Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Good Samaritan Revisited

Stain-glass Window Depiction of the Good Samaritan
photo credit: Jules & Jenny Doddington, St Peter's church window via photopin (license)

Perhaps one of the most riveting stories in the Bible is the tale of the Good Samaritan. For those who are unfamiliar with it, here it is from Luke 10:25-37 (CEB):

A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to gain eternal life?" Jesus replied, "What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?" He responded, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said to him, "You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live." But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus replied, "A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days' worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, 'Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.' What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor who encountered the thieves?"
Then the legal expert said, "The one who demonstrated mercy toward him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

There are several things happening here and some cultural aspects that I want to bring to light.

Many people have remarked before how the commandment quoted here is the most important commandment in the Bible. It encapsulates all other commandments. In fact, for me, it is the basis for how I live my life. It is can be summed up in these 4 words:  "Love God. Love others."

This commandment is so important, that many observant Jews will state this command several times during the day. I can imagine in this scene where the two rabbis (this unnamed scholar and Jesus) are testing each other. This scholar wants to somehow discredit Jesus, but Jesus gives this man a scenario that he probably never would have dreamed of.

A man is injured after being robbed and mugged on the highway, left for dead. Two men walk past him:  a priest and a Levite. Both the priest and the Levite (who was a person in the priestly caste system) had certain ceremonial responsibilities. If either of them were to stop and help the man, who most likely was bleeding, then they would be ceremonially unclean and would not be able to do their duties in the Temple. If the man were actually dead, they would definitely be ceremonially unclean.

I am not certain on this, but I could imagine that most listeners of this would have nodded their heads. They could possibly imagine that the priest or the Levite might tell other people about the man so that they could help him. However, it was the Samaritan who helped him out.

What is a Samaritan? Samaritans are a group of people, who still exist today, although in small communities, who worshiped the same God as the Jews did, but with noticeable differences. Samaritans were the product of interracial marriage between Jews and non-Jews that happened after the Assyrian conquest of Israel. Since they were of mixed race, they were despised by the Jews. The Samaritan Torah, which is nearly identical to the Jewish Torah, made notable exceptions in it to show that the Samaritans were properly worshiping God and not the Jews. This developed into animosity and racism between the two people. Neither groups of people liked each other. In fact, they despised each other.

A modern day Samaritan
photo credit: Copper Kettle A samaritan via photopin (license)

So this Samaritan, this despised person, helped out his enemy. Normally the story ends there. Does it, though?

I once told this story to one of my translators in Albania when I served with The Salvation Army there. However, I substituted the Good Samaritan for the "Good Serbian," who helped the injured Albanian. The reaction I had from him was shocking. He acted outraged that a Serbian would be so merciful:  the enemy of his people who had driven them out of their homeland. His hate was palpable. (Click here to read more of this story.)

However, let's take a look at the original question:  What must I do to gain eternal life? With Jesus' parable, he implied something outrageous and . . . Dare I say it? . . . Heretical!

This Samaritan was the one who had gained eternal life. This Samaritan had the wrong theology. He believed the "wrong" things. In fact, some people might even dare to say that this Samaritan did not even worship the same God as the Jews did. (I recently had a fellow Christian accuse me of not worshiping the same God as he did.) However, it was the Samaritan who gained eternal life, not because of what he believed, but of his actions demonstrating his love for God and others.

This gives me pause. What about others who do good and show love for their fellow humans? The Muslim, the Hindu, the atheist? None of them accept Christ as their personal Savior. None of them follow Jesus. None of them say that Jesus is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." However, it would seem that Jesus is saying that it is possible to gain eternal life, not by what we believe, but by how we act.

What is the definite answer? I don't know. The reason I don't know is because I am not the one who determines who has eternal life and who doesn't. So I will not be so quick to mete out judgment on anyone, including those of a different belief system. Perhaps none of us should.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wounded by the Church

photo credit: Faith Triumphant via photopin (license)

The Summons

I was summoned to appear before my leaders when I was a Salvation Army officer (pastor). A screenshot of something I had written in a closed group on Facebook had been sent to our National Headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia and then sent to our Territorial Headquarters in Chicago.

"Did you write this?" I was asked.

I nodded in the affirmative.

"This is heresy."

I was silent.

What had I written? A fellow Salvationist (member of my denomination, The Salvation Army) in New Zealand was bemoaning the fact that the Bible was clear on homosexuality being a sin. I thought it very strange since this Salvationist was in a group dedicated to the inclusion of all LGBT people in the Church and especially The Salvation Army. I had responded to this young man that the Bible is rarely clear on anything. It is only our interpretation of the Bible that is clear.

For that, I was labeled a heretic by someone I used to respect. I was eventually terminated as a Salvation Army officer because of that and because I stand for LGBT inclusion. Being a bisexual Salvation Army officer did not help matters, either. There was another issue that precipitated my termination, but is not relevant to this discussion.

After my termination, I was denied membership in my local Salvation Army corps (church) because of my views on marriage equality. I had to fight to win that right to be a member.

My story is not unique. I have heard many others tell their tale of being wounded and bullied by the Church. The Church, who should be loving and like a mother, is more like a whore.

Dorothy Day said it perhaps best:

As to the Church . . . though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother. - ("In Peace is my Bitterness Most Bitter," CW, January 1967)

What does one do when one is wounded by your faith community? This is the crossroads I am at right now.

This past year has been a year of wounds for me, much of which has been caused by the Church.

  • Loss of ordination as a Salvation Army officer
  • Being called a heretic
  • Denial of membership in my local Salvation Army
  • Having to fight for that membership transfer

Spiritual Abuse . . .

I once was talking with a woman involved in an abusive relationship. She was having an affair with another man even though she herself was married. After this man had been convicted three times of assault, including on this man's current wife, she told me that she believed he was good in his heart and that he could change.

That's a hallmark sign of someone ensnared in an abusive relationship. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she stays with him and believes that she can change him. Nothing I could say could convince her of the dangerous situation she was in.

Am I in an abusive relationship with the Church?

I don't know. It feels at times like it is.

A Salvation Army officer told me recently that he does not believe I worship the same God as he does.

I was told by some other officers that it would be better for me to leave The Salvation Army and find somewhere else to worship.

I was called a heretic.

Why should I stay?

That's probably the hardest question to ask, but also the most important.

First off:  My analogy of the abusive spouse is just that:  an analogy. It would not be fair of me to characterize the entire Church as judgmental, exclusionary, and abusive.

I could start off by saying that I am a fourth generation member of The Salvation Army and it's tradition, but that's the wrong reason to stay. At the same time, I have so much history there. The Salvation Army imprinted itself on my soul and has formed a great deal of what my personality and character is. I would not be the person I am today without The Salvation Army.

The bullying I experienced was not dealt by everyone in The Salvation Army. In fact, I was never bullied by anyone in The Salvation Army during my entire service in Germany. The German Salvation Army is a wonderful group of caring people who regularly called me up to ask how I was doing spiritually and were always concerned about my welfare. Even though I made mistakes there, I was never condemned for them, simply corrected and helped. Danke, liebe Kameraden! Ihr fehlt mir.

Another reason I stay is the fact that I am not alone. There are many others in my denomination who think as I do. We stayed connected through social media, have discussions online, and even do book studies on matters that interest us. I know that if it weren't for this wonderful community, I would have succumbed long ago to resigning outright.

I have also discovered another welcoming Church near me that has greeted me with open arms and accepted me for who I am. Their fellowship has nourished my soul and done much to help me on my spiritual healing.

What is the Church?

A friend of mine and fellow blogger, S. Bradford Long, recently wrote how much he hated Church. I read what he wrote and nodded along with every point he made:  worship was anything but restful; sermons are often boring; Church was work.

Then I realized something:  Church was more than that! I talked with him about it. These are my ideas of Church:

  • Church is not people coming together on Sundays.
  • Church is when I meet with my friends.
  • Church is when I eat dinner with my family.
  • Church is when I have a video chat with friends about books we are reading.
  • Church is the communal dinner I have on Wednesdays and the Bible Study we engage in afterwards.
  • Church is when a stranger listens to my broken heart over a Twitter chat.

We are the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, we tend to believe that there are cancerous parts in us and we treat it those parts (the people we disagree with) like radiation or chemotherapy, or worse yet, we cut them out altogether. If we are the Body of Christ, then we are not cancerous. Would Christ's body really be cancerous? Even if it were, are we even qualified as surgeons? I don't think so. Let the Great Physician deal with that. Paul writes:

You are the Body of Christ and parts of each other. - 1 Corinthians 12:27 (CEB)

What is perhaps more important to me is the verse before that:
If one parts suffer, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. - 1 Corinthians 12:26 (CEB) 
The Church should be there to help each other out and support each other, not beat each other up. Unfortunately, we have not learned this lesson at all. Instead, we tend to ostracize and excommunicate those with whom we disagree.

I have to remind myself that those with a different opinion are not attacking me, they are just disagreeing with me. Better yet, I also realize that I need to befriend those with whom I disagree. There is no "us vs. them."

My Decision?

So what is my decision? Do I stay or do I go? The Church is more than a membership in a denomination. I am enjoying the journey and am healing from the heartaches. This is my life. I have drawn no conclusions. Sometimes it's good to live in the tension.

Note:  Thanks to S. Bradford Long for kindly allowing me to link to his article. Check out his blog! It's well worth reading!