On Sexuality, Target, the Church, and True Courage

If there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout human history, it’s that human beings have a great propensity toward fearing that which is different.

And if there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout Church history, it’s that Christians are really good at justifying and legitimizing that prejudice by claiming it is God’s will.

The fact we are so quick to ascribe to God our own discrimination and bigotry is cause enough for mourning and repentance. But watching the pain, destruction, and death it causes as it is played out in real life is a million times worse.

Laws regarding transgender people – and specifically their use of public restrooms – have been all over the headlines the past couple of weeks. And the Christian response to these laws and headlines have largely been predictable and awful.

Those who claim to follow Jesus have sadly flocked to sign petitions and join boycotts over bathroom policies — as of this writing, over a million people have pledged to not shop at Target because the store decided to be inclusive and tolerant. (Given the history of success of Christian boycotts, I guess we can expect Target to soon become the world’s #1 retailer.) Like all knee-jerk reactions, however, people decrying transgender rights – especially in the name of God – simply do not understand what they’re opposing.

The initial reaction most people have is something along these lines: guys have penises and girls have vaginas. Somebody who has a particular body part and claims to be the other gender is gross and weird; therefore, it is wrong and we should fight against “normalizing” such behavior.

It seems pretty cut and dry. I’ll readily admit: up until a few months ago, that was how I viewed the issue as well. Then, I did a crazy thing: I actually started listening to people’s stories. I heard and read their experiences. And suddenly, “transgender” was not an “issue” any longer – this became about people.

It’s so easy to be against an idea. It’s infinitely more difficult to be against a person.

The Church does a phenomenal job of holding these sorts of discussions at arms’ length, of ensuring we don’t personalize them too much. It’s a lot like how the military trains soldiers, actually: dehumanize the enemy, and you have a lot easier time taking them out. For instance, it’s so comfortable to sit back in our privilege and say gay people shouldn’t be allowed to express their love through marriage; it’s a hell of lot harder to sit across from a gay couple, listen to their story, see the love they have for one another, and tell them they don’t deserve to be able to marry one another.

The same is true with transgender rights now as well. Dudes “pretending” to be chicks (or vice versa) instead of what they “really” are is gross, and therefore is wrong. Nobody should do it. But once you shut up and start listening to people and their stories, things begin to look a lot different.

(Side note: when it comes to discussing the transgender journey, we need to drop phrases like “pretending” and what somebody “really” is out of our vocabulary. Stat.)

After hearing and being affected by people’s stories, I went and checked out the science that explains what many of them are experiencing. Guess what? There is an actual, scientific difference between sex, which is biological, and gender identity, which is how people identify themselves. Biological sex and gender identity develop separately from one another in the womb. Hormones affect the development of reproductive organs in a fetus at different times and in different ways than they affect the development of gender identity in the brain. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the two end up in the same place. Every once in awhile, they don’t – and as a result, someone’s sex doesn’t match their gender.

(Another sidenote: this is known as gender dysphoria — and not every transgender person experiences it, but it is a useful place to begin our discussion and understanding.)

If we can understand this, it might stop us from the crude, snide, and mocking comments that have infuriatingly become the norm in the discussion on the “Christian” side of things.

In fact, we could say that gender dysphoria is no different than, say, depression — there isn’t something “wrong” with someone; this is simply something that happens to people. It should not be stereotyped or crudely joked about.

Which makes it all the more maddening and shameful that Christians are doing just that. I had multiple Christian friends over the past week or so share an article from a Christian satire site which mockingly intones, “Target Announces Senior Discount For Anyone Who Self-Identifies As Age 60 Or Older.” Not only does this article betray the author’s lack of understanding, and completely misrepresent the transgender community by inferring that they simply choose which sex to be for personal gain, it invites us to have a laugh at the expense of an oppressed and hurting group of people.

The more I saw this shared on Facebook the more sad I became.

I have wrestled with this topic for a couple years now, ever since meeting and talking to two transgender women in our church (both of whom were born biologically male), and I have come to this point in my own understanding: I see nowhere in Scripture proclaiming that being transgender is a sin. And I certainly do not see anywhere in Scripture that says using a bathroom based on your gender identity is a sin. Oh, sure, there’s the verse from Deuteronomy that says women can’t wear men’s clothes — but not only are we not under the Law any longer (let’s put this verse up alongside the ones about not wearing clothes with more than one kind of fabric or the ones about having to put tassels at the corners of your clothing and see which ones we want to pick and choose), folks who quote this verse don’t ever examine the purpose for this law or the cultural considerations that went into codifying it thousands of years ago.

The best anyone has ever done explaining to me why being transgender is a sin is this: gender is fixed at birth and transgender people are choosing to not be who God made them, therefore they are sinning. Even that philosophy is rich with irony, though: transgender people would say all they are trying to do is to embrace their gender identity and to be who God made them to be.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that somewhere in some hidden book of the Bible God clearly said that accepting your gender identity was wrong and being transgender was a sin. (Again: nowhere have I found where the Bible says this.) But what if it did? Would that make the jokes and the mockery and insults – the awful, horrific insults – shared in the name of Jesus any more okay? Would that make it okay to call transgender people monsters? Sexual predators? Deviants? To tell them that God detests them?

I cannot force myself to believe that response is the way of Jesus or the dream of God for this world.

To make matters worse, we hide our bigotry and fear behind a banner of supposed child safety. Christians sadly make the claim, either implicitly or in many cases explicitly, that “transgender” = “child predator” or “rapist.” I want us to pause and really let the hurtful nature of this argument sink in for a moment.

There has been no increase in public safety issues in cities with anti-discrimination laws that protect transgender people. On top of that, a coalition of 250 organizations who work with sexual abuse survivors are begging people to stop using that argument. It is nothing but fear-mongering divorced from reality. Besides, we all know how much criminals care about the law. (I find it ironic that the same people who say we can’t pass gun control because criminals would get guns anyway fail to see the same argument here that criminals will enter restrooms whether it’s legal or not.)

Beyond that, it’s pretty clear opponents of anti-discrimination laws haven’t really thought this thing through anyways. For instance, I can’t understand why somebody would want to force a person like Brae Carnes, who was born biologically male but identifies as a woman, to use the men’s restroom:

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And I can’t understand why somebody would want to force Michael Hughes, who was born biologically female but identifies as a man, to use the woman’s restroom:

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(Irony alert: opponents of anti-discrimination laws would undoubtedly try to stop Michael from using the women’s restroom, when it was their own bigotry that forced him into the women’s room to start with.)

Brae deserves to use the women’s room. Michael deserves to use the men’s room. And infinitely more than that, both of them deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Sadly, a lot of Christians these days appear to be incapable of such a simple, foundational thing.

What makes this all even worse is watching Christians congratulate themselves for these sorts of responses. I’ve seen so many replies that essentially pat someone on the back for their “courage” (this seems to be the word du jour) in taking an anti-transgender or anti-gay stance — and not just for taking that stance, but for belittling, attacking, and demeaning other human beings.

That’s not courage. There’s nothing courageous about hate.

Standing “against culture” by attacking and mocking a group of hurting people isn’t courageous. And before you say, “disagreeing with somebody doesn’t mean you hate them,” what we’ve witnessed from Christians the past couple weeks goes far, far beyond a simple disagreement. It goes straight to an utter lack of compassion, a lack of desire to even listen or know or understand, and a complete disregard for somebody else’s dignity and humanity.

You know what is courageous? Standing up for love. Standing up for equality. Standing beside people whose suicide rate is ten times the general population because of the shit that gets dumped on them – including and especially from “Christians” – and loving them. Helping them. Welcoming them. Accepting them.

Young people who are transgender are oftentimes bullied to the point they end up hating themselves so much they try to kill themselves. (So yeah, tell me again how teenage boys just say they’re transgender so they can get into the girls’ locker room — it sounds like a real party to be transgender.) You know what takes real courage? Coming out as transgender. That’s courage. Christians should be leading the way in protecting those on a transgender journey. Instead, we’re oftentimes the ones causing the most pain.

Look, it’s simple: one of the foundational themes of Scripture is a choice between life and death. That choice is presented a host of times throughout the pages of this story. In the Torah, God lays out the choice: “Look! I am presenting you today with, on the one hand, life and good; and on the other, death and evil… I have presented you with life and death… therefore, choose life.” Through the prophet Jeremiah hundreds of years later, God lays out the same choice: “And here is what you are to tell this people: ‘Adonai says: “Look! I am presenting you with the way of life and the way of death.'” The book of Hebrew Proverbs is full of contrasts between choosing life and choosing death. We are specifically told that our words carry the power of life and death. The story of a Tree of Life and a Tree of Death in the Garden, and the death which Adam and Eve chose, is reimagined through the lens of Jesus all throughout the New Testament. This choice of bringing life or bringing death is a central tenet of our faith narrative and who we are as a people.

How incredibly sad, then, that we have willingly and zealously chosen the way of death – bringing death both figuratively and literally, and too often physically – when it comes to gay and transgender people.

Once again, the Church has chosen bedroom (and now bathroom) issues as a hill to die on. When will we move on from our obsession with sex and truly just love people? We’ve gotten really, really good at saying, “I love you, but…” I love you, but this is a sin you have to change before I will fully love you. I love you, but you can’t have the same rights as I do. I love you, but I cannot accept who you are. I love you, but only if you conform to my preconceived notions.

I’m so ready to instead just say, “I love you.” Period. Or, perhaps, “I love you, whether…” I love you, whether you identify as a male or female. I love you, whether you choose to transition or not. I love you, whether your biological sex matches your gender identity or not. I love you, and that means I will walk with you in this struggle as far as you want me to. I love you, and I support your fight for equality and a life free of bullying and abuse and pain. I love you and accept you and there is no “but.”

And to those of us who claim Jesus, I’m begging you: choose life. Bring life. Stop talking, stop hurting people, stop mocking, and listen. Learn. And love.

On Transparency

A Vice President here at the University at which I work once told me, “Nothing scares me more than someone who acts like they have their shit together.”

Wise words, to be sure. Implied in them is the fact that none of us has our shit together (or “poop in a group,” if you are disinclined toward swear words). The question, then, is what we do with our non-put-together selves.

This is nearly universally true, but especially in areas where culture has, at one point or another, demanded a subsection of the population become experts. Faculty in a university setting, for instance. Or, perhaps more challenging, teachers and pastors in the Church.

Once upon a time, pastors were viewed as, and expected to be, experts. To have all the answers. I’m not sure if that was ever a good idea to set that expectation of them, but what I am sure of is that today, that expectation is infinitely more harmful than helpful.

It’s harmful because it demands something impossible of church leaders. Nobody can be an expert on God. It’s inherently impossible, unless you shrink God down from his infinity into something manageable, which in itself is a heresy (and perhaps the largest and most popular heresy of the modern church).

It’s harmful because it makes pastors and teachers in the church deny their own questions and doubts and failings, which makes them less human and less honest.

It’s harmful because at some level (in a healthy or unhealthy way), church congregations view church leaders as a model to which to aspire, which then forces them to deny their own questions and doubts and failings.

It’s harmful because it turns away the billions of unchurched people who echo the words of that Vice President. They view the church with some degree of skepticism, ranging anywhere from dismissiveness to disgust to contempt, and at least a portion of it (I would argue a large portion) is derived from our untenable sense of certainty.

Study after study shows that people today don’t have any interest in learning from “experts”. In the university setting, those who are open, transparent, and honest with their students have been shown to be far more effective teachers than those who set themselves up and answer-dispensing experts. And if that is true in the college classroom, how much more true is it in the church pulpit?

May we followers of Christ lead the charge down the path toward authenticity, openness, and transparency. May we welcome and encourage the difficult questions and doubts and be honest about our own struggles. May we learn the power of asking the right questions rather than having all the right answers. May we remember that leading doesn’t always mean being out in front of someone; that often it means walking alongside of them. And may we be pleasantly surprised at how Christlike this makes us.

Evolving Faith: What Does it Mean?

If we now understand that all the authors of the Bible did not believe the same things as one another on some pretty foundational issues such monotheism, the afterlife, and morality, what impact does that have on our faith?

One could look at all of this and conclude there is no way the Bible can be true. It’s obviously written by humans, and this whole “given to man by God” thing is made up. Fair enough. But the other option is to conclude now, more than ever, the Bible must be true. After all, it’s obviously written by humans, and this whole “given to man by God” thing is made up.

Let me explain.

There are some religions and faith systems out there who claim their holy book or books were delivered to mankind straight from the mouth of God. For those faith systems, it is troublesome and embarrassing to find inaccuracies and errors in their holy texts, because it necessarily means their deity was incorrect. And who wants to follow/worship/devote their life to an incorrect deity?

The Bible never claims to be delivered straight from God to man. Instead, it is a collection of writings, written by human beings to other human beings within specific cultures, specific times, and specific settings. Now, Christians believe that somehow these stories that these human beings wrote down were inspired by God, but somewhere in the last few hundred years of modernity we’ve come to the extra-biblical (unbiblical?) conclusion “inspiration” means “dictated directly from the mouth of God.”

For some reason, we’ve taken the Bible and made it out to be something it never even claims itself to be.

Largely, religions do this to settle the matter of authority. If their book comes directly from the mouth of God, people will then need to heed it — or else they are choosing to not listen to God. It infuses their belief system with an extra large dose of legitimacy in their eyes.

Ironically, that line of reasoning is the same thing that delegitimizes the faith.

By attempting to shoehorn the Bible into this foreign shape, we set it — and our faith structure — up to fail from the beginning. Instead, what if we began accepting the Bible for what it truly is? If we start approaching, reading, and understanding the Bible as a collection of stories rather than a deity’s dictation, how much more does that open up beauty and truth to us? How much more might we understand the very heart of God this book is attempting to communicate?

When you view Scripture as a dictation from God, it is a huge problem that the Bible advocates for henotheism at the beginning and then transitions into monotheism. It’s a serious issue that the book teaches there is no afterlife at first and then adds one in later on. And it is an incredible dilemma that the mark of “good” morality continually gets adjusted throughout.

But if you see this as a collection of stories, suddenly those become no big deal at all — because these are stories about people trying to figure out who God is and how they relate to him. These are stories of people who lived in ancient, barbaric times and grew up with the rest of the world into a civilized society. These are stories of people trying to figure out better ways of doing things, of treating people, of understanding the world, of living. And so it comes as absolutely no surprise that the stories and beliefs change and grow over the years.

In fact, to me, it makes it even more likely that the stories are true. Not necessarily literally and historically accurate (Jonah and Job, I’m looking at you), but true. I’m much more interested in a story where the characters evolve and grow and change — and expect those who come after them to do the same — than I am in a fabricated story that appears in a moment of time and remains static forever after.

Again, it is so ironic to me that we’ve managed to take the Bible out of that first living, breathing category and shoved it haphazardly into the lifeless second.

Just because it grows and evolves along with the people who are writing it and living it doesn’t mean the Bible is just like any other book. In fact, the Apostle Paul believed Scripture to be so special and unique that he invented a brand new word to describe it: theopneustos. Literally, “God breathed.” That’s the word we interpret in English as “inspired” — it comes from God. But notice the connotation: it’s God-breathed, not God-dictated. It’s life-giving, just like God’s breath at the moment of creation in the Garden, not lifeless and static. It’s gently influenced with a breath, not tightly held under a heavy thumb of direction.

The Bible is true. It is authoritative. It is inspired. It speaks to the human condition, to the core of who we are, and directs us to continue this journey of discovering who God is and how we relate to him. And when we stop trying to make the Bible something it’s not, we will be free to experience the joy, the freedom, the grace, and the incredible sacrificial love through which that journey leads us.

Evolving Faith: Biblical Morality

From where does morality originate? How do we know right from wrong? For many Christians, the answer to that question comes in the form of the Bible — but how moral would we really be if we followed all of what the Bible taught?

Many Christian leaders call people to a standard of “biblical living” — but do we really want to be “biblical”? Should we aim for being biblical?

Are the morals presented in Scripture really timeless truths and the foundation we should build on? Or are we comfortable enough with the concept of evolving faith to admit that our ancestors’ sense of morality also evolved over time as culture grew? That their sense of what God may have been telling them was okay is not to be the blueprint any longer for us today?

Grab that discomfort you’re feeling and let’s go on a journey to explore biblical morality. To begin, it is biblical to own slaves. It is biblical to own other human beings as personal property. (Ex 12:44; Ex 21; Ex 23; Lev 19; Lev 22; Lev 25:44-46 [“You may buy slaves… you can bequeath them to your children as property…”])

On the flipside, it is biblical for a father to sell his daughter as a sex slave. (Ex 21:7)

It is biblical to kill innocent women and children. In fact, complete infanticide and genocide are approved as biblically moral acts. (1 Sam 15; Deut 2; Deut 3; Deut 20)

It is biblical to force a woman to marry her rapist. (Deut 22:28-29)

It is biblical to openly discriminate against handicapped people and exclude them from serving God. (Lev 21:16-20)

The list could go on and on with dozens of examples… and to be clear: by “biblical” I do not mean something that is simply found in the Bible. It would be one thing to say the Bible included stories of people doing these things, but that they were not endorsed or commanded by God. However, these are things the writers of Scripture felt were specifically endorsed and commanded by God! It’s not just Old Testament laws, either– for instance, slavery was endorsed and accepted in the New Testament as well (Eph 6:5; 1 Tim 6:1).

When I look at the morality presented in the Bible, I can’t help but think: God forbid we ever aim to live biblically.

What about marriage? We keep hearing these calls to return to “biblical” marriage, usually defined as a covenant between one man and one woman. Let’s take a look at what biblical marriage really is, though:

The first time we see the word “marriage” in Scripture, it is in reference to Jacob and his multiple wives (Rachel, Leah, and both their slaves). The next time is in reference to Moses and his (at least) two wives. Biblical marriage appears to be one man and as many women as he wants. It’s even codified that way in the Law — “If a man has two wives, and loves one but not the other…” In other words, God did not say, “Don’t have two wives.” He never offers condemnation for having two wives, but rather accepts and endorses it. This particular law quoted above goes on to define how to divide the inheritance among polygamous marriages.

So no, the Bible does not define marriage as being between one man and one woman. It legally codifies marriage — supposedly from the lips of God — as being between one man and as many women as he wants. (Following this law, Caleb had 5 wives, Gideon had ‘many’ wives, Saul had two wives, King David had at least 18 wives, Solomon supposedly had a thousand wives, and nearly every other biblical hero practiced polygamy.)

But it gets even worse from there: biblically speaking, in a marriage relationship women were property, just like slaves. They were bartered and sold and owned. They were second class citizens (if they were people at all) to be used in largely arranged marriages. In the books of Joshua and Judges, women were even given in marriage as prizes and rewards to male Israelite soldiers.

I look at all this, too, and I think: God forbid we ever aim to have biblical marriages.

Humanity existed for thousands of years with this polygamous-property understanding of marriage. Recently, a better way of understanding marriage, a monogamous-equality understanding, has come to be accepted. (This development is surprisingly recent, dating back to just the 19th century.) In other words, we as humankind finally realized in the past two hundred years or so the old way of doing things may not be the best way to do things…

Just like the best way to do things might not be owning slaves… or forcing women to marry rapists… or discriminating against people… or committing infanticide or genocide…

I’ve written before about how the Bible and Jesus are two separate entities, and how our highest calling as Christians is to follow Jesus, not to follow the Bible. Many have asked how I could possibly separate the two, and it is topics like these where I ask, “How could you possibly not?”

See, just like monotheism and afterlife theology are not static, timeless consistent truths presented all the way from the beginning of our faith narrative, morality is ever-changing and evolving as well. I think it’s pretty impossible to flip through the pages of our Story and honestly come to any other conclusion. The morals presented in the early Old Testament writings are shocking, brutal, and entirely immoral by today’s standards. If you want to hold to the position that Scripture presents timeless morals for us to follow, then you are implicitly admitting that the world has better morals than God does.

But here’s the deal: morality didn’t stop with the early writings of the Old Testament. It continued to grow and evolve. By the time we reach the end of the Old Testament, after — again, what else? — the Babylonian captivity, we see a more evolved sense of morality from our ancestors. When the prophets were looking to learn the lessons of the Babylonian exile, they landed on the idea that the Israelites were being judged for not caring about people. For not taking care of the poor. For not offering hospitality to strangers. For not loving their neighbors. For mistreating their servants. For not caring for the sick and the outcast.

Suddenly, morality was shifting. Evolving.

This was the message of prophets like Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. For instance, Isaiah opens up his message to God’s people by essentially saying, “Yes, you’re great at keeping the finer points of the earlier Old Testament morality. You offer sacrifices and go through all the rituals and festivals and everything you think I want. But you should have been doing better.” Isaiah goes on to specifically identify this new evolved morality:

“Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right: seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow.” (Is 1:17)

Morality was shifting away from ancient brutality to a greater focus on people. Specifically, the people who generally were not taken care of by society as a whole. The people who fell through the cracks. Because Israel didn’t help them, they were being judged — and that’s what allowed the Babylonians to capture them.

Of course, Jesus comes on the scene and this sense of morality evolves even further. By the time Jesus came, the Jewish people had all but abandoned most of the brutal ancient morality. For instance, the prescribed punishment for breaking most every Law in the early Old Testament was stoning someone to death. When Jesus walked the earth, that practice had fallen by the wayside already. They inherently understood that morality was not a fixed thing, that it would grow and evolve — and when some prideful moralists approached Jesus supposedly ready to stone an adultress, he called their bluff and introduced a new evolution in morality at the same time.

Jesus essentially said, “Yeah, you guys don’t stone people any more. But if you really want to devolve back to that, you who is without sin, go ahead and throw the first stone.”

Ancient morality gave way to a justice- and people-focused reality, which then gave way to the complex morality of Jesus: love. Black and white became gray, which became multi-colored beauty.

It’s this positive trajectory of morality we ought to be focusing on when we talk about the Bible. Atheists rightly point out the ugly brutality of the early Old Testament morality, and even some of the brutality remaining into the New Testament (such as slavery). They point out that the Bible is an absolutely lousy place from which to derive morals, and for Christians stuck in the world of timeless black-and-white morality, they are correct.

Instead, what if we approached the Bible as what it is: a story. In this story, ancient people lived in a brutal world and had brutal morals. As time went on, they became more focused on justice and people, and when Jesus came on the scene he became the catalyst for the greatest moral evolution toward love.

So rather than pick out proof texts to back up a black-and-white understanding of morality, it seems good to me to take the trajectory of the story as a whole and continue that trajectory today. It is by embracing that evolution that we are able to come to the quite obvious conclusion that things such as genocide and infanticide and slavery, which are endorsed in the pages of Scripture, are in fact not okay. Just because that’s the old way of doing things doesn’t mean it’s the best way of doing things.

The Story doesn’t stop with the last page of Revelation. We are intended to continue living it out today — not stuck in the morality that existed 2,000 years ago, but evolving. And if we allow ourselves to follow that trajectory and continue allowing our morality to evolve along the path of Jesus’ love, it will lead us into even greater freedom and equality in the future.

Evolving Faith: Of Souls and Gardens

What happens after we die?

The answer to that question has been, perhaps, one of the greatest driving forces behind religious thought — and it should come as no surprise the answer to that question has evolved in incredible ways as well.

Back in the days when the Israelites were still henotheists (see yesterday’s post for more on that), the concept of an afterlife seemed to be the furthest thing from their minds. The covenant they made with God was all about the Promised Land here on earth, all about the present. Never once did God demand they do something so they could get into heaven or enjoy an afterlife of any kind — instead, the promises of following God’s Law included things like “so it may go well with you in the land.” In fact, the notion that any human could ever “go to heaven,” which was God’s dwelling place, was absolutely ludicrous to them.

The ancient Hebrew people believed in a state called Sheol after you died — not Heaven or Hell. (“Sheol” is translated in our English versions of Scripture as “the pit” or “the grave.”) The idea that a part of you would continue living after your body perished would have been laughable. Instead, Sheol was the final resting place for everybody – good, bad, or indifferent. It was a place where there was no consciousness, no pleasure, no pain. Sheol was the great equalizer, and their wisdom writings treated it as such. Sure, they would say, you could lie and cheat your way through life and be lazy, but ultimately you’ll end up in Sheol, so what good was it? Sure, you can acquire massive amounts of wealth and lord it over folks, but once you die your wealth will rot — and so will you, in Sheol. Kind of a “you can’t take it with you” philosophy to the extreme.

Of course, in some deeper moments of reflection, that also led to the obvious flipside of the issue: you can live a virtuous life and deny yourself worldly pleasures and do all the good you can, but when you die you will still end up in Sheol. This disquieting line of reasoning is what led the ancient Hebrews to write the incredibly reflective book of Ecclesiastes, where they bemoan everything as meaningless because ultimately everyone ends up dead in Sheol anyways. (“The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? I said to myself, ‘This too is meaningless…’ Like the fool, the wise too will die.” -Ecc 2:15-16)

Now, in Hebrew belief it was possible to reanimate someone who had gone to Sheol. Doing so would cause them to come back as a ghost-like entity, and this was specifically the power held by those who practiced witchcraft. This was also the power that was forbidden several times in the Old Testament Law from ever being used, because when folks died and descended to Sheol that’s where they were supposed to stay. Forever. We see a striking example in 1 Samuel 28 of a witch using this power to call the prophet Samuel up from Sheol. Samuel’s question when he appears is telling: “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” That verb “disturb” literally means “to excite” or “agitate” — or in this context, something akin to “reanimate.” And notice he’s being brought up, from the grave where he was resting, not down from some heaven-like location.

So that was how our earliest faith ancestors viewed the afterlife: in essence, there wasn’t one. As time wore on, however, the unease with that whole philosophy began building… and it reached its apex and boiled over during — what else? — the Babylonian exile.

Just as the Babylonian exile was the catalyst for the shift away from henotheism into monotheism, it was also the largest driving factor behind the development of afterlife theology. It should be no surprise that this was the case, because the very idea of an afterlife is predicated on one foundational principle: justice.

True, we want to ease our pain during the grieving process, and a belief in the afterlife greatly assists in that. But zooming out a bit farther, the concept of justice looms much larger over the development of this theology. We inherently want there to be a difference between what happens to a good guy and what happens to a bad guy. We join with the author of Ecclesiastes in saying that Sheol is not enough. And once we begin travelling down that road, all it takes is one major example of injustice to kickstart our afterlife theology into high gear.

Enter the Babylonians.

The Hebrews were God’s people. They had a special relationship with him. They were the good guys. The Babylonians were the bad guys — wicked heathens who did awful things like oppressed people, sacrificed their children, and went on bloodlust-fueled killing sprees. So when Babylon began marching on Jerusalem, is it any wonder that the Israelites believed they would defeat them? The good guys were supposed to win! Here, now, on earth, the good guys had to win. If they didn’t, everyone would end up in Sheol and life would be, well, meaningless.

So imagine the shock when Babylon conquered them, destroyed their cities, and took them captive as slaves. Oppressed, mistreated, and more defeated than we will ever understand, they stood asking: Why? How could this happen? How were they supposed to make sense of this? What was the point of life if the bad guys won?

It was in this context that they began developing an increasingly complex afterlife theology. In fact, the first time anything about an afterlife is directly taught in Scripture is during a vision that the prophet Daniel had while in Babylonian captivity:

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan 12:2-3)

The perfect response to the gross injustice of life is erased with this new, evolving theology of the afterlife. The idea is introduced here that at some point in the future, the dead will be resurrected, and a final justice will be served. The bad guys will face everlasting shame and contempt (not fire, yet…) while the good guys will face everlasting life. Sheol isn’t dismissed or tossed aside — the dead will still reside there, unconscious, until this resurrection — but Sheol is now amended with a rather massive footnote.

Eventually, even if it doesn’t happen in this life, everything will be made right. The meaninglessness is fixed with a future hope to which the righteous can look forward.

But this new amended view of the afterlife introduced a whole slew of new, unintended questions, the primary one being: what determined whether you were resurrected into shame and contempt, or life? Where was that dividing line?

What really happens after someone dies?

Enter the Greeks, who took over Galilee and Judea as part of their expanding empire, and who introduced a more refined set of beliefs about the human soul. According to the Greek philosophers, humans were dual creatures with a body and a soul, one of which is temporal and the other which is eternal. We’ve been interpreting afterlife theology through that Greekk lens ever since.

The idea of this eternal soul, coupled with the Hebrew people’s newfound interest in the afterlife as a way to see justice done, led to a theological explosion of ideas for the four hundred years leading up to Jesus. By the time Jesus comes on the scene there was little in the way of orthodoxy on the subject. Most rabbis at least taught that there would indeed be a resurrection of the dead, but when that would occur was up for debate. Some taught it would happen when the Messiah came and some taught it would happen to individuals shortly upon their death. Others still maintained that there was no resurrection at all. Some rabbis suggested that people spent up to eleven months, maybe twelve if necessary, in Sheol as a place of purification upon their death. At the end of that time, if the dead were purified, they would enter Eden (the everlasting life Daniel wrote about) and if they were not able to be purified, they were annihilated. Others started to teach that there was a place of conscious torment after death for the bad guys, although nobody could come close to agreeing on what would land someone there.

Some rabbis taught that adultery would send you to this new location of “Hell.” Others said denying the resurrection was what got you the one-way ticket there. Still others claimed being an Epicurian philosopher was Hell-worthy. And a larger group of rabbis taught that even if you ended up in Hell, nobody would live there forever. Everyone would eventually be purified and ascend back to Eden.

The Garden of Eden was one of the foundational principles the Jewish people latched onto while they were evolving this new afterlife theology. To them, it represented God’s original plan for creation. To them, God was restoring the brokenness of his creation and making it back into what he originally intended. To them, “heaven” was still God’s dwelling place and humans didn’t go there — but God was remaking the earth into the Garden of Eden for the good guys.

So we went from no afterlife and Sheol, to an amended version of Sheol that included a resurrection, to a confusing heterodoxy of afterlife ideas. This was a massive evolution of faith, and when Jesus stepped into the mix he continued advancing new ideas and thoughts on the subject. This post is already far too long, so we’ll have to save the conclusion of this discussion for another day. The point of this post isn’t to definitively answer the question, “What happens when we die?” — just to show how the answer to that question has evolved over the centuries. (Suffice it to say, however, that Jesus’ ideas on the afterlife look pretty different than the conservative evangelical view of things today.)

The point is this: Scripture is a story. It is a story of a people trying to figure out who God is and what their relationship to him is. It is not a set of timeless principles laid out to be the same from beginning to end. There is a trajectory and evolution that occurs through its pages, and rather than inviting us to use it as a set of doctrinal proof texts or rules, it invites us instead to join in that story. To continue the trajectory. To continue the evolution. We’ll talk more about that idea later this week.

Evolving Faith: One God to Rule Them All

The Bible clearly teaches that there is only one God. Open and shut case. Black and white. Right?

Not so fast…

In the primitive cultures of the ancient world — the setting in which most of the Bible was written — religion (oftentimes with little to no differentiation from superstition) was paramount. The religious orthodoxy at the time included a pantheon of gods who controlled everything. Human civilization at the time was tribal, and these gods belonged to, or ruled over, individual tribes. Each group had their own god, and it was their responsibility to ensure they worshiped him correctly and stayed on his good side.

Enter the Israelites, who believed the same things in their early days. For instance, a passage in Deuteronomy describes this primitive belief system to a T:

“When Elyon [God] divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the numbers of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, Israel was his allotted inheritance.” (Deut 32:8-9)

There is an incredible amount of theology packed into those two sentences, so let’s unpack it carefully. First, we see the existence of two gods: Elyon and Yahweh. (These names are translated as “God” and “LORD” in English.) We explain that today by saying Elyon and Yahweh are actually the same God, or they are two persons of the Trinity. But let’s look at this from the perspective of the ancient people who wrote this: there was clearly a supreme deity named Elyon and another deity under him named Yahweh.

In fact, there are more gods than just those two, evidently, because we see Elyon here parceling out the entire world and giving deities certain tribes to rule over. This is not only compatible with ancient pagan beliefs, it is the exact same. If you look at ancient Canaanite writings, for example, you’ll find they believed in the same pantheon of gods with one supreme god ruling over them all. The name that the Canaanites ascribed to this supreme god? Elyon – just like the Israelites.

And so here we see, in early Hebrew thought, echoes of the same beliefs as the cultures around them. Now, even though these cultures believed there were many gods, it wouldn’t be fair to label them as polytheists. In polytheism, there is a pantheon of gods, each of whom are to be worshiped by everyone – and each of whom is over a particular area of life (sun gods, water gods, war gods, harvest gods, etc). That stands in contrast to the ancient cultures we are talking about here. They didn’t worship all the gods they believed existed; rather, they worshiped only their specific tribal god to the exclusion of all others.

This belief system is more accurately called henotheism. In henotheism there are many gods, but you are to be concerned with, and worship, only one of them. There is one god per tribe who controls everything in life. In the case of our Israelites, the supreme God Elyon saw fit to assign Yahweh as their god, and so they would worship Yahweh.

This henotheism is reflected in the earliest laws the Israelites followed. For instance, the first of the ten commandments has Yahweh telling Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Notice what Yahweh did not say: not, “There are no other gods,” but, “You shall have no other gods…” Yahweh himself seems to implicitly acknowledge the existence of this pantheon when setting out the basic rules of relationship with his people.

There are more explicit references to multiple gods throughout Scripture, of course, if we don’t gloss over them or ignore them. Psalm 82 has a supreme God standing “in the assembly of the gods,” and goes on to say “In the midst of the gods he renders judgment.” Exodus 15 has Moses and Miriam leading the people in a song, one of the verses of which goes like this: “Who among the gods is like you, Yahweh? Majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” Again, notice they are not declaring Yahweh the only god, they are declaring he is better than all the other gods! Psalm 89 echoes that idea with this line: “Who in the skies can compare to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the sons of gods, a god who is honored in the assembly, who is more awesome than all who surround him?”

In Psalm 135, they sing this: “I know Yahweh is great; he is above the other gods.” In Psalm 95 they sing, “Yahweh is the great god, the great king above all gods.” And in Psalm 97, they even sing about the other gods worshiping Yahweh.

Henotheism at its finest.

There can be little to no doubt that the early Israelites believed, just as their neighbors did, in multiple gods. But eventually, Judaism (and Christianity) became a highly monotheistic faith system. When and how did the shift occur?

The shift from henotheism to monotheism took place during and after the Babylonian exile in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. At that point in time, Jewish writings became highly monotheistic in nature, including these passages from the second half of Isaiah:

“Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.” (Isaiah 43:10)
“This is what Yahweh says — Israel’s king and redeemer, Yahweh almighty: ‘I am the first and the last, apart from me there is no god.'” (Isaiah 44:6)
“Is there any god besides me [Yahweh]? …No, I know not one.” (Isaiah 44:8)
“I am Yahweh, and there is no other. Apart from me, there is no god.” (Isaiah 45:5)

How are we to explain this abrupt transition? Suddenly, a culture who had believed in many gods now only believed in one and declared all the other ones to be fakes, even mocking the idea anyone could have ever believed they existed (see the remainder of Isaiah 44). So what changed?

The best theory is two things changed: one gradual, and one shockingly abrupt. First, what gradually changed was that culture was growing up. Humankind began learning things and understanding things and acquainting themselves with knowledge their ancestors didn’t have. And as knowledge increased, there became less and less of a need for superstition and ancient forms of religion. Many cultures were outgrowing henotheism, and the Israelites were one of them. (There’s a reason, for instance, that there are only a handful of henotheists remaining today, including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Most other cultures have moved on from that ancient way of understanding the world.)

The more abrupt thing that happened was the Israelites were defeated by the Babylonians and taken into slavery by a major world empire for the second time in their history. To say this was a big deal would be an understatement of epic proportions. From a henotheistic perspective, being conquered and oppressed by the Babylonians meant one thing: the Babylonian tribal god was more powerful than the Israelite tribal god. And that fact made for some uncomfortable philosophy: Maybe Yahweh wasn’t the greatest god after all. Maybe all the other gods in Elyon’s assembly didn’t worship Yahweh. Maybe Yahweh wasn’t more awesome than all the other gods that surrounded him. Maybe when Elyon was doling out the deities to the various tribes around the world, the Israelites got the shaft.

Earlier in Israel’s history, this was exactly how they understood military defeat. Check out 2 Kings 3, for instance, where Yahweh supposedly told the Israelites to go to battle with the Moabites, and that he would deliver the army of the Moabites into their hands. At first, the battle is going great — in fact, Israel is about to win, but then the king of Moab throws a hail Mary and sacrifices his own son to the Moabite tribal god Chemosh. After that sacrifice, Scripture records there was such a divine anger burning against Israel (implied: Chemosh got some extra fuel and motivation from the child sacrifice) that the Israelites lost the battle and went home defeated. Oops. Did Yahweh lie? Or was he just outpowered by a rival deity in the pantheon? The Israelites needed to make sense out of a shocking military defeat in a battle they should have won, and so they went with the latter. This was a henotheistic way of viewing the world.

In the context of an utter and all-out embarrassment like the Babylonian exile, however, you can see how henotheism quickly falls out of favor. Being conquered by Babylon was likely the final death knell for henotheism and the catalyst for ushering in monotheism. Nobody wants to believe they were assigned a deity who couldn’t protect them, so one of the best alternatives is to say there’s actually only one God and he allowed you to be conquered to teach you a lesson. It wasn’t that Babylon’s god was more powerful, it was that Babylon didn’t have a God at all and Yahweh willed this whole thing to happen for his divine purposes.

And once you believe that, then you start looking for those lessons you were supposed to learn. Enter Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and the rise of the Pharisees — prophets and events which close out the Old Testament and usher in the New.

So does the Bible teach there is only one God? Is our faith heritage one of monotheism? Eventually. But that wasn’t always the case. For thousands of years, our faith heritage was built on the back of henotheism and a belief in the existence of many gods. That could either be earth shattering and foundation-shaking to you, or you could be saying, “So what?” at this point. Either way, to me this seems vitally important to understand on a couple levels. First, it puts us into closer contact with the identities of those who came before us in this journey… of those who paved the way for us today. We’ve got to understand who they were and what their trajectory of belief was in order to better understand ourselves. And secondly, it’s important because it necessarily colors the way we approach, read, and understand Scripture. It helps us answer the important question, “What is the Bible?” in a better way that will perhaps not leave us with as many disappointments. But we’ll get into that in another post later this week.

Evolving Faith: A New Series

Somebody once told me, “I don’t trust anybody who believes exactly the same things they did ten years ago.” That idea seems good to me, partly because I’ve left a lot of beliefs behind in the past ten years, and mostly because it accepts and expects that people grow.

My faith has evolved in countless ways since 1998 when it became the most important thing in my life, and through the magic of the internet I know I’m far from the only one for whom that is true. I was originally taught back then that all truth was timeless; once you landed on truth, it was a Very Bad Idea to ever move again. Evolving faith was viewed with suspicion at best, and charges of backsliding and heresy at worst. So finding stories all over the place of people experiencing the same questions, doubts, and journey I am experiencing brings me comfort and peace.

Recently, I’ve begun finding those same stories of evolving beliefs in a rather unlikely place: the pages of Scripture. Turns out, not only is it okay and expected that our individual faith stories grow and change, but our entire faith heritage is actually built on that foundation! So this week, I will be exploring how the ancient Jewish people and early Christians shifted their understandings of God in some pretty dramatic ways — and how those shifts found their ways into the pages of Scripture. I think a lot of times we miss the forest for the trees when we approach the Bible, and stepping back and viewing its contours from a distance reveal some potentially remarkable things.

The first post will go up tomorrow, with one following everyday this week. The topics are just inconsequential ideas like monotheism, the afterlife, and morality. You know, light and easy stuff like that. To start with, this morning I want to introduce what might already be an uncomfortable idea to you: many of the truths about Christianity and God haven’t always been truths. Following God, whether as a part of our Jewish or Christian heritage, has undergone shifts as the culture shifted around it. It seems to me you can choose to do one of two things with that idea: fight against it or accept it. And if you come to accept it, you have two more choices: to believe that means the Bible cannot possibly be true, or to believe that means the Bible is more true than ever.

For me, I am living in the beauty of the latter.

So I invite you on this ride with me this week and look forward to some incredible discussions and dialog!

Evolving Faith: A Reflected Riddles Series
Tuesday: One God to Rule Them All
Wednesday: Of Souls and Gardens
Thursday: Biblical Morality
Friday: What Does it Mean?

Actually, Homosexuality is a Gospel Issue

After World Vision announced its decision to expand their employment practices to include married gay couples, a lot of Christians lost their ever-loving minds.

Thanks to this whole uproar over World Vision, the hypocrisy of the modern, western Christian majority has been laid bare for all to see – and the resulting chaos is not pretty.

Here’s why: after World Vision announced their policy change, thousands of Christians canceled their World Vision child sponsorships. In the first day, over two thousand people abandoned children. In the following days, thousands more followed suit. In other words, conservative Christians were so upset about gay people serving children, they more or less said: children need clean water, education, food, and medical supplies. Unless those things are provided by gay people. In that case children don’t need anything.

The counter argument from the conservative evangelical camp was quick: just because we are giving up on these specific children doesn’t mean we can’t go sponsor other children through other organizations. That logic, of course, is faulty, distant, and remarkably impersonal — as shown by several bloggers who pointed out that children are not merchandise, like cell phones and used cars, that we have the luxury of simply “trading in” for a different model.

Not only did Christians treat children – children! – as merchandise, they also treated them as bargaining chips, pushed to the middle of the poker table in order to force World Vision to fold. Entire denominations of churches, including the Assemblies of God and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to pull child sponsorships if World Vision continued on with the new policy.

Facing this incredible backlash, World Vision blinked and reversed course. Many evangelicals expressed their happiness at the reversal. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics Committee at the SBC, even declared it time to “rejoice.”

Now that the dust has settled a bit, let’s take a look at the scoreboard. Gay people: demonized. Children: dehumanized. Evangelicals: celebratory.

That pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the western “church” – and why so many prominent authors, speakers, and leaders have publicly divorced themselves from evangelicalism after this train wreck. I can’t blame them. A big part of me wants to as well.

The idea of abandoning a child who needs support over a doctrinal difference with those providing the support is unfathomable to me, and I still cannot understand at any level of humanity where anybody would think that was okay… least of all people who claim to be following Jesus. My wife and I supported a little girl named Ivis for several years. We chose her because she shared a birthday with one of our sons. We received letters from her, pictures from her, drawings that she had made. She told us about her life, her family, her home. She asked us about our pets, our boys. We developed a relationship with her. When we found out she no longer needed support, we switched our support to another little girl named Lizzi and have been supporting her for several months now.

I cannot fathom a universe in which we would walk up to Ivis or Lizzi, look them in the eyes, and tell them, “Sorry. I know you need food and medicine and schooling and clean water. But the people who give those things to you? They hire gay people now. So we’re going to have to take those things back — oh, and this relationship? It’s over.

This whole uproar has conclusively proven something that I have fought so hard not to believe for the past several years: apparently, Christians can be as big of jerks as the world says we are. Apparently, a wide swath of us actually do care more about doctrine than people, more about purity than love. And apparently, there are a lot of Christians who just cannot get over their obsession with sex and what happens in other people’s bedrooms.

The Gospel Coalition and the Southern Baptist Church both put out statements on the issue, declaring homosexuality to be a “gospel issue” and therefore, non-negotiable. To bend or compromise would be to negate the gospel itself.

The argument, of course, is ludicrous. But here’s the surprising twist: in what may be the first and only time I’ve agreed with anything written over at the Gospel Coalition, I actually do think that homosexuality is a gospel issue. Just not exactly how they meant it.

The gospel is infinitely bigger than simply separating the world into sinners and saints, the hellbound and heavenbound. The gospel is about all of creation being put back together, with agape love holding it all together and redeeming everything. Therefore, how we treat gay people (and all people!) is very much a gospel issue.

If we think whether or not someone is gay is more important than whether a child eats…

If we stand idly by and watch as a segment of humanity is demonized and persecuted, or worse, actively participate in those actions…

If we do not stand up for gay teenagers, among whom suicide rates are skyrocketing because of the abuse they face from their peers as well as from religious groups…

…then we are not only not living out the gospel, we are denying the very thing we claim to be defending.

If we do not possess the ability to even extend common human decency, then we are far worse than unbelievers – for even the “sinners” do that. We are called to do so much more… to extend the very selfless love that Jesus extended to us.

I say this all as someone who still believes that homosexuality is a sin. I’ve read all of the arguments and contextualizations and articles explaining why it’s not, but I can’t convince myself that I can take that leap and remain intellectually honest. But I also understand this: believing something is a sin does not give me the ability, the opportunity, or the right to be a douchebag.

Jesus has called me, called us, to love. Unconditionally, without pause, without question and without demands. His earliest followers declared that loving other people (which requires us to first see them as people!) to be the fulfillment of His “law.” And therefore, I concur: the complete and utter inability of the Church — a large or at least highly vocal portion of it — to truly love gay people is a gospel issue. And it’s one that must be resolved.

Of Holidays and Citizenship

‘Tis the season for gentle snowfall, sipping hot cocoa by the fire, hanging lights, and… fighting a fierce and bloody war to defend the holiday of Christmas.

That’s right, it’s officially War on Christmas TM time, boys and girls. And that means leaving no stone unturned in the search for things to be offended by. No baby Jesus on the courthouse lawn? Persecution! No “Silent Night” at the kid’s Christmas program? To arms! Calling it “winter break” instead of “Christmas Break”? Battle stations, everyone! Someone wish you “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?” It’s a horseman of the apocalypse!

We’ve even moved beyond those traditional theaters of war this year into the realm of not-so-subtle racism, with Fox News battling suggestions of inclusivity by making sure everyone knows the “verifiable fact” that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white.

Look, I get it. I really do. Drawing battle lines, creating a “them” for “us” to rally against, engaging in a war… it makes sense. It does. We do it because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Morally superior. It gives us a (twisted) sense of purpose and calling, something that feels worthwhile to accomplish. And it allows us to create a separate group of people, whom we can blame everything on when anything goes wrong. Drawing battle lines creates a built-in scapegoat for all our problems and issues.

Underlying it all is the unspoken assumption, our expectation, that our civic leadership endorse and embrace our specific religious belief system. Until they do, and do so wholeheartedly, we will continue to find (or create) reasons to be upset and offended.

Unfortunately, all of this runs contrary to how I read the narrative of faith in the Bible. That narrative, to me, majors on a theme of inclusivity, not exclusivity… a theme of tearing down walls rather than building them, erasing battle lines instead of drawing them. It centers on an idea of loving everybody (even regardless of what holiday greeting they use), and beating our swords into plowshares. To give up the battle in favor of gardening. To stop destroying and start creating.

Along with that, this narrative teaches me something about who I am as well, and it couches it in terms of citizenship. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul writes at one point, not in this world. For Paul, this was a direct contrast to his Roman (read: privileged) citizenship. For us, let’s make some folks uncomfortable: We are not citizens of America. We are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven.

There’s no dual citizenship here. There’s no foot-in-both-worlds possibility. When we choose to become citizens in the Kingdom, we renounce our citizenship in the world. We renounce our American citizenship.

We’re not “Christians first, Americans second” — we are, essentially, no longer Americans.

That idea has far reaching implications on a number of levels and issues. But during this time of year, the holiday season, what it means to me is it does not matter whether or not civic leaders legitimize the symbols of our faith — the symbols of a rival and competing kingdom.

It does not matter where we may or may not be not allowed to place images of Jesus… after all, the image of our Creator is borne by all of us in flesh and blood, not in plastic light-up made-in-China dolls.

It does not matter what holiday greeting you receive in a checkout line… after all, Jesus’ most valuable lesson was that Christians ought to demand privileged status in society and be offended when we don’t receive it. Or the exact opposite of that. Whatever.

Loving God and loving people, sacrificing yourself for the sake of others, is what being a citizen in the Kingdom of God is all about. And doing that most assuredly does not require putting a label of “Christmas” on everything or having a white baby Jesus doll on a public lawn.

We Are All Christopher Columbus

Columbus Day was two weeks ago here in America, and that meant two things: federal government workers (those not affected by the shutdown) got the day off, and white guilt ran rampant on social media.

For whatever reason, we enlightened folks of the 21st century have found the need to demonize Christopher Columbus. Maybe it makes us feel better about ourselves at some level — a new form of slactivism, doing nothing and feeling like a better person for it. Maybe we think it makes us appear more sensitive and knowledgeable to our followers on Twitter and Facebook. Who knows.

What I do know is whenever someone would trash Columbus, I would get offended — and I didn’t understand why. After having a few days to process and research, I came to this conclusion:

We are all Christopher Columbus.

To say Columbus is not worth celebrating — or worse, that he ought to be vilified and remembered as a monster — is to say that none of us is worth celebrating.

Let me explain.

First, we need to ratchet down the rhetoric used against Columbus a little bit. This year’s guilt parade was led by the popular (and usually really great) web comic The Oatmeal. They published this rant against Columbus, which everyone dutifully reposted. To say the diatribe was a little misleading would be a gross understatement, however. Here’s a quick rundown of just a few of the facts that The Oatmeal got just a little off:

  • Gold (or “cheddar”) became Columbus’ primary objective after his first voyage. Um, no. Did Christopher want gold? Of course. Did gold turn him into a bloodthirsty tyrant? Not even close. Columbus left that first island (with the gold on it) behind after just a couple weeks and explored several other islands on that first journey. Gold didn’t interest him as much as exploration, observation, and yes, the Christianization of the native population. In fact, he made much more of converting the natives than of finding gold.
  • “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men and govern them as I please.” The Oatmeal presents this quote from Columbus’ journal as evidence of his tyrant-like monster qualities. They completely ignore the context of that quote: Columbus notices scars on many of the Lucayan natives while conversing with and observing them. When he asks about the scars, the natives indicate to him that another tribe from a nearby island continually attack them and try to capture them. Columbus pieces together the rest of the story: the natives try to fight back the best they can, but they have little in the way of weaponry or technology with which to defend themselves. Columbus’ note about how easy it would be to conquer them seems to be born almost out of pity rather than a desire to do so. Also, in that same space Columbus makes mention of his desire to convert them to Christianity — again, what seems to be his driving force at this point (not gold or killing natives).
  • Columbus returned to the New World with 1,500 men armed to the teeth in order to slaughter the natives. Again, not even remotely close. Columbus returned on his second journey with around 1,200 men — and most of them were farmers and priests. Farmers and priests! The 1,200 men did include soldiers as well, but they were intended to protect the colonies that were begun in the name of Spain – to defend, not to attack. The stated goal of this second journey — the overtly, easy to find mission which The Oatmeal blatantly ignored — was to create “colonies of settlement” from which to convert the natives to Christianity. Nothing about gold.
  • When the Lucayans refused to give Columbus gold and their women, Columbus had all of their ears and noses cut off. False, false, false, false. Here’s the real story: one man was found guilty of stealing loads of corn from Columbus’ crew. As punishment for his crime, Columbus ordered his ears and nose be cut off. It was not a group of natives, but one man. It was not in response to not giving them gold and women, but a punishment for stealing. Was the punishment barbaric? Absolutely. Was it anything close to what The Oatmeal piece fabricated it to be? Absolutely not.
  • Columbus wanted even more gold, so he demanded tribute from the natives to fulfill his greed. Wrong again. On Columbus’ first voyage, he left 39 men behind to set up a colony in the New World. When Columbus visited that colony on his second voyage, he found that the natives had overtaken Columbus’ men, killed them, and destroyed the settlement. In retaliation for murdering his men, Columbus did demand gold or cotton as payment from the natives. Those who refused to bring the gold or cotton had their hands cut off (not to wear around their neck, but to force them to bleed to death). It was a brutal punishment, true. But it wasn’t for the purpose of getting gold (otherwise, why would he have accepted cotton instead of gold?) — it was for the purpose of avenging what Columbus saw as the murder of his countrymen.
  • Columbus Day isn’t a tradition – honoring Columbus only came about in the 1930s because of political pressure from the Knights of Columbus group. Wrong again. Honoring Columbus in America began in 1738 when “Columbia” (in honor of Columbus) was used as a synonym for “America” in the British Parliament. The first Columbus Day celebration in America took place in 1792 in New York. The District of Columbia (Washington, DC) was named in honor of Columbus. The capitols of Ohio and South Carolina were named in honor of Columbus. Columbus Day is celebrated in Spain and throughout North and South America, not just in the United States.

Okay, so there’s that. I’m glad we got all that out of the way, so we can get a more realistic picture of who Christopher Columbus was. Make no mistake — Columbus was not an angel or a perfect guy by any means. When he returned to rule as governor of the New World settlements after his voyages, he ruled with a very harsh iron fist. He did dole out punishments like cutting off a guy’s nose and ears, or like cutting off people’s hands and watching them bleed to death. He was no saintly leader by any means. But he was also far from the monster he is portrayed as by most guilty white people on social media.

Here’s the bigger issue to me, though — and why I got worked up whenever people ragged on Columbus on that Monday: Columbus is no different from the rest of us. The story of Christopher Columbus ought to teach us one vitally important lesson about humanity: morality exists in shades of color, not in black and white. To declare Columbus bad and dismiss his accomplishments is to grossly oversimplify humanity and the human condition.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Crash because it has as its core message that same idea, using racism as a vehicle to explore it. Everybody in the movie displays racist tendencies toward someone at some time at some level. It takes the oversimplified question, “Are you racist?” and demolishes it, leaving in its place the much more uneasy question, “How are you racist?”

When we look at Columbus, then, the question ought not be, “Was he good?” as much as it should be, “How was he good, and how was he bad?” Because that is the question we all must ask of ourselves as well.

None of us is wholly good, and none of us is wholly bad, either. We all live our lives in some uneasy mixture of putrid evil and beautiful good, and anyone could point to the dark sides of who we are as reason to not celebrate anything we accomplish — especially if that darkness is exaggerated and lied about (as the Oatmeal did).

Don’t believe me? Then where are the groups of folks protesting Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Or have we forgotten that MLK was a serial adulterer who destroyed his marriage by sleeping around with women while he was traveling giving his inspirational speeches? Why do we celebrate George Washington? Have we forgotten that he owned hundreds upon hundreds of slaves, and that he treated them harshly, authorizing them to be whipped and beaten?

Or maybe… just maybe… we believe that the good they accomplished was worth celebrating despite their glaring flaws. Maybe because we recognize nobody is perfect, including ourselves.

It’s difficult to extend that grace to ourselves, let alone to the people around us. So we project onto celebrities or famous people we know we will never meet, never realizing that we are vicariously condemning those around us.

It’s easy to sit in our enlightened, privileged seats of judgment and dismiss anyone we don’t find worthy of recognition. But when it comes down to it, we are all jacked up people just trying to figure out the best way to live on this spinning ball of rocks. Your failures do not define you. Neither do they define those around you, no matter how superior it makes you feel to believe otherwise. In love, extend grace and mercy. We can suffer imperfect heroes, but we cannot suffer those who demand perfection.