Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Nearly Jargon-Free Easter Reflection Against "Substitutionary Atonement"

Easter isn't easy for someone who doesn't believe in what theologians call "substitutionary atonement." Most Easter-related festivities ("Holy Week") tend to focus on this concept. To cut to the chase and through the jargon, I neither think Jesus died for my sins nor do think Jesus had to die an untimely death.

To continue with simplicity: I disagree with the parts of the Bible that support substitutionary atonement (emphasis on "parts of the Bible," because the Bible does not portray one unifying worldview--"biblical theology" is a myth). I think a God who requires death before forgiveness is a sadistic God. How many times in the Bible does God forgive sins without death (or, for that matter, without a profession of faith)? Consider the story of Jonah for merely one example. Yes, I know my "Romans Road"; Paul says "for the wages of sin is death." Jesus's death does not prevent me from physical death, and if I am going to believe in a God, I am going to believe in one powerful and loving enough that this God is not bound by some wild notion that every sin is reasonably punishable by death.

Although my Easter experiences are continually bombarded with the inculcation of this oppressive belief, I still love the significance of this holiday. Jesus's death is still holy: he was a martyr for his countercultural "Judaism" that, at times, threatened the oppressive Roman regime and its opulence that was constructed on the backs of the poor. (I place "Judaism" in scare quotes, because Jesus's nationality and ethnicity were so wrapped up in his experience of his religion that they were inseparable and not really contained but how we understand Judaism, religion, or faith today. But neither does Judaism, faith, religion, or Israelite-ness really do it justice. However, I do want to emphasize the continuity between Jesus and modern-day Judaism.) That sort of practice and dedication is just  as admirable, as the crucifixion is heinous. The cross reminds me of the evils of capitalism, cultural tyranny and the price of true justice.

Ah, but the price of true (social) justice is also its reward. Jesus died, but then there is the symbol of resurrection. Jesus lives on through those who follow his example. He is not dead, but alive in all movements for good. It would have been better if Jesus had died a natural death, but his untimely death will not be left in vain.

Substitutionary atonement was one way the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus could understand the death of Jesus. It is not the only way. One can also see Jesus's death as an injustice, and his resurrection as a call to be the resurrection: to continue social justice at all costs. And for that reason, I celebrate Easter and say with may others across the world, regardless of what they mean by the litany:

He is risen.
He is risen, indeed.

Monday, March 10, 2014

An Attempt at a Wedding Ceremony with Less Privilege

Weddings reek of privilege. They are filled with sexist images and they are, for now, a heterosexual privilege. It was important for my partner and I to have a ceremony that toned down the privilege a bit. Finding one wasn't easy, so I wrote one. Since we are both steeped in Christian imagery, our ceremony still uses a lot of God and biblical references.  I have shared it below.


Trevar: Love comes from God. Everyone who truly loves is a child of God. Let us honor God in this ceremony of love.

Dear Friends, we have come together to share love and joy. God gives human love. Through that love, two persons come to know each other with mutual care and companionship. God gives joy. Through that joy, they may share their new life with others as Jesus shared new wine at the wedding in Cana. With your love and prayers, we are drinking that new wine today.

In this welcome and invocation, Sherry and I want to share a sorrow hidden within our love. Although love is a thing to celebrate, many adults are prohibited from such celebrations. Two consenting adults who love and commit to each other should be allowed to join themselves and their families in such a happy celebration as this. 

Love comes from God. Everyone who truly loves is a child of God. Sherry now lights a candle that burns with our love not only for each other, but also for our desire for justice, for equality, and for love itself.

And now, as we pray, I am going to read a prayer a friend wrote for this occasion.

Loving God

Thank you for the love that you have created between Sherry and Trevar. As we look on this love, we see your hand in its intricate design, its deep formation. We look at them loving each other  and we experience the kind of divine wonder we feel when we behold natural beauty: a sunset  over the mountains, the expanse of the ocean, a new song by the neighborhood mockingbird. We  are brought to our knees by the magnificence of it, and we are grateful.  In seeing how Sherry and Trevar love each other, we are reminded of your complete love for us.  The way you give to us abundantly, joyfully. The way you laugh when we laugh and cry when we  cry. The way you indulge our need for second chances, and third ones. You love us in our  brokenness. You love us in our foolishness. You love us like crazy.  We praise you God, that Sherry and Trevar, by loving each other like you love us, have called us  back into your embrace. We feel at home here. We feel at peace. We feel loved. May the home that Sherry and Trevar build together always be one that radiates the peace and  love that they feel in this moment. May their marriage surprise them with fresh joy and  encourage them with lasting hope. And may their love, so vibrant now, grow ever more so day by love-filled day. God in your mercy, Hear my prayer. Amen.

Declaration of Intent 

Rev. Ingram: Before all present, I ask you to affirm your willingness to enter this covenant of marriage and to share all the joys and sorrows of this new relationship, whatever the future may hold.

Trevar, will you enter into the covenant of marriage with my daughter, and will you love her faithfully as long as you both shall live?

Trevar: I will

Sherry, will you enter into the covenant of marriage with Trevar, and will you love him faithfully as long as you both shall live?

Sherry: I will.

Addressing congregation:

Dear friends gathered today, do you pledge your support and encouragement to the covenant commitment that Sherry and Trevar are making together? If so, please say, "We do."

Congregation: We do.

Exchange of Vows

With everyone's intentions declared, I invite Sherry and Trevar to exchange their written vows.

Trevar: My dearest Sherry Rose, you know I don't like to make things simple, and these vows are no different. I am leery of making promises, because I make mistakes, and I am inconsistent. But there so much I want to promise you. So much I want to promise you, but so many things that could happen that could change me, or change you, or change us. I cannot promise consistency in myself or in our relationship, but I can promise you that I love you. And, 'I love you' is a vow in and of itself: a vow to try, to work to make things work despite our mistakes and struggles, to experiment on new things when life needs to change, to live as if I am not an independent person, but partaking in interdependence with you. I vow to try, Sherry Roselyn Ingram. I vow to try to honor the name that we will share as we share our lives together. I love you, and that's a promise.

Sherry: Trevar, who would have known that on this day exactly seven years ago, when you walked into my office to interview for a job, that we would be standing here, committing our lives to each other? I remember you being the quiet guy who overwhelmed me with his intellect. I recall you saying that you were intimidated by me because I was your supervisor's supervisor. I am so glad that we moved past that and capitalized on moments to get to know each other. I guess you can say that we've gotten some practice in being married, as we played a married couple during two murder-mystery dinners. We foreshadowed that we would live in Chicago by singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" during a Residence Life talent show. From our hike in Birmingham at the waterfall, which is when I started falling for you, during the time that I was physically sick while visiting you (and you took great care of me), to our road trip and Caribbean cruise, through our long-distance relationship, and our individual moves to Chicago, it delights me that it's you who has been a part of my life, and I promise from this day forward, that you will never walk alone. You are my everything. You make me feel loved, wanted, secure, heard, adored, beautiful, and cared for, not only with your words, but in your actions. I love your passion for social justice causes, equality, your nonjudgmental attitude, your ability to see the good in everyone, your humor, how comfortable I am around you, and the things you say when you say nothing at all. I've grown to love Futurama, and I promise to watch episodes with you for days to come. In turn, I hope you don't become too mad at President Fitzgerald Grant and stop watching Scandal with me. Although it embarrasses me sometimes, I love that you are not ashamed to proclaim your love for me with your public gestures. It shows me how much you really care. Thanks for putting up with my Type A personality and my perfectionist ways, especially during the wedding planning process. In our hearts, we already feel married and today marks the day when we become official partners for life. I promise that in good times, I'm going to celebrate with you. In sad times, I'm going to cry with you. And in uncertain times, I'm going to hold you. I give you my heart. My heart will be your shelter, and my arms will be your home. Loving someone is a choice, and in front of family and friends, I am declaring that I am choosing to love you, unconditionally, today and always. I love you.

Exchange of Rings

To seal the vows just exchanged, you shall now exchange rings. 

Trevar, please place the ring on your beloved's finger and repeat after me: "Let this ring around your finger be as my love around your heart."

Sherry, please place the ring on your beloved's finger and repeat after me: "Let this ring around your finger be as my love around your heart."

Hand Fasting

Trevar, take Sherry's right hand into your right hand. You have blessed each other and everyone here today with the blessings you have received. Your love overflows into the display of love that we enjoy in this ceremony and the food and fun of the reception tomorrow. May your commitments to each other stand forever, and may your love continually overflow and bless those around you. 

Sherry, take Trevar's left hand into your left hand. May your hands with the rings upon them continually work together to show love unto others. And may your left hands together not even know what your right hands are doing, as Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount.

Wrap the tie around the joined hands.

With the seals of love upon your hands, we emphasize this union in the fasting of your hands, which represents how firmly fixed you two are to each other. As your hands are joined, so are your whole beings. Let the bind never be cut asunder.

The knot is not tied by any human material, but by your public vows of love in this place. You hold in your own hands the making or breaking of this union. Your union will not always be easy, so keep the knot between your hearts faster than the tie that now binds your hands.


As the final symbol of your union, you two will now join in remembering how Jesus personified sacrifice and unity in his life and death.

As you eat of this bread, think not only of Jesus's body, broken for all, but also of the bread left over when Jesus fed the multitude. Like Jesus, if you two give yourselves to each other and together give yourselves to those around you, there will always and miraculously be more and more to give.

As you drink of this chalice give to Trevar by his grandfather, think of how Jesus wanted his followers to be one as he was one with God. As you drink of the cup, you not only strive for unity with God and with each other, but with unity of all who have been, are, and will be invited to drink of this cup. Be one as Jesus and God are one, as all humanity is one, and as two adults who love each other should be one.

Pronouncement of Marriage

It is with great pleasure that I pronounce before God and everyone here today that you are now married: woman and husband, man and wife. Please place a final seal upon your union with a kiss.

The kiss.

Behold, give thanks, and, please, remain in your seats, as my daughter and son-in-law, Trevar and Sherry Simmons, recess through the aisle.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

On Love and God and Ambiguity

In a phone interview the other week, I was asked how I work with ambiguity. Ever the nerd, I began my response by saying something quite brief about postmodernism and then delving into ambiguity and my professional life, since that was the reason for their question.

Even if one has progressed far in divine things, one is never nearer the truth than when one understands that those things still remain to be discovered. He who believes he has attained the goal, far from finding what he seeks, falls by the wayside.
--St. Leo the Great, quoted in Peter Rollins, How (Not) To Speak Of God

After reading the above words, I thought about how this statement is true not just in divine things, but in things in general, if the two are discernibly or meaningful separate. This morning I think especially of love, which is certainly a divine thing if not the divine thing. I don't think love or God is something we can entirely attain and, as St. Leo the Great says, remains in ambiguity as much as, if not more than, it is understood and felt. 

Love and God are areas in which we must always seek for more understanding from new experiences, create more meaning in community and solidarity, and give away all that we know and learn. The more we attain, the less we can retain as the newness gives way to complete and utter newness of comprehension and experience as much as it builds on that which came before. Love and God are not impossible in this sense, but always ambiguous and never fully achieved. There is always more understanding, new experiences, meaningful and innovative creations, and leftover bread and fish when all is given away for in order to find ourselves, we must lose ourselves. And what is the pursuit of God and love if not the pursuit of ourselves, of ipseity and community, if there is a discernible or meaningful difference between the two?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Futurama's Knight of Faith ... Against W. K. Clifford & Derrida?

You can't lose hope when it's hopeless. You gotta hope more, then put your fingers in your ears and go, "Blah! Blah! Blah! Blah!... "
- Philip J. Fry
Futurama channeled Kierkegaard's knight of faith in this quote. The knight of faith has faith for the impossible, has faith when there should be no faith. This knight hopes for that which is hopeless--life from something dead, love from the unrequited, and sense and reality from the nonsensical. No matter how progressive and reasonable your faith/religion/spirituality is, at some level you are not only putting your fingers in your ears, but also screaming against contradicting noise. We are the knight of faith and the child incessantly saying, "I'm not listening!"

The difference--OK, a difference--between Kierkegaard and Futurama is that Kierkegaard romanticizes this hope against hope by calling it a knight. Kierkegaard says it is admirable to cover up your ears and refuse to listen to reason or any reasonable, alternative belief. Futurama appears to make fun of it, pointing out the childish ridiculousness of it. But in the episode, Fry's hope wins out. Futurama was very careful to ridicule the faith while also saying that either coincidence or providence could award the knight of faith (in the episode, coincidence and providence work together, perhaps).

Kierkegaard ennobles faith and Futurama remains conspicuously ambiguous. W. K. Clifford calls it unethical, saying that "sincerity of conviction" isn't enough. For Clifford, we need to have "evidence" and some sort of reason to believe. And here comes an essential question: Is reason contrary to faith and vice versa?

On the hand, I must say yes. Faith steps in where reason cannot tread. Yet, many "faith journeys" are guided and influenced by reason, at least, on some level. Once one takes that "leap of faith," reason can guide the rest of belief. It seems, reason and faith are not completely contrary.

I want to say one is more primary than the other. Of course, to say so would be more of desire than reason. And yet, to deny it due to reason would be to assume the primacy of reason. I assume the primacy of reason--I have faith in reason, because I assume it is a valid basis for belief formation.

Enter deconstruction. Of course, Trevar mentioned deconstruction. Deconstruction uses reason against itself. On the one hand we have hope against hope and, on the other, reason against reason. With deconstruction, I don't get rid of reason, but rather realize its limitations. I understand reason has boundaries. I understand faith is, at is base, unreasonable and, possibly--nay, likely--ridiculous. 

But faith is inevitable. Reason is, too, even though I think some people have managed to avoid it. We all take faith at different points and reason at different points. Perhaps it is more reasonable to shoo faith to certain places, but only because I have faith that this sort of reason is right, that there are levels of reasonable investigation into faith and reason that are responsible and levels that are irresponsible, like a diet version of Clifford's view, because it is healthier for you. 

In the end, it is health that I wish for, not right and wrong--love over impossibly definable veracity.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why We Read, Write, And Teach Literature

One of my adult students recently lost his grandmother. The first night he returned to class, I overheard him talking to another student about his time in the hospital. He said that in his grandmother's last moments, all he could think about was the carriage ride in Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death." Thinking about that poem helped him cope with those last moments.

That is why we read, write, and teach literature. It doesn't always help, and the same literature isn't going to help all of us. Reading, writing, and teaching isn't going to make anything better or lighten something heavy, but it may help us cope as we carry a burden--either helping us make meaning where there is none or live with meaninglessness. As Joan Didion writes, "[For Ramon Novarro,] Writing had helped him, he said, to 'reflect on experience and see what it means.' [...] but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means"(48, The White Album).

For me, in personal tragedy or in larger tragedies such as the explosions in Boston today, I often look for help in the opening lines of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
For my student, in the death of his grandmother, it was "Because I could not stop for Death."

Whether movie, television, music, writing, paintings, video game, or other art or "text," what has it been that has helped you?

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality. 

We slowly drove –
He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too, 

For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –  

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –  

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –  

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
 first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Reflections: 1 Corinthians 15 & Derrida Working Towards Equality

"Tomorrow is the shadow and reflexibility of our hands."
--Reb Derissa, "Ellipsis," Writing and Difference

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a human came death, by a human also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those are are Christ's at his coming, then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when he has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20-26

According to Paul, today--Easter--is about tomorrow. First fruits are a tithe or tax of sorts, a compulsory giving of produce to feed the priests and their families. Whether or not literally the first crops to be reaped, the crops are given to God first (or a deity, since the first-fruit offering is not distinctively Israelite), then to the farmer (see the Catholic Encyclopedia & Wikipedia for nice overviews).

Paul says Jesus is the tax of the dead, says people created death and resurrection (vv. 20-21). Since humanity "grew" both (to keep the agricultural metaphor) then the first fruits of death and resurrection go to God. Now that the tax is paid and the offering given, the rest of the crop--death and resurrection--belongs to humanity.

At least, we--the body of Christ--are working towards taking ownership of death and resurrection. First, Paul maintains that we cannot have the rest of the fruits of resurrection until we get rid of death (see vv.23-26). Paul foresees the tax paid by the dead--the resurrection of us, the body of Christ--as one that must work to overcome death and "[abolish] all rule and all authority and power" (15:24). To abandon what Paul envisioned, this moment is "the end," when the kingdom is handed over to God and becomes what Philip Pullman describes as the "republic of God" (The Amber Spyglass), that moment where we are all equal, all truly the body of Christ, all God, and all Love, whatever exactly that means.

Easter, according to Paul, is the beginning of that end and we are the means. The tax has been paid and now we have to continue working and reaping the rest of the fruits, i.e., more death while fighting against it. Looking at technology and medicine, we are doing a great job. Looking at oppression, greed, and poverty, we are not doing so well. That's the shadow of our hands that Derrida describes under the pseudonym Reb Derissa. Much of what we see in this world is our fault, but not all. Systemic evil is our fault, hurricanes and tornados is not so much our fault, unless influenced by how we treat the environment. Whatever we do today is shadowed by the good and the bad we do today.

And that shadow affects what we do tomorrow, sometimes inspiring more bad, more good, or, often, the choice to ignore what was done yesterday, what is done today, and what will be done tomorrow. This is where our hands have reflxibility. Our hands not only mirror each other from left to right but from today to tomorrow. Our actions today mirror and have mutually influential relationships with our actions tomorrow. I will do such-and-such tomorrow, so I will do such-and-such today. I will workout tomorrow, so I will have pie today. I will buy this product today, because tomorrow they will give a percentage of the money to fight the slavery they employ to make the product. I do not want to talk to this person, because I am afraid they will eventually hurt me.

This reflexibility is frightening and powerful. The reflexibility itself influences us, sometimes inspiring, sometimes immobilizing us. Easter reminds me to be thoughtful and reflective in my actions today and my plans for tomorrow. I want to foresee the end of authority, power, and rule in a way I doubt Paul did, I want to see it as radical equality. 

Much of the theology surrounding Jesus embodies that radical equality: God becomes one of us and dies like one of us (thanks, Joan Osborne). To get a little preachy, now we need to become like God and resurrect in and by our hands the love that Jesus as Christ represents. If we can do so today, then it will influence what I do tomorrow, which will influence what I do today, and the shadow of my hands today will illuminate instead of darken tomorrow.

He is risen, the first fruits. Now we must rise.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Riddance to Good Friday

Today, I am uncomfortable with the term "Good Friday."

"Good Friday" has varied etymological accounts. Since I'm not a philologist, I can't argue for or against any of these explanations. Besides, what a word or phrase meant doesn't change what it means today.

Not based on any serious study, but rather on my experiences and a brief perusal of the internet, today, the "good" of "Good Friday" mostly connotes how good it is that God sent "his" to pay the wages of sin: death. Let's also note that according to this line of reason, God set these wages and apparently never decided to give a increase or decrease to the wages. However, God accepts substitutes: animals and Jesus.

I won't get into the intricacies of sacrifices in Ancient Near Eastern culture or biblical references to further elucidate sacrificial, substitutionary atonement. Even at the surface level just described, I am uncomfortable with calling this Friday good. God can change the wages for sin as much as God can set them. Accepting a substitution is a change. Accepting a human instead of an animal is a change. So why the death of man? Why death at all? Human history shows that lessons cannot be taught without death, and death seems like a mighty high price for stealing a piece of gum, cheating on your taxes, punching someone, or eating or drinking to excess.

Even if I could accept calling the death good, why the suffering? Before Jesus, sacrificial animals weren't tortured; they were just killed. Jesus could have had his throat slit instead of being beaten, humiliated, and nailed to a cross. For that matter, Jesus could have died of old age, a heart attack, or some other "natural cause." If a spiritual existence and physical resurrection eons after death is the symbol Christians desire, resurrection could have followed any of those deaths, just like Lazarus's. For that matter, Jesus could have skipped death and ascended into heaven like Elijah, telling his followers, "You may die on this earth, but you'll ascend ages later, like my beloved Lazarus."

Many Christians look at Good Friday and Easter as the only solution to our sins. But if God is a creative God not bound by rules, then there certainly were and, possibly--likely--are other options that God could have made good. To call the cross the only option is tantamount to saying the cross makes this Friday good or saying Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is a poem about taking "the road less traveled by"--it is giving significance and acting as if the meaning were there all along, as if it were there intentionally.

According to the common interpretation of Good Friday, God chose a terrible option, not a good one. I can be thankful for Easter as a historical reality or as a powerful symbol without calling Friday good in this manner. And so I say, "good riddance" to Good Friday or, at least, the term as commonly understood today. (Again when I say "commonly understood," I am making a huge leap in judgment from my experience to most English speakers' experiences.)

Instead, I echo the words of Meister Eckhart today: "I pray God to rid me of God." How apropos of this Friday, also known as Holy Friday, Black Friday, Long Friday, and, appropriately in the German, Karfreitag, which means Sorrowful or Suffering Friday (credit for these finding these other names goes to and Wikipedia). We remember--not celebrate--the death of a man so holy that he was called the son of God, Christ, and even God. In a sense, today is a day we remember not only God dying, but a way of understanding God dying. We remember disciples who could not understand Jesus being crucified so much so that they were embarrassed and denied Jesus when he was dying and dead. Today of all days is an apt day to sacrifice our understandings of God for and to whatever and/or whoever God really is. For me, today, this Friday is for remembering Jesus' death and waiting for the reality behind that word.

A Benediction
I wish you blessings of significance this Friday, a time of soul searching tomorrow on Holy Saturday, and a time of rebirth and newness this Easter Sunday. I can only hope that freedom will accompany that newness, a freedom in light of the oppression the Hebrews suffered and escaped in Egypt and a freedom from oppression that so many need today.