 million, including a southern land bank, a publishing industry, a skills training center for African Americans, a National Black Labor and Defense Fund, a black university, the establishment of an International Black Appeal to raise money for cooperative businesses in both the United States and Africa, and more.[14] The demands were extremely specific, and starkly material. Several denominations and institutions were willing to pay out large sums of money, but not to the NBEDC itself, and not under the label of reparation. Instead, they worked to establish their own, white-controlled agencies for poverty relief or charities directed toward African Americans or poverty in general.[15] The National Council of Churches (NCC) proposed a committee of its own members as well as members from the National Council of Black Churchmen (NCBC) to determine program recommendations before it was willing to pay. The NCBC supported the terms of the Manifesto and pointed out to the NCC that it was very clear on its program recommendations, and thus refused to be part of any such committee. Incredibly, the NCC simply opted to create its own committee without NCBC members.[16] Harvey writes, “It cannot be understated what a morally convoluted and racially offensive and alienating choice that was.”[17]

The Black Manifesto was largely rejected by white church organizations. For Harvey, the Manifesto is an instance of a larger paradigm that remains valid today. Reparation requires remembering together by victim and oppressor, truthful confession, and material redress of material injustice: reparation is the necessary first step toward reconciliation, in Harvey’s view. She recognizes the challenge to white churches of such self-searching, but asserts that the hope for transformation offered “exists in equal measure to the depth of the challenge…laid down to white Christians.”[18]

The differences between Harvey’s challenge and the calls of Stier and Noble are striking. Reparation forces us to confront the reality of racism’s effects on the bodies that comprise the body of Christ. Reparation admits as real the effects of racism on concrete human lives. Conversely, individualistic understandings locate the only reality of racism’s existence within the interior self. It is in that sense a quasi-gnostic approach to the situation. At the communion table, believers share not merely in abstract, interior notions of love, but in one cup and one loaf, joined together in one Lord, who breaks down dividing walls between peoples in real, measurable ways. Perhaps the Black Manifesto is not the correct model for intra-ecclesial reparations (though I am inclined to say that it is a good starting point), but the material nature of its demands is fitting given the real unity the table would make of us. Moreover, it recognizes the same moral logic in discerning the body that Paul applied to the Corinthians. The privileged wealthy were at fault, perpetuating disunity as they failed to perceive the way that social structures had intruded upon the eucharist. It was incumbent on them, not the laborers, to redress the disunity. Likewise, whiteness is particularly implicated in the racial divisions that plague the church, and the moral charge is on white Christians to redress our racial disunity. The unity envisioned in the eucharist stands at odds with the racism that structures American life. Each time the table is set, we are being invited and challenged to reconciliation, but not without reparation.


[1] M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Meaning (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 107.

[2] Copeland, 107-8.

[3] Greg Stier, “Only the Gospel can Obliterate Racism,”, 26 November, 2014, accessed 23 July, 2015,

[4] Greg Stier, “My 5 Encouragements to the Christians of St. Louis and Ferguson,”, 24 November, 2014, accessed 23 July, 2015,

[5] Perry Noble, “Racism, Ferguson and the Solution,” 4 December, 2014, accessed 23 July, 2015,

[6] Harvey, 19.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Ibid., 132-44. Similar stories can be told of many other predominantly ethnic churches in the United States as well, particularly Native and Hispanic congregations.

[9] David Janzen, The Intentional Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013), 143, quoted in Harvey, 70.

[10] Harvey, 70. I am not arguing directly against congregations pursuing multiracial composition, or against the intentional establishment of “mosaic” churches and church plants. I do, however, share Harvey’s skepticism that multiracial congregations can become the norm without addressing directly the social conditions that give rise to predominantly single-race congregations as well as confession of the sinful legacy of white church bodies that has given rise to the establishment of “non-white” worshiping bodies. A recent joint study from Baylor University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Chicago shows that attitudes toward racism and explanations for racial inequality among congregants in multiracial churches are statistically indistinguishable from those in white churches, while remaining markedly different from those among black, Asian, and  Hispanic churches. This strongly suggests that assimilation and “Anglo-conformity” are substituting for true reconciliation in these multiracial congregations. See Ryon J. Cobb, Samuel L. Perry, and Kevin D. Dougherty, “United by Faith? Race/Ethnicity, Congregational Diversity, and Explanations of Racial Inequality,” Sociology of Religion 76, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 177-98, accessed August 21, 2015,

[11] Harvey, 106.

[12] Ibid., 118.

[13] Black Manifesto: Religion, Racism, and Reparations, ed. Robert S. Lecky and H. Elliot Wright (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), 120.

[14] Ibid., 121-2.

[15] Harvey, 122-3.

[16] Ibid., 125.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 108.

Bathroom Bills and the Panopticon

One of the most prescient elements of George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four is the ubiquity of surveillance—rather, of the possibility of surveillance. No one in Orwell’s novel is certain whether they are being observed through telescreens at any given moment, and thus they conform themselves to social expectations even in their private lives.[1] Indeed, the constant possibility of surveillance leads citizens to constantly surveil one another, effectively doing the authority’s job for them and internalizing the authority’s values. This is ultimate ideological victory. Permanent visibility becomes a form of power and control, what Foucault called “panopticism;” telescreens functioning as the panopticon.[2]

The recent passing of the “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” more broadly known as the “Bathroom Bill,” in North Carolina is intended by its supporters to protect the safety and privacy of users of public restrooms. The law

directs all public schools, government agencies and public college campuses to require that multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities, such as locker rooms, be designated for use only by people based on their “biological sex” stated on their birth certificate. Transgender people can use the bathrooms and changing facilities that correspond to their gender identity only if they get the biological sex on their birth certificate changed.[3]

This is only one example of such laws, which are appearing in increasing number in recent months. Supporters of the law see this is a commonsense protection, for young girls in particular. Many clarify that they are not worried about transgender women attacking cisgender women,[4] but about cis men taking advantage of trans-inclusive policies to gain access to bathrooms or changing rooms for the purposes of viewing or assaulting women. While I find this scenario implausible,[5] my primary objections to this law pertain rather to enforcement and surveillance.

If someone suspects that I am a trans man (many trans men indeed appear more masculine than I do), and thus that I am in the “wrong” bathroom, what is their recourse? Presumably to contact management of the establishment who will contact either police or their own security. What is my recourse? Even if I have state-issued ID on me, this does not settle the matter legally, as the law explicitly refers to birth certificates. I do not carry my birth certificate with me, and of course many trans people have ID that does not match their birth certificates. (In any event, a law that requires a person to have identification in order to use the bathroom is inherently classist and draconian.) Indeed, video emerged on Facebook in December 2015 of a biologically female woman being physically ejected from a restaurant bathroom because she didn’t seem feminine enough to security, despite a small crowd of women attesting to their mistake. In this absurd encounter, male security forces attempt to protect the privacy and security of a woman’s space but are themselves the ones violating it.[6]

And this is one of the central problems with these kinds of laws. Supporters wish to make spaces safer, but in fact establish a virtual panopticon, as the public surveils and polices each individual of the public to ensure that they are performing their gender well enough. Moreover, this applies to both cis and trans individuals. Trans people who “pass”—that is, are not generally perceived to be transgender—are effectively immune to such laws. (See, for example, the top submissions to the “Transpassing” subreddit, many of whom are likely to remain unaffected by these laws one way or the other.)[7] Trans people who do not pass, as well as cis people whose appearance or behavior calls attention, are at the mercy of public scrutiny.

These laws thus reinforce strict gender roles—not only the gender essentialism that believes a person’s chromosomes (or genitals, or internal reproductive organs, etc.) dictate their gender, but also the expectations that society has for men as such and women as such. These laws contribute to the social atmosphere in which all people, whether gay, bisexual, straight, cis or trans, are constantly having their gender performance observed and judged, and add a penalty for failure to conform. Bathrooms—one of the most common and necessary public utilities—thus function precisely as Orwell’s telescreens: sites of surveillance, mechanisms that discipline us through daily scrutiny into internalizing a particular account of what it means to be man or woman.

                [1] “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment… you had to live…in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”

                [2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975.

                [3] Avianne Tan, “North Carolina’s Controversial  ‘Anti-LGBT’ Bill Explained,” ABC News, 24 March, 2016,

                [4] The term “cisgender” was recently added  to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. For definition, see

                [5] Most sexual assault is not perpetuated by strangers, but by relatives and acquaintances. Those few who do assault strangers in public rely on stealth and moments of isolation and opportunity—in which law becomes irrelevant—rather than drawing attention to themselves, as any masculine-presenting person entering a women’s bathroom or changing room does, whether they wish to or not. As many detractors of these laws have already pointed out, trans people (and I suppose this would include cis men imitating trans people?) are far more at risk in public spaces as it is.

                [6] Matthew Tharrett, “Aggressive Cop Forces Gay Woman Out Of Ladies Room For Not Having ID,” New Now Next, 20 April, 2016,

                [7] The issue of “passing” and its desirability or not in the trans community is highly individual and politically charged. For discussion, see Chris Godfrey, “Transgender Men and Women Discuss the Politics of ‘Passing,’” Vice, 25 March, 2015, passing-when-youre-transgender as well as Princess Harmony Rodriguez, “5 Ways to Support Trans People who Don’t ‘Pass’ for Cis,” Black Girl Dangerous, 6 August, 2015,

Thinking Theologically About Capitalism


There are many different perspectives from which to critique capitalism as it actually exists. Libertarians critique capitalism as it actually exists for accepting far too much government intervention. Leftists critique it for its tendency to centralize wealth in the hands of a small elite. Environmentalists critique for its prioritizing short-term profits over long-term stewardship of the planet. As a Christian theologian, however, I am more interested in critiquing capitalism from a theological perspective. Christian theology is not a compartmentalized exercise but must touch on every part of life, including capitalism.

What is “capitalism as it actually exists,” more simply identified as the global market? It is not the same thing as “the free market,” though many who have fought for more purely free market policies have shaped the global market and pushed its expansion globally. Capitalism is not simply the elements of free market or libertarian ideology. Capitalism is not simply free enterprise, free trade, private property, loaning on interest, etc. These are only some components of capitalism.

Rather, capitalism is “a system in which all major economic actors are dependent on the market for their basic requirements of life. Other societies have had markets, often on a large scale; but only in capitalism is market dependence the fundamental condition of life for everyone. And that is equally true of capitalists [that is, owners] and workers.”[1] This mass dependence upon the market makes the market the arbiter of life and death for the majority of the world. It is, more significantly, a way of thinking about the world.

Christians skeptical of the claims of the market metanarrative are nonetheless shaped by it, through the practices and rituals associated with daily life, which are inexorably shaped by the selfsame narrative. James K. A. Smith calls these practices and rituals “secular liturgies,” which “constitute a pedagogy, a training of our hearts and loves.”[2] Smith refers to this pedagogical nexus as the liturgy of the shopping mall, which through “visual and visceral media” trains us into its implicit, consumer-capitalist vision.[3] “The mall” is only Smith’s central image for what is actually an omnipresent reality of American life, just as present in the home, the gym, public streets, public schools, television, and computer screens: involuntary, inevitable, intrusive, virtually inescapable. The theology of the market is not merely implicit in its theories, but is enacted upon the individuals and groups who participate in it, willingly or otherwise.

Whereas the defenders of the global market boast increased freedom for all its members, the history of capitalism expansion does not bear this out. Catholic political theologian William Cavanaugh observes three significant areas in which, as the market spreads through globalization, it actually produces “unfreedom.” The first is advertising, a multibillion dollar industry that directs and creates both desire and dissatisfaction among populations. Whereas marketing portends to be “information about products so that consumers may make choices that are both informed and voluntary,” it is as the same time “a machine fully capable of creating desire and delivering it to its intended goal.”[4] Indeed, these are interrelated functions: “Marketing can manipulate desire successfully in part because of its success in convincing the broader public of consumers that it is not manipulating their desires.”[5] Cavanaugh seems particularly scandalized by General Motors’s department dedicated to “the generation of dissatisfaction” among customers who own cars that would otherwise long be useful. (One perceives the same trend to an even greater degree today among computer and cell phone marketing.) Secondly, global capitalism leads to the establishment of massively asymmetrical power relations within companies themselves. In 1980, the average American CEO made forty-two times what the average worker for the company made; by 1999 that ratio had increased to 475:1.[6] What Cavanaugh cites is a specific instance of a more general trend within post-industrial nations toward the accumulation of wealth among a small elite. French economist Thomas Piketty argues persuasively that this is not an aberration, but is a necessary outcome of a steady, stable market in which the rate of return for invested wealth exceeds the overall economic growth rate. Except in cases of remarkable growth, as from a non-repeatable technological boom or spike in population, this is the natural working of the market. If Piketty is correct, an “inegalitarian spiral” of wealth imbalance is intrinsic to capitalism, even in societies with a strong social safety net and aggressive investment in “upskilling” the work force.[7] As the owners of capital gain power, labor loses power. This trend is tied in part to the capability of transnational companies to move production overseas, where they pay wages as low as thirty cents an hour, which gives employers the power to say to the workers of a community, “You can accept this, or you can have no jobs. Take your pick.” Cavanaugh cites examples of overseas workers for American and transnational companies, working sixteen-hour days for wages that do not support their livelihood in dangerous and harmful conditions, often under armed guard. Frequently, corporations move production to areas already destabilized by global trade expansion, in tangent with bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which have “been pressed into service to promote economic globalization.”[8] A salient instance of this is the rush for American companies to open manufacturing centers in Mexico following the signing of NAFTA in 1994. Proponents of free trade in Mexico had amended the constitution in 1992 to privatize the ejidos, lands that had for generations been communally held and worked by peasants.[9] Janet Parker observes that due to this privatization, “the loss of these communally held lands, which are the life-blood of many indigenous populations, has greatly accelerated.”[10] These decisions were made specifically in order to facilitate a full transition to a market economy, to enable more free trade, yet in so doing it created the conditions in which the exploitation Cavanaugh laments can occur.

Why do companies do this? Cavanaugh notes that it is because they can, but also notes that in many cases it is because they must, which brings us to the third aspect of the “unfreedom” that free-market ideology produces. In an economy of unbridled powers competing, managers and other employees often find themselves powerless to do the things they would want, driven instead by market forces beyond their control. Managers often lament having to close American plants to ship production overseas.

In a world of consumption without ends, it is assumed that the consumer will want to maximize his or her own power at the expense of the laborer, and the manager does not feel free to resist this logic, lest his or her own corporation fall victim to competition from other corporations that are better positioned to take advantage of cheap labor.[11]

The same is the case for farmers who find they must change to a monoculture due to the demands of the market even as that both depletes their soil and makes them more dependent on the market and, hence, less free. The same is also true of consumers who might believe sweatshops are unethical, but either cannot afford to or could not imagine a way to purchase clothing not produced in them.

In this way, bodies of various kinds are splintered. Local residential communities become fractured along economic or class lines, leading to ghettoization, suburban sprawl, “white flight,” and gated communities.[12] Relationships between producer and consumer are sundered, as production is moved across the planet, or else occurs virtually in secret, as in most industrial farming in the United States.[13] Post-industrial centers of capital continue extracting resources from the majority world while embodying ways of life that cannot possibly be extended to much of the world: the U.S. alone constitutes 5% of the world population, while consuming approximately 25% of the world’s energy.[14] Thus the First World becomes increasingly incapable of relating morally to the majority at all. Pope Francis argues in Laudato si that the global north has accrued a moral “ecological debt,” owed to the global south, following effects on the worldwide ecology resultant from “the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.”[15] Far from uniting the world, globalization is thus far shattering it.

Even individual, literal human bodies are broken in the market’s machinations. In researching the tendency of aggressive free market capitalists to treat disasters as “exciting market opportunities,” Naomi Klein uncovered decades of what she terms “the shock doctrine.”[16] The shock doctrine rests on the recognition that the expansion of the market into new territories requires steps—the privatization of previously public options, government deregulation, and deep cuts to social spending—that are deeply unpopular. In order to see these implemented, coercion of entire populations has at times been necessary. In the aftermath of natural disasters, as in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina or Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, rebuilding was accompanied with social restructuring.[17] In the absence of natural cataclysm, however, “infamous human rights violations…were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for introduction of radical free-market ‘reforms.’”[18] Klein explores the Argentinean junta’s “disappearing” of up to thirty thousand people during the 1970s, the social upheaval following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Falklands War in 1982, the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis in which Yeltsin consolidated power to unilaterally privatize through military force and having opposing parliament members arrested, as well as less extreme instances of social disruption either presaged by or accompanying market transition. By no means did all expansions of the market depend on these kind of violent destabilizing factors, but the most extreme involved both the backing of the U.S. military and the direct involvement of Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics, as in Argentina under Videla and Chile under Pinochet. In these cases, large numbers of people were “disappeared” and tortured. Luis Justo, who has since ascended to chair the bioethics department at Comahue National University in Argentina, narrates that

more than 30 years ago I asked my surgical instructor about petechial lesions on the scrotums of some criminals interned in the surgical ward. The shocking answer was, “Oh, yes, the police make them all go through ‘the machine’ before taking them to the hospital.” The machine, the “picana electrica,” was a device for torturing prisoners with electric shocks, usually in the vagina, testicles, mouth, anus, or nipples. I was horrified by the fact itself but no less by the matter of fact tone in which the answer was given. As a medical student I was pretty powerless, but I went to the head of the surgical service and tried to lodge a formal complaint. I was rebuffed without any chance to make my argument heard.[19]

Individual bodies were tortured, not usually to extract information, but in order to intimidate and silence political dissent against changes being instituted. “As a means of extracting information during interrogations,” Klein observes, “torture is notoriously unreliable, but as a means of terrorizing and controlling populations, nothing is quite as effective.”[20] It remains unknown precisely how many of the disappeared were tortured, how many killed, but “from Chile to China to Iraq, torture has been a silent partner in the global free-market crusade.”[21] There is a sense, of course, in which this partnership is purely indirect. While the Nestlé Corporation will fight to restrict water from being defined as a human right in order to sell that same water to residents at huge profits—a form of economic violence—they do not direct their employees to the murder and torture of those residents.[22] Almost universally, the CEOs and employees of corporations, as well as public investors, are appalled by the violent excesses that can accompany a society in market transition even as their livelihoods are dependent upon it.

However, Klein argues that to the degree that globalization of the market frequently depends on “creative destruction” of traditional (non-capitalist) ways of life this violence is not an aberration, but is systemic. She cites former secretary general of Argentina’s Agrarian Leagues, Sergio Tammasella, who was tortured and imprisoned for five years. During the Argentine Tribunal Against Impunity he was given the opportunity to name individual soldiers who had abused him. Instead, he stated that the abuse he, his wife, and fellow members of the Agrarian Leagues had suffered could not be isolated from the economic interests such suffering served.

Foreign monopolies impose crops on us, they impose chemicals that pollute our earth, impose technology and ideology. All this through the oligarchy which owns the land and controls the politics. But we must remember—the oligarchy is also controlled by the very same monopolies, the very same Ford Motors, Monsanto, Philip Morris. It’s the structure we have to change. That is what I have come to denounce. That’s all.[23]

It is abundantly clear that the institutions of the market must be reassessed from the perspective of an ethic of life. Hinkelammert and Duchrow write that “every practical proposal regarding alternative institutions and actions is to be checked and judged by whether it is de facto useful to real life and whether anyone was excluded from the process of devising it or would not benefit from its consequences.”[24] They track the development of the institution of property—and the limits imposed upon it—across the history of Israel, noting the ways that the institution adapted to these precise concerns.

In the ban on interest of the Book of the Covenant (after 722 BCE) the point is to prevent a threat to life through the property mechanism of debt. Deuteronomy (622) adds the periodic cancellation of debt and debt bondage, if they have come about at all through the ownership mechanism. In the holiness law of the priestly writings (sixth century BCE) property is finally stripped of absoluteness because the earth and people “belong” to God and therefore people only have usage rights to the earth—with the consequence that every generation has to regain access to its own means of production. In the light of the political and ideological absolutization of the property-based economy brought about through the Hellenistic and Roman empires, faithful Jews and Christians can only opt to resist. They choose between God and Mammon and set up alternatives in small, attractive groups that freely share their property so that there are no poor in their midst.[25]

This is an historical—indeed, a Biblical—example of economic institutions being adapted and rebuilt from the bottom up. Similar proposals are on offer today. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) offered to every person in a society is one way to create a sort of virtual commons, empowering and protecting the most vulnerable in society without creating the same kinds of inefficiencies and patronizing stigma as means-based welfare.[26] The Movimento Sem Terra movement in Brazil struggles for fundamental land reform, an obvious necessity when homeless individuals and foreclosed homes ceaselessly coexist.[27] Cavanaugh points to cooperative corporations, which attempt to navigate Christian values and capitalist aims by embracing distributism, the form of “third-way” economics championed by Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. A prominent example is the Mondragon corporation, which is worker-owned and -governed. Within the company, “The highest-paid employee can make no more than six times what the lowest-paid makes; 10 percent of surpluses are given directly to community development projects.”[28]

Whatever policies one finds attractive and tenable, what is clear is that capitalism as exists is destructive of life on earth, destructive of relationships, and to the degree that it shapes Christian believers in ways contrary to the love of God and neighbor and stewardship of the earth, can rightly be called antichrist. Believers are thus impelled to condemn such a system and work for its conversion to something that brings life and promotes flourishing, both in our backyards and across the globe.

                [1] Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Capitalism’s Gravediggers,” Jacobin, 12 April, 2014, accessed 19 April 2016,

[2] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Character Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2009), 94.

[3] Ibid., 96.

[4] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 16.

[5] Ibid., 16-7.

[6] Cavanaugh, 18.

                [7] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014).

[8] Janet Parker, “And God Said, Let There Be Many,” in Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today’s Economy, ed. Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 143.

[9] Maria Teresa Vazquez Castillo, Land Privatization in Mexico: Urbanization Formation of Regions, and Globalization in Ejidos (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1-3.

[10] Parker, 149.

[11] Cavanaugh, 22.

[12] David Gruesel, “The Injustice of Gated Communities,” Think Christian, 19 April, 2012, accessed 16 April, 2016,

[13] Matthew C. Halteman, Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation (Washington, DC: Humane Society of the United States, 2008), 23-36.

[14] Smith, Desiring, 101.

[15] Francis, Laudato si, sec. 51.

[16] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 9.

[17] Klein, 8.

[18] Ibid., 9-10.

[19] Luis Justo, “Argentina: Torture, Silence, and Medical Teaching,” British Medical Journal 326, no. 7403 (June 21, 2003): 1405.

[20] Klein, 126.

[21] Ibid., 15.

[22] See Kelly Price, “Nestlé: The Global Search for Liquid Gold,” Urban Times, 11 June 2014, accessed 16 April, 2016,; Matthew Boesler, “Bottled Water Costs 2000x More Than Tap,” Business Insider, 12 July 2013, accessed 16 April, 2016, bottled-water-costs-2000x-more-than-tap-2013-7.

[23] Klein, 127.

                [24] Franz J. Hinkelammert and Ulrich Duchrow, Property for People, Not for Profit: Alternatives to the Global Tyranny of Capital (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 161.

                [25] Ibid., 162.

                [26] Scott Santens, “Why Should We Support the Idea of a Universal Basic Income,” Huffington Post, 26 June, 2015, accessed 19 April, 2016,

                [27] Duchrow and Hinkelammert, 171.

[28] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 27. From the perspective of free-market ideology, there is no difference between this organization and Nestlé, to the degree both are free from state intervention and both consist of entities entering into contracts uncoerced. While the market lacks any mechanism or perspective by which to say which of these situations is “better,” a Christian account can clearly point to the good that Mondragon does: “Not only is the company successful and laborers highly satisfied with their work, but the communities in which Mondragon plays a significant part enjoy lower crime rates, lower rates of domestic violence, higher rates of education, and better physical and emotional health than neighboring communities.” Apart from these sorts of universally relevant measures, this cooperative form of management accords with Cavanaugh’s reading of the eucharist itself, as “the very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ.”

Thinking Morally about Same-Sex Love

Let us suppose that, as Robert Gagnon argues,[1] the scriptural presumption against the moral legitimacy of same-sex love is thorough and without exception. Not all exegetes agree with this interpretation, but let us set the exegetical question aside for now. Even if the Bible indeed says it, and we believe it, that does not necessarily settle a moral issue for us. The Bible, after all, offers no moral objection to slavery, and though slavery in the ancient world was not the racialized slavery of the American antebellum south, neither was it something that we would countenance today. Slaves in the society in which the New Testament was composed could be raped, beaten, and in certain circumstances legally killed by their masters.[2] Thinking morally about applying scripture to our lives is a move beyond mere exegesis—the reading and interpreting of texts in their original contexts—to hermeneutics—what Richard Hays refers to as an “integrative act of the imagination” in which “we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making, placing our community’s life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts.”[3] For Christian communities, hermeneutics are tested by their practical outliving, by “their capacity to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God.”[4]

Moral reasoning based on the norms of the natural order has traditionally been referred to as natural theology or natural law thought. On the other hand, thinking that privileges the experiences of the individual or of the community that seeks to interpret the world has been labeled as “narrative theology.” We cannot, however, sharply divide these areas of thought. Because natural law seeks the conditions for human flourishing, it must accord with the experiences of actual humans. We must therefore take a phenomenological approach to understanding romantic love and sexuality: what they are for and when they are disordered.

Why do romantic love and sexuality emerge in humans in the first place? Many theorists posit reproduction or social constructionism as evolutionary foundations of romantic love, but James Giles proposes a vulnerability and care theory that I find very persuasive and also compatible with the main themes of the Bible. For Giles, “The experience of being in love involves a complex of desires for reciprocal vulnerability in order to care and be cared for.”[5] Accordingly, sexual desire involves “the physical expression of these [romantic] desires in the form of desires for mutual baring in order to caress and be caressed.”[6]

Vulnerability, dependence, and care have also become central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the moral life. For some time, MacIntyre had worked to establish an account of morality that was purely sociological, based in communal practices and tradition. In the introduction to his 2001 Dependent Rational Animals, he writes, “I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible.”[7] MacIntyre thus seeks to reunite nature and narrative in his work.

Virtue always requires a telos, an end, a concrete conception of the good toward which actions should be oriented. Living morally as an embodied human, for MacIntyre, requires an awareness of two sets of irreducible biological facts: “Those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on particular others.”[8] The most basic fact of human life is that each one of us is born and maintained alive in a state of moral debt. Within such a natural order, the fundamental virtues are ones of “acknowledged dependence,” of which MacIntyre emphasizes “just generosity” and “elementary truthfulness.” Just generosity consists of three patterns of giving and receiving: affective/emotional relationships, hospitality, and openness to urgent need. Elementary truthfulness demands that we allow the other in any relationship to learn what they need to know, not concealing our own need to learn (that is, admitting our vulnerability), and not withdrawing from the circle of learning in some kind of “ironic detachment.”[9] Just generosity and elementary truthfulness are at the same time obligations that we as humans owe to one another and skills in which we strive to grow.

This account of the meaning inherent in human embodiment does not rely on strict gender binary or gender subordination. All human beings are infinitely indebted. As MacIntyre notes, some debts are measurable, but every parent’s “initial commitments” are in “in important respects unconditional,” because we never know what becoming a parent will end up demanding of us, and the human race could not carry on without such unconditional commitment.[10] Because all are infinitely indebted, all are equally bound to embrace the virtues of generosity and truthfulness, virtues that can only be established in relationship to particular others, that is, specific people as opposed to “humankind in general.” The reciprocal vulnerability of romantic relationships makes them a key institution for the cultivation of such virtues, and there is no compelling reason to presume that the genders of the individuals involved undoes that. Same-sex partners are as capable of generosity and truthfulness as opposite-sex partners, as these virtues do not rely on the natural subordination of one gender to another. Not only does gender subordination not figure into the virtues of acknowledged dependence, certain accounts of masculinity are toxic to them.[11] We may finally note in passing, though a much fuller account could be developed, that acknowledged dependence, just generosity, and elementary truthfulness are among the most central and persistent scriptural themes.

Robert Gagnon, however, perceives the gender binary as significant, not only because of his reliance upon biblical cosmology, but also on rationalist grounds. He writes that

If men and women are not really all that different…why is there little attraction to the opposite sex on the part of many homosexuals? For example, in male homosexuality, there must be something distinctively and significantly male in males, a masculine dimension utterly lacking in females, that causes some males to be attracted exclusively to other males and not, for example, to a female who exhibits stereotypically masculine traits.[12]

For Gagnon, this is what makes same-sex love unnatural and immoral: attraction to someone of one’s own gender is “sexual self-absorption and narcissism, or, perhaps worse, sexual self-deception.”[13] Self-absorption and self-deception would be clear violations of generosity and truthfulness. Gagnon’s analysis is problematic, however, as it defines essence (in this case, of gender) as infinitely more significant than individual identity. On Gagnon’s account, any attraction between two people of the same gender is in fact love of self, rather than love of another person, as no two men are more different from one another than any man from any woman. As a man, the only things I can love about another man are aspects of myself. I find this claim entirely unconvincing, as should everyone who has ever been in love with an individual and not every individual of a given gender. Moreover, as Paul Jewett observes, what makes a person other is not a matter of mere biological difference, but recognition of that person as an individual, “who is different from us and whom we may not seek constantly to conform to our desires.”[14] Otherness is not a biological feature, but a moral stance.

In fact, most elements of gender differentiation are deeply cultural and “anchored in the routines of the division of labor and the routines of one’s physical body.” [15] Isolde Karle observes that “each person (man or woman) is required (both implicitly and explicitly) constantly to emphasize those characteristics that correspond to the social definition of his or her gender identity and to carry out corresponding practices while suppressing inappropriate behaviors.”[16] Even the most basic aspects of daily routine—ways of walking, vocal intonation—are socially policed and “charged with an ethic, a politics and a cosmology.”[17] Thus, “women learn to smile, look down, and accept interruptions. In a particular way, women are taught how to sit, occupy space, and adopt appropriate postures.”[18]

Even at the biological level, there is no clear basis on which to speak of essential sex. There are many varieties of biologically intersex individuals, the result of various incongruities of up to five different biological variables, ranging from chromosomal factors in cell nuclei to external genitalia.[19]

It is not impossible for a “male” fetus (XY chromosomes and testes) to develop into a female—complete with labia, clitoris, a short vagina, breasts, feminine musculoskeletal structure, and female gender identity. This is the common pattern for intersexed persons with androgen insensitivity syndrome, one of the more common intersex conditions. Similarly, it is not impossible for a “female” fetus (XX chromosomes and ovaries) to develop into a male—complete with a phallus capable of vaginal penetration, male pattern hair growth, voice descent, masculine musculoskeletal development, and male gender identity—as is possible in more severe cases of congenital adrenal hypoplasia.[20]

Indeed, some individuals may never discover the underlying intersexual state of their gender identity. Gender is utterly irreducible to specific biological factors, and instead appears to emerge from some interstice of biological, mental, affective, social, and spiritual factors. As Megan DeFranza pointedly summarizes, “Males, females, and intersexed persons are all made of the same ‘stuff.’ We belong to the same order of being.”[21]

What do we do, then, with the exegesis that we set aside earlier? If scripture indeed condemns same-sex love as such, it is because scripture assumes a specific natural order with which human acts are either moral or intrinsically disordered. At this point, we may well ask why Paul would choose homoeroticism as the premier example of human rebellion in Romans 1. What makes it so clearly “contrary to nature” for Paul? Two major reasons present themselves, one literary and one social. First, there are clear literary-symbolic reasons for Paul to select same-sex eroticism as his illustration here. At the crowning of the creation account we find the gender binary, man and woman created together, divided, and reunited. Women pairing themselves with other women, and men with men, are a clear literary antonym to this. Indeed, Paul narrates a cosmic exchange, as human rebellion ends in this scene so antithetical to the creation account. Paul surely has Genesis 1-3 in mind here, but makes more direct reference to the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (sometimes called the Apocalypse of Moses), in which explicit mention is made of Adam and Eve “suppressing the truth,” “exchanging their glory for mortality” and exchanging their dominion for “unnatural subservience” to animals.[22] This is significant, as Greek Life narrates the fall somewhat differently from the Genesis account. The narrative is placed in the mouth of Eve, recounting the events to her children. Whereas Genesis portrays the serpent as the deceiver and does not mention Satan, Greek Life portrays Satan telling Eve through the serpent (a separate character from Satan) that he will only give her fruit from the tree if she will compel Adam to eat of it as well. She vows to do so, and though instantly upon eating she is shamed to perceive her nakedness and the deprivation of “the glory with which [she] was clothed” (20:3), she nonetheless carries out the plan to deceive Adam and force him to eat as well. (This may account for why Paul refers to women “exchanging” their natural relations for unnatural before mentioning men doing so, though other explanations are on offer.)[23] We cannot say conclusively how highly Paul regarded the account of Greek Life of Adam and Eve. He may have taken its fuller account of the fall narrative as entirely authoritative, or he may have regarded it as an expansive work that was literally untrue but highlighted important themes left implicit in the Genesis narrative. In any case, he clearly affirmed the elements that he incorporated into his own mini-creation account in Romans 1, and Greek Life seems to have informed how he understood φυσις/nature, and thus what “accords with” or “opposes” nature.

The second driving reason for Paul to choose homoeroticism as the premier illustration of fallenness is the culture in which Paul lived. A reader today who peruses Greco-Roman literature depicting or referencing homoeroticism cannot help but come away alarmed and disturbed by the practices with which Paul would have been most familiar. Virtually all same-sex contact was oppressive or violent: promiscuity, prostitution, and pederasty.[24] In Roman society, the distinction between active and passive partners in male same-sex acts was of extreme importance, with the active partner being considered especially masculine precisely because the passive partner was being “used, humiliated, and physically and morally damaged.” [25] Sarah Ruden writes that, “Heterosexual penetration could be harmless in the Christian community, in marriage… homosexual penetration could be harmless nowhere. There were no gay households; there were in fact no gay institutions or gay culture at all, in the sense of times or places in which it was mutually safe for men to have anal sex with one another.”[26] Ruden cites a wide number of writings—mostly journal entries and poems written so as to appear light-hearted—from leering men hoping to use slaves and young boys (one writes of his love for boys aged twelve to sixteen, allowing that possibly one could be attracted to a boy so old as seventeen, but warning that “if someone has a yen for older boys, he’s not playing anymore but looking to get some of what he gives”), as well as boys fearful of being so used. [27] Ruden is impressed that while many Greco-Roman moralists and satirists “lit into” passive homosexuality—that is, into the victims—Paul leveled his criticism against men who engage in such acts, and thereby shame not the victim, but themselves.[28]

However, this analysis (like the more popular work of John Boswell) fails to account for Paul’s mention of female same-sex relationships, which were of a fundamentally different character. Surely, this omission is in part because there is vastly more extant Greco-Roman writing about male same-sex relationships than female. Bernadette Brooten, however, has amassed a tremendous amount of ancient material on the subject, focusing upon the poems of Sappho, Greek erotic spells and potions (some of which were used by women to attract women they loved), astrological texts, medical texts, and dream interpretation manuals. The attitudes reflected across this wide spectrum of materials reflects the consistent and persistent belief that the natural role for women was passivity, and thus “Paul condemns sexual relations between women as ‘unnatural’ because he shares the widely held cultural view that women are passive by nature and therefore should remain passive in sexual relations.”[29] Paul upholds heterosexuality for the same reason he expects women to submit to men: the misogynistic assumptions of his cultural worldview.

Given that our scientific, philosophical, and experiential resources do not support this understanding of nature, are we pressed to reconsider the naturalness of what the authors of scripture knew to be unnatural? This is a complex hermeneutical question. The Bible, according to Charles Cosgrove, “contains both momentous and trivial instances of scientifically outmoded empirical knowledge. To take a weighty example, the temporal and cosmological aspects of much early Christian eschatology is [sic] untenable within the modern scientific worldview. An inconsequential example is the Gospel saying, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body…,’ which assumes that the eye is a source of light.”[30] With the exception of extreme fundamentalists—such as flat-earth conspiracy theorists and geocentrists—Christians have typically been content to grant that such empirical knowledge falls outside the scope and purpose of scripture, which is rather theological, historical, and moral. Difficulty arises, however, when scripture makes theological or moral determinations on the basis of empirical presuppositions that cannot be maintained. As David Balch observes, “Our ecclesiastical debates do not concern simply Paul’s ethics and ours, but Paul’s science and ethics and our science and ethics.”[31] The author of First Timothy presumes that women are “weaker” than men and more easily deceived. This reflects the widespread Hellenistic view that men are rational and women passional.[32] For this reason, he does not permit women to hold authority over men. While some churches continue in both this descriptive and hermeneutic posture, contemporary understanding largely rejects the notion that women are by nature less capable of rational decision-making, and many Christians therefore regard the strictures on women exercising leadership as culturally bound. I likewise regard the scriptural presupposition that same-sex love is sinful because it is unnatural must likewise as a culturally bound perspective.

                [1] Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 88-9.

                [2] For a brief overview, see Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

                [3] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: HarperCollins, 1996), 8.

                [4] Ibid., 9.

[5] James Giles, “A Theory of Love and Sexual Desire,” abstract, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 24, no. 4 (1994): 339.

[6] Giles, 339.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 2001), 2.

[8] Ibid., 1.

[9] MacIntyre, 119-52.

[10] Ibid., 90.

                [11]See, e.g., J. A. Mangan, ‘Manufactured’ Masculinity: Making Imperial Manliness, Morality and Militarism (London: Routledge, 2014).

[12] Via and Gagnon, 90. It is interesting that Gagnon essentially takes the argument from orientation and re-purposes it to his own non-affirming ends.

[13] Ibid., 91.

[14] Paul K. Jewett, Who We Are: Our Dignity as Human: A New-Evangelical Theology, ed. Marguerite Shuster (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 339.

[15] Isolde Karle, “Beyond Distinct Gender Identities,” The Depth of the Human Person: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Michael Welker (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 335.

[16] Karle, 335.

[17] Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), 27-8.

[18] Karle, 335.

[19] Megan K. DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), 23-67.

[20] DeFranza, 173.

[21] Ibid.

[22] John R. Levison, “Adam and Eve in Romans 1.18–25 and the Greek Life of Adam and Eve,” New Testament Studies 50, no. 4 (October, 2004): 519.

[23] Cranfield, 126-7.

[24] Loader, 137.

[25] Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his own Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 49.

[26] Ruden, 49.

[27] Ibid., 60.

[28] Ibid., 66.

[29] Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 216.

[30] Charles H. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 116.

[31] David L. Balch, “Concluding Observations by the Editor, Including a Comparison of Christian with Jewish Interpretation,” in David L. Balch, ed., Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 300.

[32] Cosgrove, 144.

What Are Exile Politics?

Thus, the heavenly City, so long as it is wayfaring on earth, not only makes use of earthly peace but fosters and actively pursues along with other humans beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship.  (Of course, though, the City of God subordinates this earthly peace to that of heaven.)
– Augustine, City of God, Book 19

Exile politics, drawing on the advice of Jeremiah to the Israelites taken into exile in Babylon, recognizes that the church is not properly at home in this word. Exile politics rejects theocracy and theonomy, Constantinianism and Christendom, while still recognizing that in a post-colonial, post-Christendom age, the church wields cultural power, whether it likes that or not. Accordingly, Christians-as-exiles work as a counterculture that seeks the common good, leveraging that influence where it exists. Nevertheless, opportunities exist to confound expectations.

Discipleship in the way of Jesus inevitably confounds expectations.

Exile politics are neither liberal nor conservative, but strategic, rooted not in an exterior political philosophy of any sort, but rooted in the identity of the church-in-exile, the recognition that Christ is Lord, and that all powers that claim lordship are thus pretenders, to be identified with the powers and principalities spoken of in the New Testament, who could not understand the wisdom of God and thus crucified the lord of glory.

Exile politics are the politics of those who suffer.

As the church inevitably joins the suffering messiah, it joins as well the suffering of all Christ’s brothers and sisters, all God’s children, all created in the imago dei, the least of these, the people of the land. The church may make strategic use of the vestiges of cultural influence it has inherited, but it must be put to use not for its own ends, nor for the maintenance of the church’s power, prestige and influence as such, but for those who suffer along with the suffering messiah.

Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 4

Parts 2 and 3.

In my last post, I summarized the complex and contradictory ways that chief representatives of the protestant traditions worked within an assumed ontology that was neither pre-modern nor yet recognizably modern. Today’s post extends this summary to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and, indirectly of a number of evangelical and pentecostal groups across the United States and abroad.

IV. Inheritors of a Diminished Sacramentality

The Reformation resulted in unprecedented levels of social change and upheaval. In part, this followed naturally from the disenchantment that drove Reformation ideals. Once the social order is no longer understood as participation in divine order, and once religious vocations are de-sacramentalized, room is opened up for such change. By the time John Wesley is born at the beginning of the 18th century, decades after the publication of Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, disenchantment is itself institutionalized in many ways.

Wesley, being a practical and pastoral theologian, seldom deals in abstract philosophical speculation. Still, his theology and practice clearly reflect his acceptance of and, at times, creative interaction with the diminished sacramental metaphysics characteristic of modernity. In a sermon, Wesley writes that “God acts everywhere, and therefore is everywhere; for it is an utter impossibility that any being, created or uncreated, should work there it is not. God acts in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, throughout the whole compass of his creation.”[1] In this same sermon, Wesley refers to Newton’s hypothesis that a gaseous quasi-material called ether filled the space in which all objects moved and interacted, saying “And it is now generally supposed that all space is full.”[2] Yet this theory was falling out of favor, prompting Wesley to argue on theological grounds, “Perhaps it cannot be proved that all space is filled with matter. But the heathen himself will bear witness… All things are full of God.’”[3] Earlier in his life Wesley wrote that “There is no place empty of God… every point of infinite space is full of God.”[4]

This conception stands in interesting tension with Wesley’s insistence that God was not knowable through nature. In his first sermon, preached at St. Mary’s in Oxford in November of 1730, he narrated the way the Creator formed Adam and Eve with the ability to know God directly, and the way that the fall destroyed this epistemological relationship.[5] In the post-lapsarian world, for Wesley, the only possible true epistemology was one of revelation, a prevenient grace that intrudes into a world that is otherwise intelligible yet insufficiently so. Yet even the secular was full of God and could be so sensed. Charles Wesley captures this in the phrase, “Author of every work divine,/ Who dost through both Creations shine:/ The God of nature and of grace.”[6] Though Wesley never explicates his metaphysical or ontological suppositions, his views may be characterized as a world of grace, being graced, known by grace. In contrast to the views of Scotus, Ockham, Hubmaier and Luther above, Wesley has a surprisingly high sacramental ontology.

This results in a soteriology less individualistic and anthropocentric than many contemporaries. In a tract, Wesley explained his conception of salvation

By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.[7]

Wesley’s emphasis on “recovery of the divine nature,” frequently called “total sanctification” or “Christian perfection,” echoes the doctrine of theosis. Moreover, Wesley’s late sermon “The General Deliverance” begins moving from a view that centers on humans to an account of salvation that has the created world as its center focus. Perhaps this renewed emphasis on nature follows directly from Wesley’s ontology: The God of nature and of grace must not be concerned solely with humans.

[1] Sermon 118, “On the Omnipresence of God.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.,

[4] Sermon 69, “The Imperfection of Human Knowledge.”

[5] Thomas R. Albin, “Experience of God” in The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies, ed. William J. Abraham and James E. Kirby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 382.

[6] Charles Wesley, Hymns of Petition and Thanksgiving for the Promise of the Father, #28, cited in Michael Lodahl, God of Nature and of Grace: Reading the World in a Wesleyan Way (Nashville, TN: Kingswood Books, 2003), 129.

[7] John Wesley, “A Further Appeal to Men of Religion and Reason,” 1786.