Category Archives: Uncategorized

The genius of Trump

The genius of Trump’s political brand is that he says what we all know to be true: that political discourse in America is about power, not truth. We have all known for some time that the real rules governing discourse are managed by backroom deals, political funding, an uninformed or misinformed populace, voting blocs who reliably or periodically following certain voting trends, etc. We watch pundits contort themselves to follow this basic rule:


This has always been the case in democratic politics to some extent, but in recent decades the existence of the for-profit 24/7 news channel, and now life-absorbing social media networks, has elevated it to proportions undeniable to the average voter.

Donald Trump, because he is entirely cynical and amoral, not only exploits this but openly points it out. And he not only points it out in others, but effectively owns it in himself. This is why he is scandal proof to those who have bought into his message. They recognize that scandals are only scandals to the extent that they are committed by a political opponent. Post-truth, indeed.

This is the genius of Trump’s brand of politics. And in this sense, the election of Trump is not a disruptive event, but is the inevitable result of our entire political culture.


Subsistence Farming and the Gospel: An Advent Reflection


Over the Advent season my congregation of Park Place Church of God is engaging in a series that highlights “the Jesus who was cradled in a feeding trough coming to a world in great need of food security.”

The following is my contribution.

Globally, women feed the world. Western economists have often obscured this fact by failing to include unpaid agricultural work in reports. Yet in most societies in most of the world, subsistence farming is necessary to supplement waged work, and frequently it is women who are growing, threshing, processing, and/or rearing the food that feeds the community. Often, this takes place on communal or else illegally occupied land (guerrilla farming in rural areas, guerrilla gardening in urban ones). This work, though essential and lifesaving, is rendered invisible and marginal within the systems of global capital.

Of course, the scriptures attest that the essential and lifesaving are often invisible and marginal according to the systems of the world. The land awaiting a messiah was of little account to the empires that passed it back and forth across the centuries. The Messiah was born to a tiny agrarian community forced to pay a percentage of its harvest to the military dictatorship that simultaneously ruled and ignored it. Yet that birth was both a reminder and a sign that God “has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” We thus see in the birth of the Messiah God’s solidarity with the invisible work tucked away in kitchens, gardens, farms, and fields all over the world.

The Capitalist Worldview – A Moral Critique

The metanarrative of capitalism

In an insightful 1956 essay, Wilfred Beckerman compares the social role of economists with that of colonial missionaries and tribal “witch doctors.” He writes that “the economist not only fulfils the invaluable social function of creating a sense of security and harmony with the economic elements, but fulfils it with an élan, an inventiveness and an array of impressive rites which is a credit to the profession.” This may seem unfair to professional economists, who after all study a great deal of math, yet Beckerman presciently observes that “in an economy, such as that of the United States of America, where leisure is barely moral, the problem of creating sufficient wants…to absorb productive capacity may become chronic in the not too distant future. In such a situation the economist begins to lead a furtive existence.” Writing not long afterward, John Kenneth Galbraith has his finger on the same pulse, and diagnoses “an elaborate and ingenious defense of the importance of production as such.” Continued and indeed escalating production is essential in Galbraith’s view in order to provide economic security. A society will not tolerate production for its own sake, and so desire for products must be manufactured along with those products themselves. Galbraith, in his usual moral authoritarian mode, elaborates, “In this way, economic theory has managed to transfer the sense of urgency in meeting consumer need that once was felt in a world where more production meant more food for the hungry, more clothing for the cold, and more houses for the homeless.” This has transitioned into “a world where increased output satisfied the craving for more elegant automobiles, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment—indeed, for the entire modern range of sensuous, edifying and lethal desires.” In other words, the desire for production of luxury consumer goods is created not by society, nor yet by consumers, but by economic “science.” Galbraith supports this claim through a lengthy genealogy of production, but not before making the commonsense observation that new consumer desire suspiciously never deviates from products becoming available.

The prescience of Beckerman and Galbraith’s post-war comments is striking. Crucially, their analysis indicates that consumerism is not an aberration, but is the necessary condition for a capitalist economy to subsist. Without directly citing either, Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh interacts with contemporary accounts that summarize the same effect ongoing today, noting that “in the absence of any objective concept of the good, sheer power remains.” The context for Cavanaugh’s discussion is an examination of the claims of the market to offer freedom, an essential component of the larger market metanarrative, which undergirds the assumptions within which economics as a discipline functions.

The market story assumes, first of all, conditions of scarcity. Without scarcity there is no necessary impetus toward exchange. Because exchange occurs within conditions of scarcity, moreover, inefficiencies present themselves. The goal of economics is the study of such exchanges with a view toward recommendations for minimizing inefficiencies. Among other things, this leads to casting people within the market story as purely economic agents. As economist Nancy Ruth Fox admits, “Neoclassical economists tend to compartmentalize people, viewing them as economic agents who supply labor and demand goods and services. This allows their disparate practices, desires, needs, and wants to be commodified. In fact, for neoclassical economists, essentially anything can be commodified.” In a critique of this totalizing perspective, D. Stephen Long writes,

Economics claims to see the total whole, which is embodied…in the natural workings of the market; and then it requires some people to sacrifice for the sake of this totality. Those sacrifices are then justified on the basis of the natural truth of the totality. They are necessary phases toward the best possible outcome assessment, whether they are willed or not.

Crucial in this statement is the use of the word natural. Within the narrative, economics as such is not fundamentally prescriptive but descriptive (hence, neoclassical economists would object to Galbraith ascribing agency to economic “science” above). Though policy recommendations are an aspect of what economists do, they depend upon a brutal reliance on the mechanisms provided by the market itself, which like the wind for a sailor can be utilized but not directed. (It is for this reason, Fox insists, that economists necessarily appear “cold-hearted” to those who do not “understand.” We are venturing near to Beckerman’s shamanistic description of the economist again.)

Because market conditions are taken as an ontological given, the verity of economic perspectives functions on the same plane as—if not a higher one than—Christian theological perspectives. Whereas a Christian may, for instance, perceive justice as a higher end than profit or efficiency, the economist must reply that that simply is not the case. Such theological commitments are not merely relegated to the realm of the private, but are deemed positively harmful. The central tenets of capitalism demand that only a pursuit of personal gain will lead (through no intention of the pursuer) to increased gain and freedom for all. For neoclassical economists like Milton Friedman, freedom (from outside interference, whether moral or legislative) is both the necessary condition for the market to function as well as the outcome of a free market in the lives of individuals. He writes,

So long as effective freedom of exchange is maintained, the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another with respect to most of his activities. The consumer is protected from coercion by the seller because of the presence of other sellers with whom he can deal; the seller is protected from coercion by the consumer because of other consumers with whom she can sell; the employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other employers for whom he can work, and so on. And the market does this impersonally and without centralized authority.

Again, this is all accepted on the level of ontological fact, guided by Smith’s invisible hand. Of those who express skepticism toward the market’s transmutation of self-interest, Friedman writes that “underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

Here is where we pick up again Cavanaugh’s argument from before. Cavanaugh, as a theologian, distinguishes between Friedman’s negative account of freedom as freedom from outside interference and the Augustinian portrayal of freedom as freedom to return to God in love. While a market wholly free from outside interference may conceivably contribute to a freedom in the negative sense, it cannot possibly contribute to that positive freedom, which necessarily includes some telos, some account of individual or social flourishing, toward which that freedom might be oriented.

The implicit theology of the market

What does this market metanarrative mean for a Christian political imagination and morality more generally? Daniel Bell identifies several aspects of an implicit theology expressed by the global capitalist market. Basic to any understanding of capitalism is its anthropology. For Bell, “Capitalism does not simply act on a pregiven human subject; rather, it forms a particular kind of human subject, one that relates to its environment in a certain way.” Referring to this construct by pseudo-Linnaean nomenclature, Bell describes several characteristics of homo economicus.

Homo economicus is sheerly individual, indeed, “sovereign…not dependent on or subject to others except to the extent that she voluntarily enters into relations with a view to her own interests.” (This accords with Hauerwas’s indictment of liberalism, in which “the individual is the sole source of authority.”) There is no possibility here for tribal identity or any other so-called “oppressive traditionalist and collectivist economies and societies.” Naturally, this understanding comes into conflict with the unity of church. While homo economicus can sovereignly enter into a church body if the cost-benefit analysis justifies such a decision, one cannot at the same time say that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4).

The capitalist individual is characterized by a self-determining freedom to choose. Bell further observes that this negative freedom cannot be simply supplemented by an added-on concept of positive freedom, because to do so would be to work at odds with the guidance of the invisible hand: this is why pure free market advocates argue against benevolent campaigns such as Fair Trade. Additionally, the capitalist individual is a self-interested “interest maximizer” with an “insatiable desire.” Within the market metanarrative, not only is this self-interested acquisitiveness not a vice (as in the Christian conception of greed), it is salvific. Friedman describes it as “one of the strongest and most creative forces known to [humans], the attempt by millions of individuals to promote their own interests, to live their lives by their own values.” This is troubling to Bell, as “the emphasis on self-interest entails a rejection of any substantive notion of a shared purpose or common good that unites humanity.” This acquisitiveness must be troubling to pastors, theologians, and liturgists as well, as it indicates that the market-formed individual coming to the communion table has been disciplined never to feel satisfied.  

Finally, Bell observes the effects that the existence of such individuals has on society at large. Given the conditions of scarcity that the market economy assumes, any number of acquisitive individuals are necessarily in competition with one another for finite resources. Simply put, “Capitalism orders human relations as struggle and conflict.” Aspects of this competition afflict even the “winners,” as marriages in bourgeois societies transmute into “(short-term) contracts subject to a cost/benefit analysis, children become consumer goods or accessories, family bonds are weakened, and our bodies are treated like so many raw materials to be mined and exploited for manufacture and pleasure.” Much more devastating, however, is the effect of economic competition on the “losers,” the poor who live in rich societies, as well as whole nations and people-groups exploited to the benefit of richer nations. As Bolivian indigenous leader Nilda Rojas Huanca has put it, “The open veins of Latin America are still bleeding.” Huanca refers in part to the impoverished working class, but also to the veins of the earth, as resources are extracted from colonized and post-colonial territories to create consumer goods for the colonizers—a process Naomi Klein refers to as “extractivism.” It is increasingly accepted both by scientists and concerned theologians that creation is also “losing” amidst this economic competition. As Pope Francis writes in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si, climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Francis also recognizes that “its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”

Yet capitalism is not structured to recognize these bare facts as unjust. From the perspective of the market, justice is “solely a matter of enforcing the terms of voluntary, contractual exchanges. Justice does not mandate that those exchanges result in a particular outcome or even that exchanges be made possible in the first place.” Like its account of freedom, the market’s account of justice is purely negative. This is in bald contrast to Paul’s logic in 1 Cor 11, where he censures the privileged believers for leaving too little of the “one bread” for the rest. Paul did not diagnose a scarcity, but a greed proceeding from a lack of recognition of the body.

Just as the market offers an implicit account of the human, it offers an implicit account of God. If the individual under capitalism is homo economicus, God is Deus absconditus, an absentee god. The clearest substitute for the Christian God in capitalist thought is the invisible hand, which providentially transforms individual pursuit of self-interest into common benefit. Yet according to Adam Smith and his inheritors, the invisible hand can do this only by unintended consequence. Altruism will proceed through self-interest, but conscious attempts at altruism—a mandated living wage, for example—will interfere with the machinations of the system, hurting rather than helping. Hence, not only are compassion and other virtues unnecessary, they are positively disincentivized.

Concomitantly, Bell recognizes the market’s conception of God as one who explicitly “is not redeeming.” While the market narrative itself does not recognize sin, Christian capitalists may. They must, however, understand sin as an “ineradicable given,” in Michael Novak’s terms, the harm of which can only be minimized through efficient economic arrangement. Christian defenses of the market thus maintain their intelligibility only by resolving prematurely the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the eschatological reign of God. For Bell, this non-redeeming quality reduces the capitalist conception of God to an idolatrous vision that is atheistic, deistic, or Stoic. This vision is atheistic in that it necessarily operates as though God were not, deistic in its reliance on self-operating and -maintaining principles (Smith, like most of the intelligentsia of his day, was a Deist), and Stoic in its vision “of sovereign individuals, proprietors of their own bodies, who move through the trials and tribulations of this life, making the most of their capacities and endowments, hoping thereby only to endure, to survive, expecting no redemption.” Further, the God of capitalist logic is necessarily one who never creates or provides enough. The agony of competition described above does not proceed from improper human selfishness, but is called forth by the very qualities imbued in creation: “Humanity is created with desires that cannot be sated, and then humanity is set in a natural order that is incomplete and lacking.”

The result of this maladjusted view, incompatible with scriptural depictions of God, humanity and the life of virtue and discipleship, is that capitalism results in great destruction not only to those it harms, but distorts the way everyone involved in the system understand and approach the world.

David Gushee’s LGBT articles

Over the course of a few weeks, David Gushee published a series of articles examining in-depth “the LGBT issue.” David Gushee is a prominent Christian ethicist who has been well respected among evangelicals for many years. He co-authored with Glen Stassen the text Kingdom Ethics, which remains a masterpiece of ethical reflection, used in many introductory courses to Christian ethics. Hence, his somewhat unexpected shift from a traditional ethic to an affirmation of same-sex love surprised many and signaled a sea change in the evangelical world. His articles were subsequently developed and reformatted for publication as the book Changing Our Minds.

Unfortunately, many of the internal links from his articles to one another have fallen into disrepair, making the online version of his work far less accessible. As such, I offer an index to the updated links to the series here, in the hope that they will be found helpful.

Starting a conversation: The LGBT Issue, part 1

What exactly is the issue? The LGBT issue, part 2

Change we can all support: The LGBT issue, part 3

Gay Christians exist: The LGBT issue, part 4

Six options for the churches: The LGBT issue, part 5

If this is where you get off the bus: The LGBT issue, part 6

Biblical inspiration, human interpretation: The LGBT issue, part 7

How traditionalists connect the biblical dots: The LGBT issue, part 8

The sins of Sodom (and Gibeah): The LGBT issue, part 9

Leviticus, abomination and Jesus: The LGBT issue, part 10

Two odd little words: the LGBT issue, part 11 (revised)

God made them male and female: The LGBT issue, part 12

Creation, sexual orientation, and God’s will: The LGBT issue, part 13

Toward covenant: The LGBT issue, part 14

Transformative encounters and paradigm leaps: The LGBT issue, part 15

A dual-narrative tour: The LGBT issue, part 16

What I have learned: The LGBT issue, conclusion

I hope that this index proves useful to those researching the issue in good faith. David Gushee’s research is by no means by the final word on the subject, but if it is more than you have ever read, you owe it to yourself and to conversation partners to read at least this much before entering into the discussion.

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/φύσις 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

When society is structured in such a way that benefits or penalties are attached to perceived racial identity, the society is to that degree racist in structure. An attendant personal component exists in the form of individual prejudice—which may serve to justify the effects of racism to individuals who hold the prejudice—but racism is not reducible to prejudice. Racism is quantifiable in a number of ways, of which incarceration rates and wealth disparities are tangible and significant instances. Although white and Black Americans consume marijuana in approximately even numbers, Black Americans are arrested for it at approximately eight times the rate of whites. Regarding wealth, the median Black household possesses just six percent of the wealth of the median white household; Latino households possess an average of eight percent of the average white household. Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have written at length on these and related phenomena, demonstrating that they are not the offspring simply of inherited inequality, or of trajectories set by a past of slavery and land seizure, but are further result of actively on-going racist policy and implementation in practices such as institutional lending and segregation enforced through real estate policy.

When racism is structurally embedded, it does not require individual malice to “opt in,” but rather a conscious effort to “opt out.” Even with effort, the more deep-seated the racism, the more obscured from vision, the more all-pervasive, the harder it is to detect and to significantly opt out of participation in it. Utilizing the Pauline language of powers—which operate through human agency but without conscious human intention—enables us to name “whiteness” as a particular power operative in American social and ecclesial life. As Jennifer Harvey writes, “[whiteness] is a phenomenon that can exist only with the direct involvement and complicit participation of white people. At the same time, it is also larger and more powerful than the individual white person, having taken on a life of its own.”


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 Jennifer 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 principal 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.

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. We may likewise regard the scriptural presupposition that same-sex love is sinful because it is unnatural 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.