Religion is Evil?

religionsIt has become popular to lay all of the suffering of the world at the feet of religion claiming, “It’s all you fault!” Check in with any of the various neo-atheist or “spiritual but not religious” voices you may hear and you are likely to hear this criticism laced with various degrees of vitriol. After all, it is said, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and colonial conquest were all carried out under the banner of religion. Religious fundamentalism as expressed by Branch Davidians, Jonestown, and radical jihadists have created violence and suffering in the name of God. The Church has done significant harm to individuals and whole groups of people because they were deemed inferior or unfaithful. All this is true. It is shameful.

Lillian Daniel, in her book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, says this line of argument seems a little like saying that all roads are bad (and should be banned) because of the helpless creatures that fall victim to traffic. “…don’t point out roadkill and then tell me that `the road’ has it in for bunnies, deer and armadillos.” (p. 17).  Yes indeed, people have used the name of God to justify all sorts of suffering and evil. But then, people have found ways to slaughter millions in the name of not believing in God, too.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes: “In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries three substitutes for religion emerged as the basis for new identities. One was the nation-state. A second was the ideological system. The third was race. The first led to two world wars, the second to Stalin’s Russia, the Gulag and the KGB, and the third to the Holocaust. The cost of these three substitutes for religion was in excess of a hundred million lives.” 

The source of evil in the world is not religion, government, or any other human institution in and of themselves. It is the human element that corrupts. Our innate desire to have power over others and to justify ourselves at the expense of someone else, what the church calls “original sin,” is what corrupts. While the Crusades were taking place, St. Francis of Assisi was helping birth a reform of the church. The punishing fundamentalism of the Inquisition finally gave way to the Reformation. The struggle between good and evil does take place on the world stage. Through fundamentalism and manipulation, many co-opt the traditions of the faithful (which is religion), for evil purposes. The war, however, is rooted in every human heart. All of us are capable of great evil in the name of something. Religion is neither ultimate evil or ultimate good. The variable is that, as Luther taught, humans are simultaneously saints and sinners, good and evil, all rolled into one. So, human institutions will be the same.

To think that evil and suffering would abate if religion disappeared is to believe that something other than human will drives a great deal of the suffering of the world. I think this is naive. The appeal to science and technology as the “salvation” of humanity is to ignore that every great advance and progress humanity claims has also been co-opted to kill and destroy. Industrialization was manifest in the trenches, tanks, chemical weapons and machine guns of the First World War. Nuclear fission paved the way to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the second

Finding our human identity as beings rooted in the source of being; releasing ourselves from the tyranny of constant comparison, self-justification and self-hate is the only way to address the evil and suffering around us. For more time than we have measured, that undertaking has been a healthy religious undertaking.

Peace to you.

 

copyright © 2019, Timothy V. Olson

 

 

 

I Don’t Believe in (G)od

I recognize that for a pastor’s blog, the title of this article might seem like click-bait. I cannot claim total innocence on that front. I can, however, say more precisely that I do not have faith in the (G)od discussed in current debates about whether God is real or not.

I have friends who are self-described atheists. They ask me to prove that God exists as an objective reality. Some measurable, mathematical, physical accounting must be made in order for God to be tangible; to be real. I understand the request. I also have friends, colleagues, and people of faith who want me to make a “case for God” because they are absolutely certain that objective arguments exist and can be made. They want me to help. I understand the desire.

Writ larger than my own world, there is the neo-atheist movement of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens et. al. who assert that with no objective proof of God, religion is a childish means of manipulation or an ignorant means of explaining big questions. On the other side, there is the Creation Museum in Kentucky which takes on the challenge and builds an objective argument for the existence of God, offering explanations and theories that point to a creator who is an objective player in the grand scheme of the universe.tillich

My problem is that, if I am to talk about God in the most general terms (which is not really my wheel house – I’m a preacher and speak of God in particularities, mostly), I don’t believe in the God creationists and fundamentalists are sure exists. Nor do I believe in the objectively provable God that atheists demand.

Paul, preaching to the Greeks in Athens, points to the gods they seek and worship saying,  “(God) is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” (Acts 17:27-28) The very fact that we are points relentlessly to a ground for that being. Paul’s roots in Hebrew scripture, which posits the name of God as the mysterious, I Am (Exodus 3:14) lead him to a God larger than objective reality.

St. Augustine said, “If you understood him, it would not be God.” Existence itself rests beyond our finite limits. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.” Objectifying God makes a lower case god, who is, in fact, largely about manipulation and denial as the atheists insist and as the fundamentalists forget.

In the fact of our existence and the consciousness that our existence is beyond us, Paul Tillich points to God as being: “The fact that man never is satisfied with any stage of his finite development, the fact that nothing finite can hold him, although finitude is his destiny, indicates the indissoluble relation of everything finite to being-itself.”

The reawakened contemplative tradition is reconnecting with this understanding of God through the teaching of people like Father Richard Rohr, who says, “This utterly grounds our deeper notion of God as Being itself, rather than God as a Being, alone and apart.”

David Bentley Hart is a professor of the Philosophy of Religion, and an astute (if not sometimes a little arrogant) voice for this classic understanding of God. He asks this question of those who demand – on both sides of the question – an objective proof of God. How, after all, could the existence or nonexistence of some particular finite being among other beings provide an ultimate answer to the mystery of existence as such?” ― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

As to what this has to do with Jesus Christ, well, that is a word for another day. I will say that this deeper, non-objective understanding of God leads to an encounter with Jesus Christ that is far beyond what the materialism and objective world can offer. That Christ is the incarnation not of some objective force within creation, but of the ground of being itself — well, that is ultimate good news.

Let me leave you with a quotation from Hart which summarizes what I’m getting at much better than I can manage: “God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.”
― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

Pax Christi, Tim Olson

 

copyright © 2019 Timothy V. Olson

 

 

Idio-stasis

beggar

A pundit recently said something that seemed utterly idiotic to me. I was not alone. Yet, even as an avalanche of push back mounted, he stuck to his guns. He was either totally clueless about the idiocy of his statement or unswervingly committed to never admitting a mistake. I wondered to a friend whether the continued effort was cumulative or simply expressed some kind of static state, which I called “idio-stasis.” She insisted that I had coined a phrase. So, I’m claiming it.

Idio-stasis is not an insult. It is, ultimately, a word that describes human sin and brokenness. Idio-stasis is unrepentant and widespread. Let me explain. Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden fruit. They get busted – hand in the fruit jar, if you will. They blame each other. Then they blame the snake. They stick to their refusal to accept responsibility for the fall. Idio-stasis.

Closer to home, I lost 30 pounds this last year. Over the holidays, I gained back 6. Why? Cookies. I eat the cookies. I gain the weight. Then I step on the scale and am shocked and dismayed when the number goes up. Idio-stasis.

In our politics right now, we have lots of folks who are so full of pride and arrogance; who have drunk deeply from the Kool-aid of partisanship that they can’t back down, discuss or compromise. The result is chaos. Then they act surprised. Idio-stasis.

A much more eloquent statement about what I am getting at was made bu Martin Luther King Jr. (on this, his birthday), “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Ultimately, the spiritual struggle here is that we become disconnected from any self-awareness of our faults; we ignore the things that keep us from being who God calls us to be; we keep on doing idiotic things because to change would be to admit a mistake; to change would be to let go of our pride; to change would require confession – and that is something we – even as Christians – don’t want to undertake.  But, if we cannot confess our mistakes, faults, evil deeds and sin, we can never be forgiven and transformed by the work of the Spirit.

The most dangerous people are those who are least self-aware. They don’t know they are broken and need transformation (sincere ignorance). Just as dangerous to self and others are those too full of pride to say, “I was wrong. Forgive me.” (conscientious stupidity).  I would classify both things as “idio-stasis” – being stuck in our own idiocy and choosing to stay there.

In Ignatian spirituality, part of one’s daily practice is called “examen.” It is a practice that includes seeking the ways that your day was marked by brokenness, impatience, pride, arrogance or whatever got in the way of your relationship with God and neighbor. Once you name it, you can own it and seek transformation in Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is a way of dealing with the “idio-stasis” in all of us. Ultimately, “idio-stasis” is our rejection of humility for an arrogance that rejects change. To live in the reign of God, however, is a constant embrace of change and transformation at the hands of a gracious God.

Peace to you!

Copyright © 2019, Timothy V. Olson

All Are Welcome. Really?

I’m going to guess that “All Are Welcome” is the most frequently used slogan on church signs, banners, brochures and bulletins. Up until a couple of weeks ago, the worn out sign on the east side of the sanctuary here declared this worn out message. Now it doesn’t. It says (provisionally) “You Are Welcome, No Matter What”

I have grown suspicious of the church’s announcement that “all are welcome” because frankly, in so many ways it is untrue. One man once told me that “Of course, gay & lesbian people are welcome here. All are welcome. We just don’t want to publicize that because too many of them might show up.” Very welcoming, don’t you think? I asked a call committee once how “all are welcome” played itself out given they were a white congregation in a black community. They replied, “Well, they have their church, we have ours.”

Mostly I have spent lots of time up front watching us “welcome” all. The signs and bulletins declare welcome.  But the “back row folks” are not so sure.  They come to worship late. They leave early. They avoid eye contact. I watch as they look around simultaneously hoping that someone notices them and that no one does. These folks know that “all” are welcome, but are certain that it does not apply to them. They are divorced, addicted, suffering from depression, just lost a job, grieving. They are sure that we Christians never have bad things happen to us. Or they are part of a group always at the edges of culture, sure that once you see the tatoo, find out their sexuality, or meet the mixed race family, the welcome will fade.

Too often, “all are welcome” carries the unspoken condition, “as long as you are like us.” Too often it does not address the particularity of the human situation that comes in the door seeking hope. Broken folks out side and inside the church, assume they are not welcome. We don’t even believe “all are welcome” applies to us. Just notice how hard it is for church members to let others see their hurts and brokenness. We believe that if you really knew us, you wouldn’t welcome us.

Jesus never seemed to speak in generalities and slogans. Jesus said to a dead man, “Lazarus, Come out!” (John 11:43)  As he encountered Mary at the tomb, he said, “Mary!” and her eyes were opened. (John 20:16) In the Lord’s Supper, each person receives bread and wine with the singular pronouncement: “given for you.” It takes more than three words on a sign and a throw away slogan to truly welcome someone. The welcome is extended one interaction at a time. We can’t become the people God calls us to be with just words.  We will never emulate God’s reign of welcome as long as women are “welcomed” and treated as second class citizens; as long as our communities do not reflect the racial and ethic diversity of the community; as long as we keep excluding people from grace because of their sexuality.

Our congregation is right now working on how we can speak more clearly to the diverse people and real struggles of this world with gospel language that is real. We are working to develop a statement of inclusion that names the particularities of the human experience. The statement we develop will not be just a slogan, but a word that demands accountability to make it real.  It is too early to share any drafts of what we might say as a congregation, but I will offer a rather humorous – but effective example I came across:

WELCOME!

All are welcome here. But, we extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, lesbian, transgender, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

We endorse all people but we make it a point not to promote any particular politician. If you need a church that does or a minister who screams and yells from the Ambo about how everybody who doesn’t believe as he believes (or, she believes) is going to hell… well, you’re probably not going to like this church. Here, you can be Democrat, Republican, Independent… heck, even a Socialist. You’ll understand, we’re sort of struck with Jesus and, especially, his teachings. The way we figure it — if we follow his teachings, the world will be a happier and healthier place for everybody. Healthier and happier, too, for those not interested in religion, not even ours.

If you blew all your offering money last night at the dog track, tough luck for us. You’re still welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … In short, we welcome you!

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-mcswain/now-this-is-a-church-i-co_b_1868351.html

Let’s say what we mean, and do what we say. To genuinely welcome is God’s action in the world.

 

copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson

 

The Heron

“Just walk down to the end of the parking lot and you’ll see the path toward the lake. Follow the grass path around the lake. They keep it closely mowed… mostly. You’ll be fine.” These were my directions to find a place to walk while at the abbey for a couple of days. So, I followed my nose to the end of the parking lot. There was the well mown path that headed to the water. I was on my way, on a beautiful morning.

As I rounded the first curve of the lake, I was absorbed in my own thoughts on a solitary exercise. When I looked up, I found I was not alone. There, maybe fifty yards ahead, was a heron standing at the water’s edge (Great Blue Heron, perhaps – but I’m no ornithologist). The majestic, graceful creature stood looking in my direction, then began to walk up toward the path. As I got closer, the heron took flight – effortless, powerful. As the long neck and head stretched forward and the long legs trailed, I could, for just a second, see the prehistoric ancestors of this bird – pterodactyl and such. The great creature landed on the path farther down the line. As I approached again, it winged its way onto a stout tree nearby. Then again, to the water’s edge at a place where the path was less visible – and I was unsure where it turned. The heron, my companion, flew off into the trees ahead. I followed. There I found the  neatly mowed path once again.

“Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”

Lots of folks might see God in this encounter. Many would conclude that the Heron had been sent to guide me – its presence would be all about me. I don’t buy that for a minute.  More likely, it was fleeing my presence. I had probably interrupted its breakfast. Too often we think that creature and creation are all here for us. We’re terrible narcissists in that way. We don’t see that the Heron exists all on its own, with its own communion with God. It would have been there had I explored the path or not. We need to be careful seeing every butterfly and bird; every tree and sunrise as a message from God just for us. In the same way, we need to see that the resources of creation are more than consumable resources out here for me and you to use.

The gift this beggar received from this beautiful creature was in the transformation of my solitary, self-absorbed walk into a journey with something; dare I say, with someone? The One who created us both? From the moment that bird flew off, I was unable to be alone. The little white and purple flowers were all around. A hawk crossed the path ahead of me. A big green bug in the path and dozens of other creatures were all around. These creatures, made and beloved of God, are not pests, weeds, interlopers or guests in my world. We are, as St. Francis would say, brothers and sisters. Maybe, if we humans would see this more clearly, we would stop, or at least slow, our drive to be the most invasive, viral species to bring death to the planet.

Perhaps this is what theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson is getting at when she says, “Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”(1) We are called to love God with our whole being and called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Who is our neighbor? Certainly, as the Good Samaritan story tells us, it is anyone in need. Perhaps any-thing in need. On that day, my neighbor was a heron – and hundreds of God’s creations too numerous to count. It is so every day, if we will look, listen and be aware of the neighborhood of life. That is this Beggar’s Take.

© 2018 – Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved
(1) Johnson, Elizabeth A., Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury Continuum) Kindle Edition

Jesus & Guns

I recently preached a sermon based on John 2:13-22 (Jesus cleansing the temple) and the Ten Commandments according to Exodus 20:1-17. Jesus is obviously annoyed, angered even, by the rather blasphemous and unfaithful practices of Herod’s Temple.

Since a preacher’s job is to make the biblical story connect with our lives, I wondered what we do that might evoke the anger of our Lord when it comes to our use of God’s name. I wondered whether selling things with a Bible verse on the package was witness or perhaps, manipulation – and so, something Jesus would clean up. I also talked about a recent speech from an NRA official which stated that the right to bear arms was not “bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright…” Since I (and not just I) find no biblical or traditional basis for such a statement, I wondered if it was an example of how we all can bend God for our own purposes.

A few folks asked me about what I made of a passage in Luke that seemed to justify, and maybe even direct, the disciples to carry weapons. The verse offered is Luke 22:35-38:

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” (NRSV)

So, I dusted off my commentaries, brushed the rust off my Greek a bit, and dug into this passage in the same way I would prepare a sermon. (You’ll find a bibliography of sources below if you need to explore for yourself). This is what I found:

First, the context of the passage, as with all passages of scripture, must guide interpretation. This scene takes place on the night Jesus will be handed over for crucifixion. Supper is over. The conversation between Master and disciples has been full of misunderstanding – the disciples just don’t get anything.

Now, the great and final conflict between God’s reign, revealed in Jesus, and the reign of the earthly powers that deal in death is at hand. Up to this point, Jesus has kept those death-dealing powers at arm’s length. He reminds his disciples of his vision by reminding them of how he sent them out into the world. They needed nothing. All was provided, even their safety was under the aegis of God. Then he warns them that, in order to fulfill his mission, he – and so they – will be handed over to the powers of death; the folks who carry swords. The kingdom of death will have one final move against Jesus and his vision this very night.

Some scholars posit that the carrying of a sword as Jesus is handed over to death would make him even more “lawless,” fulfilling the prophecy about him. But the theme of misunderstanding seems more likely. Jesus is speaking metaphorically. As “sword” is so often used in scripture, it refers to the powers of death. Sadly, the disciples, for the third time in this one evening, will fail to understand and interpret his words literally. They do this all the time in the gospels. And that means they get it wrong.

When the boys respond that they possess, literally, two actual swords, Jesus responds, “It is enough!” Does this mean that two actual swords is all that they need? That seems doubtful given the host they will encounter soon. It is certainly a recipe for being “outgunned” (pardon the pun). Jesus response, however, can be read in another manner – one that makes more sense within the narrative of misunderstanding and within Greek usage. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, renders the passage this way:

“They said, “Look, Master, two swords!” But he said, “Enough of that; no more sword talk.” (Luke 22:38, The Message)

Frederick Danker, a towering scholar on Luke, says that when Jesus says “It is enough!” He means “Case closed! They mean well, but there is no getting through their skulls this night.” (353)

Finally, you have to keep reading the narrative. Just 15 verses after this passage, with no break in the action, one of the swords appears as Jesus is arrested.

When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:49-51, NRSV)

If Jesus really wanted the disciples to carry a sword AND to act in self-defense, why then does Jesus put a stop to the violence? Why command the carrying of swords if you can’t use them? Well, it is because Jesus doesn’t command carrying weapons. He acknowledges that on the night of his betrayal, swords will still be a power in the kingdom of death. After his death and resurrection – nope. Sorry. Jesus blesses the peacemakers and commands love of enemies (Luke 6:27-36); he shuns self-defense in death on the cross sparing the life of, well, all of us. Does he expect that of us? I think so. You’ll have to decide for yourself. But don’t look to Jesus to bless violence in any shape or size.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing) 1978, 823-27

Tiede, David L., Luke, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House) 1988, 388-90

Craddock, Fred B., Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press) 1990, 260-66

Danker, Frederick W., Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press) 1988, 352-53

Wright, Tom, Luke for Everyone, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press) 2004, 266-67

Ringe, Sharon H., Luke (Louiville: Westminster John Knox Press) 1995, 264-65

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2018

St. Paul, Fornication, and #MeToo

Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Matt Lauer. Louie CK. You know the list – even as it grows.

#MeToo, women who have said “enough is enough,” who have called their abusers, harassers, tormentors, and brutes to account for sexual harassment, misbehavior, violence and the objectification of women. You know the movement – even as it grows.

Is every accusation is valid? I don’t know. Many certainly seem to be. I also don’t know what the “statute of limitations” is on taking responsibility for a past injustice might be. I do know that there is generally no expiration dates for the pain and harm a victim experiences.  Abuse comes with a “life sentence” for the victim. I don’t know if every man is guilty of something. I do know culture does a pretty good job of inculcating men and women with the notion that human beings are objects for consumption – sexual and otherwise. I don’t even know if I can say with certainty that my own ham-handed, less than subtle, ill-informed encounters with the opposite sex when I was young and foolish did not cross a line. I do know that, if I did, I am ashamed and deeply sorry.

I don’t know a great deal about the complexities of sexuality and sexual immorality/abuse. I do know this for sure: a lot of women have endured a lot of pain at the hands of a lot of men for a very long time. I also know this: God does not approve.

I don’t know what gets into a man’s head mind they undertake the bad behavior the #MeToo movement is resisting. When yet another perpetrator stands accused of what has turned out to be unspeakable behavior, I always wonder “What the heck were these dudes thinking?” What thought process; what cultural nonsense; what perverted world view allows someone to think that they are free to harass, harm, violate, objectify another?

I do know that sexual behavior that is harassing, harmful, violent; that is not mutual or rooted in self-giving love is about as far from what God had in mind as one can get. You may be surprised that what I know comes, in part, from what the apostle Paul teaches about sexuality in I Corinthians, especially the passage in chapter 6:12-20.

To treat someone as a sexual object seems to me to require an attitude of personal liberty that grants permission for someone to do whatever you please without constraint. At our most base, we should know that there are legal consequences to misbehavior. But that does not seem to apply to people who abuse others. Paul knows this, and addresses it in verse 12 of the cited passage.

Apparently, there was a saying in Corinth, popularized by Greek philosophy, that said “All things are lawful for me.” (I Cor. 6:12 NRSV). Note the quotation marks – Paul is saying something the Corinthians say. Richard Hays, in his commentary on I Corinthians, is convinced that it is closer to the original to translate it “I am free to do anything,”  Folks in Corinth believed that enlightened and wise persons were absolutely free to determine what they could or should do, because they were enlightened and wise. Sound familiar? (Greek teachings are still alive and well in our culture).

Paul counters the popular saying about personal liberty by quoting it and then pushing against it. “For me everything is permissible’; maybe, but not everything does good. True, for me everything is permissible, but I am determined not to be dominated by anything.” (I Cor. 6:12, NJB) Paul is acknowledging that we have freedom. He is also, however, correcting the misuse of liberty as a means of seeking personal gratification or engaging our addictions that trade one form of slavery for another. We are free to do good to and for others, not to be selfish and do evil. We are free, but not free to engage in things that enslave us.

Another move you have to make to turn someone into a sex-object is to negate the value of the body. You have to be convinced that another person’s body is just a means to your endgame of self-gratification. You also have to be convinced that your own body is just an object to be fed and satisfied. Paul knows this too, because, once again the Corinthians have a saying.

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. (I Cor. 6:13, NRSV) Many scholars think the quotation marks belong at the end of the verse, not the middle. I agree. Paul is not one to dismiss the importance of the body. The meaning is that food and body both are meaningless because everything dies. This is not from Paul, the premier proclaimer of resurrection power.

The whole verse testifies to the dualism of Greek thought which separates body and soul, material from spiritual. Material things, like the human body, are disposable objects simply to be used as desired – kind of like those cheap razors and paper cups we all use. This means that things like drunkenness, gluttony, and yes, sex, really have no connection with our spiritual life. You can harm the body – yours or somebody else’s – and it has no relationship to the spirit of the person. Paul knew this was not how God’s creatures or creation worked. Neither are ever disposable. Spirit and body are one; what happens to body affects spirit and vice versa.

Paul doesn’t buy the degradation of the body one bit because of the resurrection. God does not work with disembodied spirits.  The resurrection is about the physical body being raised from death (v. 14). How could it be that the body is disposable or unrelated to God’s life in us when we believe in the resurrection of that body? On top of that, Paul says “you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (v. 20). Because your body and soul (the whole enchilada) are part of Christ’s body because of his death on the cross, what you do with your body reflects upon and witnesses to Christ in the world. The material things of life, including the body, have deep spiritual implications.

If you read on into chapter 7 regarding the mutuality of the sexual relationship between husband and wife, Paul says: “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.” (I Cor. 7:3-4 NIV) The person who is the beneficiary of a sexual relationship is not yourself, it is your partner. It is the intimacy of being for the other that makes sexuality a blessing. Sexuality done for the sake of self leads to immorality, according to Paul.

This idea of how human relationships work is fleshed out further in Paul’s discussion of our unity in the body of Christ (I Cor. 12); and again in how Paul makes self-giving love the centerpiece of Christian behavior (I Cor. 13).  Sexual relationships are created by God to be about joy, pleasure, intimacy and love rooted in divine love. They are, therefore,  always relationships carried out for the sake of the other. When, as we engage in a sexual relationship intent on giving love, giving joy, sharing intimacy and giving pleasure, that we receive those things in return is a gift of grace made possible by another’s self-giving love. A selfish lover loves only themselves; a selfish lover is no lover at all.

Something that all the abusers, named and unnamed, have in common is the use of power over others. The sense of personal liberty may bring the evil act to sprout, but only being in a position of power over someone can force your desire on another human being. Mutuality, an absolute necessity in God-given relationships, is impossible when power is asserted and demands are made. If you can look at the cross of Christ and see any evidence that God allows people to use power for personal gratification and gain, you are deluded. Once again, Paul precludes power as a possibility in sexual relationships because Christ redeems the world in powerlessness.

This is why Paul is hard on sexual relationships that do not reflect such self giving love, and mutuality. Paul is direct:“Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.” (I Cor. 6:18) “Fornication” is related to a Latin word which referred to brothels. “Fornication” is used to translate the Greek word, porneia, which refers to sexual immorality, very often sexual relations with prostitutes. Eugene Peterson, in his translation, The Message, tries to get at porneia as “sex that avoids commitment and intimacy.”

In verses 15 & 16, Paul is referring to sex with prostitutes. Prostitution in Paul’s time had an added religious element (not just economic), where paying for sex with a temple prostitute affiliated with some Greek or Roman deity was akin to making an offering to an idol. Paul is not condemning sex or sexuality in a general manner. He is addressing sex that is out of sorts with God’s intention and redemption. Sex with a prostitute is about self–gratification and not about self-giving love. Any sexual relationship that is not rooted in self-giving love, mutuality, life-long commitment and monogamy (see ELCA Statement on Human Sexuality) does not provide the framework for the beauty, joy, intimacy and pleasure intended by God. Paul would call any sex that does not meet these standards “fornication,” and unworthy of our Lord and of our standing as heirs to the resurrection.

The final move Paul makes in this text is to elevate the use of the body – our eating and drinking and our sexuality – to the level of sacred acts of love. Because of the love revealed in Christ, and because in Christ’s sacrifice we have been redeemed, we have been made one with the body of Christ now raised in this world at this time. We are therefore, the temple of the risen Christ and our souls AND bodies are to be used accordingly. Paul asks, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”  (I Corinthians 6:19-20 NRSV)

There is no glory for God or humanity when men make women into victims and cause pain. When sex is degraded to a transaction, or is sought purely for personal gratification, the temple is defiled. Paul shows us another way. So, glorify God in your body – give joy, intimacy, pleasure and love to one other to whom you are joined in the body of Christ, and by grace, God will be glorified and love will bloom.

 

copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson