Readings: Joshua 5:13-14; 1 Chronicles 22:7-9; Isaiah 2:1-4; Habakkuk 1:1-11; Matthew 5:9; Matthew 26:52.
In the spirit of these Scriptures, I want to reflect on the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
I admit, I dislike the poem “In Flanders Fields.” I don’t know if I am allowed to as a Canadian – it is after all our war poem – but I do. It is not that I think it is a bad poem. Its rhythm and rhyme is beautiful. It is easy to listen to. But aesthetics of form must bow the knee to higher values of judgment. In this case, the memory not of transient empires – Roman, British, American, or otherwise – but of the Christian people.
We remember our cultural memory with our scriptural memory.
The poem’s beauty is actually apart of the problem. It communicates with a certain saccharine flavor something that should taste bitter. Its form leaves us docile to its content. We prefer it to the bitter realism of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est (which in my opinion is the war poem we should be reciting).
Have you ever bothered to think about this poem, In Flanders Field? For 27 years, I have heard, recited, and memorized this poem. It is only recently I thought about it.
I think I recited it through the lens of being a Canadian committed to our military being used in peacekeeping operations, which I think everyone else I know does too. But the question is what did the poem mean at the time it was written?
Most reflect on Remembrance Day nostalgic of World War II, the war that dethroned the madman, genocidal, tyrant Hitler. Canada’s involvement in this conflict was at least reasonable. However this poem was written during World War I. The two conflicts were very different.
John McCrae, its author, was a committed military man. His father was a soldier, so he was raised with a certain religious belief that it was a matter of duty to fight for the empire. He had volunteered in the British army in Africa in the Second Boer War. The Boer War was a war fought between the African Dutch settlers and the British for nothing but pride and profit. The British annexed the region from the Dutch Empire, leaving the settlers there armed for rebellion. So they sent in the military.
This war was fought for king and country, for honor and glory, or at least that is what every soldier is told, but the truth was the Second Boer War was about making sure the African gold mines kept their treasure going out of Africa and into British banks. The British Empire was convinced as the US empire is now that what it was doing was God ordained. As a Baptist, I have a big problem with that logic. Only the spiritual unity of God’s global church can claim to be God’s nation. This is a spiritual nation. Moreover, they forgot that God says even to his own people when it come to war, “I am on no one’s side.” Their empire became a religious system ensuring their way of life, their values, more importantly, their wealth and power. As Habakkuk said, “Their might is their god.”
In many ways, I welcome the secularization of Canada, if only because in doing so Christianity will not longer be reduced to some civil religion where our God is invoked as the guarantor of the status quo of this world, masked under the vocabulary of “peace and order.”
McCrae then served in World War I. This war, despite its global scale, was no less petty. Fueled by centuries of nationalism, racism, and childish competition over superiority, Europe was divided into two sets of political alliances. When the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serbian black ops group, called the “Black Hand,” the world was reduced to but Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The death of one man from a distant part of the world, spiraled into a global war that would claim the lives of somewhere between 15 and 65 million (only 9 million of these were combatants, the rest civilians): 65 million dead from one. What else can speak so efficiently to the depravity of the humanity’s collective heart? These are figures that would make Lamech blush.
It was during this conflict – this colossal failure of diplomacy and peacekeeping – that McCrae wrote his poem, “In Flanders Fields.” It was not written after the war, when people finally counted the death toll and resolved to stop doing war this way, but during it. He wrote it after the second battle in Ypre, near Flanders.
He wrote about the battle calling it a nightmare: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. […] And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
But that part did not make it into the poem. That spoke too harshly of war’s realities. When McCrae’s good friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed, McCrae performed a burial service for him, during which he noticed the poppies growing up around the graves. Later the next day he composed the poem in the back of an ambulance.
Notice what he did and did not write about.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
It seems that in this stanza McCrae communicates that the world is quite tranquil, ignorant of the carnage humans are inflicting on each other, and humans fight ignorant had the beauty of nature around them.
Nevertheless, the poem continues…
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
The dead are described as not quite living. They “lived,” past tense, not are still living. They “loved and were loved,” past tense. Now they lie in Flanders fields. They are not in an afterlife, it sounds, just in some sort of restless nothingness. Their identities are nothing more than their crosses, their graves, the memorials of their war efforts.
Plato once said that only the dead see the end of war, but McCrae does not even give them that. The dead here in thus poem have not moved beyond war’s reality. They are trapped in it. They are not in the peace of Abraham’s bosom. They are in war’s midst still. And this is what their graves are saying.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
I, and most of you probably also, always thought this poem referred to fight evil, but remember this was written about WWI, not WWII. No side in WWI was really the “evil side.” I always thought the foe referred to Hitler or some other truly evil political force. However, the British Empire was responsible for just as much tyranny as another empire, especially in India and Africa. How much of the conveniences we take for granted today – our clothing made in sweatshops, jewelry made of blood diamonds, the gas we drive our cars with taken from middle eastern lands – how much of this is the result of us failing to recognize that we have been the foe of those less fortunate in the developing world?
But the dead, the memory of the dead, beckon for new soldiers just to take up the “quarrel.” McCrae had the decency to call it that. But with whom? A nameless enemy: “The foe.” In war, our identity becomes reduced to the quintessential false dichotomy of war: “us” versus “them.” It is the lie that we are not all humans sharing the same planet, all beloved children of God. It is the lie that we are nothing like them: all our soldiers are valiant and chivalrous, while the enemy is evil incarnate. We deify our dead and demonized theirs. War asks, “Whose side are you on? You are either with us or against us.” God said to Joshua, “I am on no one’s side.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The prophets, questioning man’s infatuation with might, insisted not only on the immorality but also on the futility of war… [For the prophets] the most astonishing thing in the world is the perennial disregard for the impotence of force. What is the ultimate profit of all the arms, alliances, and victories? Destruction, agony, and death.”
It is this lens of violence that causes the “us versus them,” where Scripture pleads with us to see our common humanity in Christ. However, we don’t see it as a lens of violence and hate. We choose to believe its myths. We see it as honoring the dead, fighting for “freedom.” The dead – the pain of loss that happens in war – cry out to us, or so we wish they would. Their death must mean something. It cannot mean nothing. Therefore the war must be good and meaningful and productive. But that is rarely the case. WWI, for instance, was created purely by the arrogance of empires and European nationalism. To remember this war and most wars, “lest we forget,” lest we forget as Christians, is to remember war’s meaninglessness. It is too often senseless industrialized killing in the name of political pride.
While good Christian men and women served in this war, the fact that they did and that this war flatly contradicts principles of just war that Christians have held to for over a millennia and a half (since the formation of this tradition post-Constantine), means those well-intended individuals frankly served not realizing their faith had something to say to their consciences.
But that is not what McCrae’s poem talks about. The poem does not cry out longing for peace. It is not like the poetry of Isaiah that longs for the abolition of warfare. It beckons new soldiers to take of the quarrel with the nameless foe. It heaps guilt on them if they don’t: the dead will no rest until the foe is beaten. It implicitly says, “Will you dishonor the dead by refusing to take up arms?” It has a subtle tingle of vengeance to it.
It is with little wonder why the modern conscientious objector, the Baptist and Anabaptist pacifists, and the witnesses of the early church were all branded as traitors, ungrateful cowards, and enemies of the state all for refusing to take up arms and buy into their empires’ mythologies, the cults and cycles of violence.
That is what war often is: a cycle of violence. Notice that we are not told what the objective is of this quarrel in the poem, only that there is one and it needs to be perpetuated. And so it seeks to pass on the torch of war rather than preserve the innocence of the next generation. It is decidedly the very opposite of what David attempted to do for Solomon in order to build the temple of God. He stopped the cycle of violence.
Veteran war reporter for the New York Times Chris Hedges writes (and I admit a few of the stories and quotations are from his amazing little book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning) about this fundamental deception war creates, “The potency of the myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters.”
As this poem says, it encourages the next generation to hold it high, hold the “torch,” a symbol of the ideals that fuel war, high. Valorize it. I think this would have been more appropriate during WWII, but not, as a Christian, for WWI, and frankly not for the current wars in the middle east.
Now this is why I say this: What the lies of war do not tell its soldiers is what it does to the human mind. Its mythology of valor blinds the truth of its destruction. War creates its own culture that dehumanizes those who see it. Chris Hedges, a person who has seen more war than most soldiers, described the effects war had on himself and the soldiers. The effects were as dehumanizing as narcotics. Soldiers living constantly under the anxiety of possible death, shocked by war’s brutality, emotionally shut down. They fixate on the rush of violence similar to how an addict fixates on the next fix, in a self-destructive spiral. Some soldiers become addicted to their own mortality. Those who live by the sword end up dying by it.
This constant anxiety of death coupled with the training the average soldier undergoes to be desensitized to war causes a person devoid of the capacity of authentic human relationship. This does not happen in every case. There are lots of well-adjusted soldiers, but we should not deceive ourselves to say this is the norm.
I should point out that Canadian soldiers, according to a friend of mine that serves in the army, undergo constant counseling to minimize this effect. American soldiers receive none. And you will notice that the following figures are American ones.
Since soldiers are trained to be desensitized to violence, but often are plugging into very rigid structure of masculinity, which equates true masculinity with rank, power and the ability to carry out war without remorse. This has created a dangerous problem with entrance of women into the fighting forces as rape as become endemic. Over the last five years, a female soldier in the US Army is twenty times more likely to be raped by her own colleges than she is killed by an insurgent.
And like I said, because war always seeks to prop up our successes, our faults are often suppressed. The US department of defense estimates 20 thousand cases of sexual assault per year, but since accusations against fellow soldiers is dissuaded for the purpose of preserving the war effort, only about one thousand of these get formally reported. Of these, less than a tenth come to trial. The reason I bring this up is that too often the valor of war clouds attempt to see to it that it is just.
But the real damage to soldiers shows itself as the soldiers return home. Many come home with broken bodies – amputees – these ones will never be able to work again. Most soldiers come home with profound PTSD or shell shock. Returning after once they have been so heavily addicted to this rush of war, the sense of courage, purpose, and valor it gives, normal life becomes banal and meaningless. Left unchecked, it causes self-destructive behavior that often means the veteran can no longer function as a husband or as a father or as an employee. The wounds of war leave many of these individuals constantly reliving the anxiety of death to the point that they cannot be around people, let alone loved ones. Wars are factories of the fatherless, even if they do not claim the life of the soldier
While I often see the bumper sticker in the US, “support the troops” the truths of the conditions of war veterans is far from, especially in the US, 15% of all homeless in the US are mentally ill war vets. 1.4 million vets are living below the poverty line because of the emotional and physical toll of war and the inadequacy of war vet financial and medical support. The medical establishment just isn’t keeping up. The money is being spent sending more troops, not caring for the ones who have come back.
I had this illustrated to me when I coordinated a soup kitchen down in Toronto. I met several veterans who were living in low-income housing. I found out they were American vets, and I asked, “Why are you not in the US then?” The person I spoke to, a vet that developed schizophrenia – his family had left him, or he them, due to his mental illness that made him prone to snapping – remarked that the homeless in Canada are better supported than the war heroes of America. I felt sick to my stomach knowing that a good man who risked his life for his country – but more than that: his mind, his family, his dignity – was now living like this.
By the way, the 2012 military budget of the US is now 1.4 trillion dollars, only a pittance of that is spent on its vets.
So do not get me wrong here. I am not against soldiers who seek to make the world a better place. While it cannot be argued otherwise that the early Christians were pacifists based on the teachings of Jesus, there are some conflicts that we must enter in defense of innocent lives. World War II is a good example. All who hated war prayed for military intervention to stop the genocides in the Balkans. Rwanda desperately needed the western powers to intervene. But there was no money to be made there, so they didn’t. However, I will spare you a very long political rant and saying that no Christian can regard the current war policies of the United States to be in line with Christian teachings of just war. I am thankful that Canada has cultivated a more principled military tradition, but I am so wary of the seductions of war; as I tell people, the best way to think about a just war is by having your default settings to pacifism.
So, again, I am especially not against veterans who have to live with the toxic effects war has poisoned them with. But this respect for these men has lead me to one deep conviction: If we truly care about our soldiers, if we refuse to see them as soldiers, but rather as our children, friends, parents, human beings, if we refuse to see them as sacrifices that guarantee our way of life (as if our way of life is worth innocent lives!), if we truly support the troops, if we truly want to remember them – lest we forget – we will do everything possible to stop them from going to war. We will do everything possible to prevent war, to remember its dehumanizing cruelty, to engage in just politics and peacemaking, and denounce the seduction of nationalistic pride and the urgency of violence.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” says Milan Kundera.
As Christians we chose to remember something else other than that torch that the dead in John McCrae’s poem. Or at least, we might say we take up the “torch” in a different way McCrae probably intended it as Canadians and as Christians:
We remember God’s no to war and yes to peacemaking.
We remember that the weakness of the cross is stronger than the might of any army.
We remember the warnings of our prophets, that our might can become our idol, and we remember their vision of hope: a world without war, where weapons our recycled into farming equipment and we “unlearn” the ways of war.
We remember that our enemies are also God’s children, same as us.
We remember the God that died for his enemies.
Lest we forget.
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” Luke 23:46
Jesus at the cross began by praying; here he also ends by praying.
These are often words spoken on people’s deathbeds and at funerals. They are profoundly comforting words. They comfort because they remind us of the sobering but reassuring truth. One day, whether unexpectedly or at the end of a long life, we will die. Our physical lives will end. All that we are, had, and hold on to will cease.
This is sobering because we realize the truth that we cannot save ourselves. We cannot preserve ourselves. We cannot control the very foundation of our lives. Millionaires have died in car accidents and cancer just like the rest of us.
We cannot take this world with us. Celebrities pass away and their fame eventually with them. You can be buried with your money, if that is your will, but that is not you anymore in that casket anymore than that money is useful. What we are and have, ultimately and finally, is not up to us. It is up to whatever or more importantly whoever lies thereafter.
This is why it is reassuring, even liberating. It reminds us that at the end of the day, whoever we are, it is all in God’s hands.
Here, God in Jesus Christ is modeling for us the very essence of faithfulness: trusting God in the last moment of life, at uncertain threshold of eternity.
One way or another our lives are in God’s hands, the question is what will God do with us?
As Jesus said these words, we was dying on a Roman execution cross for the crime of blasphemy, while sinless, he made himself a sacrifice for sin. He gave himself up for us. I would emphasize that he did so, completely. We do not have to fear death because Jesus faced that fear for us.
He had the promise that God is in him and the Father will resurrect him, however Jesus was fully divine and fully human: prone to doubt, prone to uncertainty, prone to anxiety and fear. You can imagine the question is his human, all too human, head: Will my Father be faithful? Will he come through? We have already meditating on his cry feeling forsaken.
So, the comfort of these words must also be kept side by side with the pain of the cross, the willingness of the cross. It is a willingness that seems to admit that Jesus was willing to not only die trusting the Father but also embrace the possibility of the ice-cold silence and darkness of death and hell.
Understanding this fear perhaps explains why he pleaded that this cup may pass, sweating out drops of blood. “But not my will but yours be done,” he prayed. And so again, into your hands, I commend my spirit, as into your hands, all our spirits. It is always in God’s hands, not ours.
Just as he says this, Jesus breathes his last. Jesus dies. The Son of God died. God was found in death. God bound himself to the fate of death. God of infinite joy and life came into the finite space of wretched mortality.
When we think we are sinful and unclean, when we suspect that in our final breath we will disappear in judgment before an exacting God of judgment, we must remember that God died our death penalty. God entered our mortality. God became a rotten corpse, the very object of the consequences of sin, the very object of uncleanliness according to the law. The incarnation was complete, completed in the act of perfect atonement.
No piece of artwork shows this better than Holbein’s the Body of Dead Christ in the Tomb from 1520. Holbein depicts the remnants of the crucifixion on Jesus’ boy: the mangled, pieced, blacked hands, the stretched tortured body, the limp and lifeless face.
At the cross that mission was accomplished. Sin, death, corruption was defeated, but it was through Christ’ willingness to die.
Luke’s gospel reads, “Having said that, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowds who had gathered there or this spectacle had saw what had happened, the returned home and lamented.”
Matthew records that at that very moment, the curtain of the temple, the divide between God and man, was torn asunder.
If God is in Jesus Christ, he will not leave Christ to rot in the grave. And the Father didn’t. He rose to new life on the third day. God is love and hope and healing. As we are in Christ, we have the hope that, as everything is in God’s hands, one way or another, we can rest assured they are in good hands, the hands that are mighty to save us.
Father, we pray recognizing the cost of the cross. We pray trying to understand its pain and shame. We will never understand its full weight, but give us enough understanding to receive it into our hearts. We pray that we would not just hear about the work Christ did, but receive it. We pray would not just look upon the cross, but take it up ourselves. That is taking up the life the cross demands of us, the love it embodies, the truth is sacrificed for. Do not let us leave this place without our heart changed with a new commitment to living out the way of our Lord Christ. Thank-you for your justice, mercy, and love. Thank-you that your cross comes with the promise of the resurrection. Amen.
“Woman, behold your son” … “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26)
While it is easy to see this passage of Christ looking to his mother, Mary, and instructing her to embrace John, the beloved disciple, and John vice versa, as a simply provision undertaken by our Lord to ensure his mother is cared for, these passages offers us glimpses of something deeper. Let’s look at both John and Mary here.
Why is Mary told to refer to John as a “son” and John to refer to Mary as his “mother”? The provisions of care do not necessitate this, yet Jesus insisted. He could have just said, “John, take care of her.”
Some have seen this as Jesus recommending a relationship between Mary and the disciples.In Christ, there is a new family, a global family, of the redeemed that all began at the cross. Mark 3:35 says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here we see the constitution of that family, gathered around the crucified Jesus, listening to his instructions, and so, compelled to treat one another as family.
But it surely meant more than that for John. Mary and John are among the few that actually stayed close to Jesus. They did not flee like the rest of the disciples. John was allowed near the crucifixion site, perhaps because he was so young. We know this because only boys too young to serve in the military could come near the execution site for fear of uprising to save the crucified.
This helps us understand why John sometimes refers to himself as the “beloved disciple,” who “reclined at Jesus’ side.” Peter would have been much older, the eldest of the disciples, possibly. It is also possible that John was the youngest. He was only a boy, small enough to need hugs from Jesus. He may have seen Jesus has a father figure.
Jesus taught us to call God, “Abba” (Daddy). John may well have called Jesus, “Abba.”
John is standing there, watching his father figure die. So, this was more than provision of care to Mary, it was recognition of mutual support. They would need each other. You can understand Jesus’ words now as commissioning the young John. “It is time to be a man, now John, take care of Mary, treat her like your mother.”
As we see John’s writings through the New Testament, particularly in his epistles, John took up this commission well. He was an apostles of family and love through and through. He constantly refers to his congregation as his “little children,” not unlike what he was when he learned his essential instructions from his master.
We know from church tradition that John’s dying words to his church was, “Little children, love one another!” Love shun through John’s writings at all points, especially in passages like 1 John 4:7-12:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
His church was his family, and love was his ministry because Jesus was his hero.
Can we look to Jesus like John did?
Now, Mary: Protestants have often forgotten the importance of Mary. We have done this out of understandable reasons: it is out of discomfort with how high Mary is elevated in Catholicism. But as Catholicism raise Mary too high; Protestants are guilty of not raising her high enough.
In church history, veneration of Mary began because of how Mary pointed to a proper understand of Jesus. Jesus died in the flesh (contra some who denied his humanity) because Jesus was born to a human mother: Mary was the guardian of Jesus’ humanity, the theotokos, “God-bearer” in Greek.
But, sadly, Mary was elevated to a kind of co-operator with Christ in some Catholic theology, which Protestants simply feel makes her into an idol. But we should ask is how do we properly adorn Jesus’ mother so that she once again safeguards her son’s high place? We might phrase this better by asking, how does respecting Mary as a mother – us looking to her motherly qualities – how does that bring us deeper into appreciation of Jesus? Or, how does understanding Mary as mother deepen our understanding of Jesus as our brother?
The picture displayed above renders this clearly: eyes too sorrowful to see clearly, but too concerned to look away; hands, clenched praying perhaps both that her son would be faithful to the onerous task she bore him for, but because she bore him, praying pleading with God to relent of the suffering her son is feeling.
To look to Mary as our mother is to look at Jesus’ hanging on the cross, not as an abstract idea, a stale doctrine, a historic account, or an expression of our own sentiments, it is an attempt to see the cross for what it is, and not bypassing it too quickly.
Seeing the cross as our salvation can too readily jump from its tragedy to the benefit we get out of it. We can easily see Christ as suffering on our behalf and we can say, “thanks,” and continue on our merry way. We can selfishly forget the cost of the cross. We can easily look at the cross for what we get out of it, not what God put into it.
When we look to Mary as the mother of Christ, we also look at the cross through the eyes of a mother. Someone’s son died on that cross. Someone’s little boy, her pride and joy, everything she lived for, is being murdered mercilessly, dying that miserable death.
And do you not think that it may have occurred to her that while she knew Jesus was dying for her sins, she would have gladly died in her sons place just to save him from the pain? Don’t you think even that she would have gladly refused her own salvation if it meant saving her little boy’s life?
It is only when we look at the cross through Mary’s eyes do we appreciate the cost of the cross for us. It is the cost of a life more precious than our own.
It is only when we lament the cross through Mary’s tears are we ready to say thank-you to a God that gave so much we will never understand.
It is only through the love of Mary for her Son that we ready to love the world as Jesus loved it.
May we love as John loved. May we look to you as our daddy, our father figure. So close to us that we can “recline at your side.” Help us to remember that we are beloved disciples, not just disciples. Draw us closer into the family of God. May we treat your sons and daughters as brothers and sisters. Give us opportunities to be big brothers and sisters to others.
May we mourn for you as Mary mourned. And in our mourning, let us remember the provision that Jesus gave at that very moment, the only true provision against the tragedy of this age: You gave us the church, the family of God. Help us to take care of one another. Help us to love one another.
“Truly, I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)
Our world is a world that has closed itself off from the transcendent. We have bought into the discourses of science that tells us the immediately tangible is all there is, everything else is suspected as superstition.
Do not get me wrong, science has earned its place in the world, and many need to listen to its voice more. Science has offered enormous explanatory power for our worldview. In the great feuds between scriptural literalism and science, science will usually win. We have found the sun does not revolve around the earth, that the earth is much older than chronicled, that rain comes from weather systems, illness from poor hygiene, etc.
The world has pushed God out of its purview. God has been viewed as too burdensome a notion to trust.
The events of the primordial church fade into the distance of history. History, itself, seems to crocked a path to see providence. Divine intervention seems like misconstrued co-incidence. Many of the great political advances have been done despite religious influences.
We immerse ourselves in the comforting hum of media noise. Talk of God becomes as rare as genuine conversation itself. Hearing from God becomes as rare as genuine listening itself. An atheism falls over us because we feel the blunt force of divine absence.
Our daily lives, even for many Christians, are often practically atheist. Church becomes an cumbersome ritual. Work is more important than worship. Singing praise to God does not feed a family. Prayer and Scripture reading get sidelined to more relaxing practices: Television, sports, etc. So, we say to ourselves, why bother believe?
However, we deceive ourselves into thinking the modern world was the first to discover doubt, as if doubt was an invention by the same brilliance that discovered flight, electricity, or the theory of relativity. Yet, doubt is not a modern novelty.
The cross was a scary time for Jesus and his followers. The cosmos, let alone their little band of disciples, hung in the balance. The circumstances had become so chancy that most of the disciples deserted Jesus: belief in this man as the messiah was simply too insecure at that moment. Peter initially drew his weapon to defend his lord, but upon realization that violence was not going to resolve the conflict between Christ and the priests, upon seeing his master taken rather than fighting back, unleashing the kingdom of power that he was expecting him to unleash, Peter himself turned to deny Christ, three times in fact. Other disciples deserted him far sooner, unfortunately.
Thus, there Christ hung, condemned, and by all accounts at that very moment, defeated and disproved. Jesus as messiah was no longer a tenable conviction anymore. He did not seem to be bringing in a new kingdom, as prophesied. He did not defeat the Roman occupation, as prophesied. Far from! There he was pathetic, disheveled, beaten into irrevocable submission to the powers he should have pulverized with legions of the faithful, perhaps having even angel armies come to assist. Thus, Pilate, either out of mockery to the Jewish people or out of some deep seated pious guilt over killing a truly innocent man, wrote “King of the Jews” and hung it over Jesus’ head.
If one was to look for a reason to believe in Christ at that moment, one would have looked in vain. The man on the cross was exposed many times over as just a man, flesh and blood, ashes and dust, rejected by his people, betrayed by his closest followers and friends, accused of blasphemy by his own religion’s authorities, tortured and in the midst of his execution by his people’s most hated enemies, the most idolatrous power in existence, hanging there, slowly bleeding out, slowly succumbing to his wounds, to thirst, and to death.
Atheism’s objections pale in comparison to the scandal of Good Friday.
As onlookers mocked and jeered, even a man, a wretched thief, dying the same death as Christ next to him, felt no solidarity with the co-condemned, no compassion for his neighbor in this death, only cynicism and despair. Even the thief on Jesus’ one side mocked him.
At this moment, there seems to be no good reason to trust Jesus. Jesus hung there, discredited.
Would you have believed that Jesus was the messiah then? I know I probably would not have. Sadly, that is because I am a “reasonable” person.
More sadly, is that the only reasonable people in this story are monsters: Judas, who calculates how to profit from Jesus’ arrest; the Pharisees, who have the foresight to plan against possible agitators; the Romans, who brilliantly invented means of rebellion suppression.
And yet, in this moment of darkness and doubt, despair and destruction, one person believed! One person dared to see something more. One person had faith. The other thief, what tradition refers to as the “penitent thief,” dying at Jesus’ side. He believed. He had nothing left to hold back. He could have mocked like the other thief, but he didn’t.
We know next to nothing about this person. The Gospels left him unnamed. Having no hope left in this world, he still says to the other thief, “Do you not fear God? You are under the same punishment.” He admits that his punishment is just, yet Christ’s is not. Christ is innocent and he is not.
At the very end of his life, he is moved with humility and honesty.
But his confession is more radical than that. If one was worried about self-preservation, they would have petitioned far more prestigious powers than a dying messiah.
When no one else believed in Jesus, this man did. And so he simply requests that Jesus would remember him when he comes into his kingdom. He, in the darkness moment of his life, in the darkness moment in history, chose to trust the kingdom is still coming.
This man had perhaps the greatest faith in all history, and yet we do not know his name! But God does. God is not dead because God did not stay dead.
Jesus did promise to remember him. In fact, this man, in his final moments of life, was given the most definitive assurance anyone had before the resurrection: Jesus turned to the man and said, “Today, I truly tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”
Sadly, it is only when we realize that our lives stand on the edge of oblivion that we can feel assured that our lives are in the hands of something more absolute than what this world offers.
Help us to have even just a fraction of the faith this man had.
We complain about our lot in life, yet we are unwilling to admit our faults.
We so often mock and mistrust your salvation. When we do that, we must acknowledge that our punishment, like his is just.
But we must also cling to the hope of your kingdom of forgiveness.
Remember us Lord Jesus, as you remembered him.
May your kingdom come.
Here I will further demonstrate with an analytic argument that patriarchy in theory is incoherent and cannot prevent abuse.
Patriarchy, as I have previously argued, is the denial of the gift of the Spirit for all who are one in Christ (which I have argued elsewhere in regards to Galatians 3:28). Under this basis, patriarchy is the denial that a woman could have the gift of the Spirit in leadership (apostolic or general), teaching, prophesy, etc. whether in the church, society, or marriage.
Patriarchy is the position that holds to an inherent hierarchy within the male-female relationship where men have a position of authority or leadership by the merit of their gender, which usually is applied to a marriage (where the man has the power of decision in some way) and church leadership (where men only can be pastors), but also to other aspects of society in general (some argue against women holding any position of authority). However, for purposes of this paper, the marriage example will be used as the normative referent, since it is the male-female relationship at is most basic (where a congregation of pastor-congregants involve relationships not just of a man and women) and it is abuse in marriage that is most distressing.
I find this term is a pretty muddy term because some will argue that Christian marriage and church leadership is by the gift of the Spirit, therefore a man leads, either as husband or pastor/elder, by that gift where a secular marriage or institution does not have this grace. Christian patriarchy is in theory something that only good Christians can do. In other arguments, since gender is apart of the creational design, in principle all marriages and all institutions should naturally work best under this scheme. In this account Christian patriarchy is something that is natural and therefore should work for all. However, Galatians 3:28, forbids the idea that a man would get a gift the Spirit (i.e. leadership) that a woman could not. This leaves the basis of leadership and authority in the realm of the natural. This should grant us some level of demystification. If it is based on natural and rational order, it should be accountable to natural principles of reason.
Thus, I will now argue that Christian patriarchy is incoherent by the fact that it cannot offer an accurate description of its own criteria of success. I will also then argue that it is condemnable by the fact of its inability in principle to restrain oppression and abuse of women. That sounds strong. After all there are so many good husbands, fathers, marriages, pastors, churches, etc. that hold to this. That is fine. This is why we should qualified this and say its inability in principle not reality. In reality there are lots of good marriages that display patriarchy, however, we are analyzing the natural logic of that conviction. To this we will return to the second assertion that argues patriarchy examples of success do not offer the criteria necessary to understand that success. What I mean by that is that patriarchy in successful Christian marriage, is one where there is a practiced intimacy, equality, and mutual accountability, which actually implies the opposite of any hard version of patriarchy.
1. The Incoherence of Patriarchy
Christian patriarchy cannot sustain the assertion that it is good that a man can have a role by the merit of him merely being a man over a woman. It has to argue this assertion by saying he has to be a good man and a capable leader, but cannot sustain that every man is good and capable. This slides the criterion of authority and leadership from a criterion of gender essentialism to pragmatism: a man does not have authority because he is a man, but because has the ability to do so and the character to do so well.
If this is the case, patriarchy has already failed on two fronts. The first is that if a man does not have good leadership and good character he should therefore be disqualified from leadership on principle. There is no basis by which a woman must listen to a man of incompetent judgment, unsound mind, or questionable character (as we will see, the insistence otherwise, therefore, creates the inability for patriarchy to prevent abuse).
The second is that if it is actually on the basis of skill and character (or the gift of the Spirit) that leadership is based, then if a woman manifests these qualities (as we have argued previously in regards to Gal. 3:28), there is no objection in principle that she could in fact lead and the man should in fact submit.
A patriarchalist is then left with three very uncomfortable options: (1) Resort back to arguing that leadership is in fact based on gender without character and ability. This option is incapably of offering criteria that could prevent abuse. (2) Deny that any woman does have naturally the skill and character capable of leading. This option leads the patriarchialist into bigotry. Good female leaders, whether in the church, marriage, or society are ignored, or worse, explained as if they are abnormal women. This option is left explaining away any good preacher, politician, business owner, or administrator that is a woman. As I said, nothing short of calling this bigotry will do because the vast amount of life data one has to explain away virtually makes this position on par with insisting that the earth is flat. So, we come to the final option: (3) Admit that a patriarchalist holds a double standard, either principled inequality or even intentional repression. Inequality is seen in either allowing a man to do something that a woman could do, and overt repression is seen in any act of actively preventing a woman to do something a man is privileged with. If it is the third option, they are left with having to deal with Galatians 3:28 again: the Spirit does not discriminate in regards to the gift of the Spirit on the basis of gender, ethnicity, or wealth. Therefore, theological patriarchialism is left without foundation. Fideism offers no shield to the accusation of the double standard. If a woman is in fact capable of leading there is no position of these three that does not result in a type of authoritarianism (the wrong use of power) or ignorance (refusal to be informed).
Again those are strong words, and I shall qualify: the traditional marriages that we know and respect are ones where the man has the character and skill in leadership, which the woman is content to trust. In other words, while it is undeniable that our gender does affect our relationships and positions, the notion that masculinity as such is the prime criterion of leadership has been exposed as inaccurate. A male leader will inevitably lead in some kind of “male” way, but that is nothing more than a tautology. A female leader will inevitably lead in a “female” way as well. We express ourselves with gender, but gender is not the deciding factor. If woman can in fact possess the qualities of leadership and skill in using authority, gender is incidental.
The opposite scenario (authority without character) offers the falsification criterion required to prove my original point: If we can agree that the logic of even patriarchy of good character is incoherent, (it always requires the ability and character to lead, which is not restricted to gender on the basis of experience or theology) it attests to the fact that patriarchy as such is potentially abusive. The potential outcome is why a logic of egalitarianism is the preferable and in fact necessary one for any successful display of Christian leadership.
Authority can be defined as the power to make decisions, give direction, or have control over something, and to control something is to exert force to direct or restrain. If a man, empowered by the ideology of patriarchy, is set up as an authority in a marriage or an institution, there is now the potential that power can be utilized without a moral or even rational criterion. As we already established, if male-authority is based on skill and character, then that is not patriarchy, it has pragmatic criteria. If authority is actually based on skill and character, than a woman can lead if she displays these skills and character. In fact, as we just demonstrated, with regards to the gift of the Spirit, there is no basis for discrimination.
However, if authority is wielded on the basis of male gender (thus, truly patriarchial) the decision need therefore not be a good decision; the direction need not be a good direction; and the exertion of power need not be a good exertion of power. The obliged response by the female is submission, trusting that any decision by virtue none other than it was a decision by a male is worthy of trust.
This makes things complicated. I have heard some patriarchal Christian valorize this kind of blind submission, and in fact, many resort to this defends in order to dismiss the existence of good female leaders (option 2 above). They would resort to a fideism of trusting in the order of male-authority/female-submission despite the perceived impracticality of it and examples to the contrary. Again, this option fails by its lack of theological basis (if the Word of God in Galatians has anything to say about it) and is therefore a retreat not into the mystery of faith but into the perpetuation of the irrational.
However, most Christian patriarchialists will oppose this fideist notion and qualify that women have to a degree of liberty to inquire and even challenge an unfit decision by a male authority. This, ironically, falls back into the logic of egalitarianism. The criteria to evaluate the validity of a decision, the right to challenge the validity of a bad decision, and the power to refuse to submit to a decision by an authority once it has been made, all imply that authority and leadership is not validated by positional authority alone, but rather by the degree of skill and character an authority or leader has. Again, the criterion is pragmatic not gender based, and therefore any gender that displays these qualities may lead. Any relationship that permits the freedom to question a decision, the freedom to apply a set of criteria to evaluate a decision rationally (and not accept it on merit of positional authority), and the freedom to even refuse a decision if it is incorrect rather than be compelled to submit to it, implies that the relation operates within the parameters of equality: mutual accountability, mutual submission, not hierarchy. If it claims differently, as many do, the description of the relationship is inaccurate and even disingenuous to the reality of the practiced relationship.
In fact, no successful Christian example can be offered in which a man can wield power and authority, well or not, without the woman also allowing him to, implying she exerts her own power and authority over him, if only to relinquish it and empower him. Authority is reflexive. In a marriage, his exertion of power actually is dependent on his legitimating power of his wife’s consent, approval, and ongoing accountability. This is not patriarchy, however. This is egalitarianism that expresses itself in mutually agreed upon traditional roles. The site of authority is equally in each person together, but the execution and operation of power is entrusted to one on behalf of both. However, as I insist, there can be no defeater offered for what a couple cannot agree for the opposite.
2. Complementarianism and the Possibility of Abuse
Some will note that I have only used the term “patriarchy” which some might found offense to their position because it sounds harsh. They would prefer the term “complementarian.” My intent in using patriarchy is because it is more basis to what I take issue at: gender hierarchy, not the notion of similarities within a gender and differences between genders. Some will insist that they are “complementarians” not patriarchialists offering something similar to the description given in the last paragraph, but less objectionable.
Complimentarianism in this case might be essentially the dual thesis that men, by the merit of their gender, are called and best suited to lead or have authority, and women, by the merit of their gender, are called and best suited to submit. This position insists on the need for men to exercise power and authority well (whether as a husband or a pastor, etc.) and a woman (whether a wife or congregant) to submit well. Both together are understood as forming the basis of a successful male-female relationship.
This is more nuanced than patriarchy, but essentially it is just as incoherent. While it offers a more holistic account of how power is applied (i.e. rarely one-sidedly), the notion that a man must lead well and a woman must submit well does not prevent the slippage from a positional criterion of power to a pragmatic one that we just talked about. A man can lead (and a woman submit) only if he actually has the skill and character to do so, and therefore, if the woman possesses these qualities, there is no reason why a man then in turn should learn to submit to her or pray and ask God for help in doing so.
However, I will argue that complementarianism is just as bad and in some cases actually worse. While complementarianism recognizes the dual notion of the relationship, patriarchy is overt in placing the emphasis on male power and control. In patriarchy then the onus is, typically, on the power yielded by the man. Complementarianism is in many ways identical to patriarchy, but when unsuccessful, creates the possibility of female scapegoats. The marriage failed, so one could complain, due to lack of complementarity, not the deficient use of male-power. In other words, the person that refused to fulfill their role is to blame. While it could be the man in refusing to take responsibility, the possibility is offered that it is in fact the woman’s fault for refusing to submit since that is her role. This could create the situation where that a man in merely asserting power on the basis of his gender is deemed virtuous, even though in other regards he is not a supportive husband, but a woman who defies his orders is deemed immoral for failing to uphold her role. This creates a potentially terrible situation: Her displeasure and defiance to the authoritarian nature of her husband’s authority therefore become her fault, purely because she expresses her displeasure and defiance of it.
What is worse is that if authority implies the application of power, if position is legitimated by gender without character, and if decisions can be implemented apart from the ongoing consent and accountability of an egalitarian logic, the result is something that is indistinguishable from abuse. What happens when a wife refuses to submit to her husband? There are two outcomes. The first collapses positional authority into mutual-accountability: the man explains himself and offers compelling reasons for the decision. This implies the logic of egalitarianism as the execution of leadership is based on the pragmatics of ability and character with accountability and equality.
So, the worse outcome is where patriarchy becomes dangerous, which will serve as my closing cautionary example. If the woman refuses to submit, she is in defiance of the order of the relationship, legitimated purely on the basis of gender. In fact, I would point out that if the relationship does not qualify the criteria of accountability for decision to be challenged, all disagreement could potentially be understood as defiance. Rather than accept negotiation or accountability, the failure to maintain this order could be seen as requiring the application of simply more force.
Here is where the possibility of abuse in patriarchy cannot be prevented in theory and is, in fact, bolstered by bad theological analogies. Obviously this does not mean self-espoused complementarians are all abusive, but I have already accounted for why that is not the case, and it is because the relationship is in fact disingenuous about its own pragmatics. However, I will maintain the potentiality in principle.
If a man can wield power and authority purely on he basis of gender and a woman called to submit, if the power is truly positional then power can be wielded without the legitimation of another, without a woman’s approval or accountability. This implies then that he is at liberty to exercise power against her will.
There is dangerous analogous logic that can reinforce the abusive nature of this power. Power relationships often imply the use of force. After all, bosses can fire bad employees. Police can imprison deviant citizens. A teacher can expel a student. A parent can, in traditional understanding, spank a child.
While it is not our project to exegete 1 Corinthians 11, a misapplication of its logic would be thus: God is head of Christ; Christ is head of man; and man is head of the woman. Apply the logic to divine headship over humanity, as some do, to marriage, and it starts to get scary: a very coherent set of logic in its own right is thus offered for the use of force by a man over a woman for the purpose of carrying out the decision. If God is head over humanity and can exercise power regardless of the consent of people and if the male is the head of the female as God is the head over humanity, then the man can analogously wield power regardless of the opposition of the woman. He may think he can do so even to punish her for her own good as God does to humans. The fact that God is morally perfect and people are not can get ignored. The man, if he thinks he is in the right, is now able to exercise the force of punishment against the woman’s will. It us under these schemes that we see examples of “domestic discipline” and abuse perpetrated by Christian fundamentalists. Patriarchy, if it gravitates to this level of theological analogy, can delude itself into laying claim to God’s infallibility and wrath for its own.
This may all sound very extreme and quite offensive to a complementarian or gentle Christian patriarchialist. Thankfully, most who hold this position out of Christian conviction object strongly to the use of force. However, this is the challenge of convictional consistency: What restrains the use of force as a virtue that comes from patriarchial values or an unadmitted egalitarian one? If complementarianism promotes power over women, how is force that much different? As I said, many complementarians are in actuality egalitarians first, who together mutually consent to traditional roles. However, if the logic that God is an authority with the capacity to use force is analogous to the male power in the patriarchy, the refusal to use disciplinary force is actually disconnected within the linear implications of the logic. This is why patriarchy, as such, cannot prevent its own abuse.
It is for this reason that Bible believing, Spirit-loving, reason-using, and justice-promoting Christians should seek to reform any form of patriarchy. This does not mean demeaning well-intentioned marriages and churches, but it does mean taking seriously the task of clarifying Christian convictions (as we have done here) and promoting the most coherent theology of authority and gender. The most probable exegesis and the most coherent account of relationships is one that works within the bounds of egalitarianism. Patriarchy, as I have shown, in its purest theoretical form, cannot offer a compelling logic to prevent abuse.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:26-29
The other day I was told by a complementarian (a person who upholds that there is a hierarchy between men and women as taught by Scripture) that if I believed that women could be ordained, I no longer believed in the authority of Christ over the church. I supposed by this person’s logic and theology of a chain of authority, if he was correct, this is true. However, I don’t think complementarianism is the best exegetical account of the whole of the Scriptures, and so, here is my gentle push back on what is at stake if complementarians refuse a woman in her ministry gifting. It is my intent, as my deliberately provocative title suggests, to demonstrate that Galatians 3:28, within the context of the argument of Galatians and implicit within the same logic of justification by faith, cannot support patriarchy in the church, especially if leadership is by the gift of the Spirit. As a religious axiom about the gift of the Spirit, it promotes the equalized distribution of all spiritual authority without prejudice. If authority in Christian marriage and church is based on the Spirit, this Scripture supports an egalitarian understanding of both.
Understanding Paul’s Concerns
In doing so, I want to chart a middle ground between what I see as the “civil rights activist Paul” and the “complementarian Paul” readings. Both try to fit a circle into a square hole. Notice also, that this is not “conservative version of Paul” versus the “liberal Paul.” There are biblical conservatives that espouse egalitarianism (such as myself), meanwhile, there are complementarians who are such probably for no other reason than their culture has caused them to read scripture thus.
In the context of Galatians, Paul is not concerned with a modern grammar of woman’s rights. It would be wrong headed to translate his world into ours, making him into a modern feminist. All benefit to society is enacted indirectly through the practices of the church, within its narrative self-understanding, not political advocacy directly through a universal set of principles. He is concerned with making sure all recognize what the Spirit has done. Paul is concerned about emancipation and gender equality, but his way of going about it is focused firstly on life in the Spirit in the church community. He is not a civil rights activist. He is not political. He has very little confidence in the justice of the Roman government. His concern is for equality in the life of the church as a witness to the world. So, Paul is primarily concerned about spiritual equality in the church (as opposed to political equality that bypasses the church), but that in turn has very real practical consequences. For him, there can be no ultimate dichotomy or between spiritual value and practical role and no discrimination of the gifts
In Galatians, Paul is concerned with Judaizers imposing the requirement of circumcision on Gentile Christians in order for them to be considered full members of God’s family (4:5), Abraham’s offspring/heirs (3:7) and recipients of the covenantal blessing/inheritance (3:19). This context, as it applies to gender, implies inequality as Paul is equalizing Jews and Gentiles.
Paul sees those advocating circumcision as acting out of discontinuity with the acts of the Spirit. The expectation does not match what they are seeing. In compelling circumcision and austere obedience to the law (the former being a metonym for the later), Paul worries that this is simply disingenuous to the event of Christ’s grace on all who believe and therefore detrimental to anyone that buys into it. It becomes “another gospel” (1:6) as it falls into a paradigm of meritorious obedience, which is an unsustainable perfectionism (3:11-12): the law cannot produce justification because those who seek justification by the law are obliged to keep all of it for that to work, which obviously no one can.
Also, imposing circumcision on Gentiles seems unloving (5:6), especially if it is unnecessary. You can imagine how the Gentile men would not appreciate having to cut a piece of their genitalia off in order to appease the unnecessary demands of a religious faction! It would be painful, humiliating, and potentially unsafe (although Paul does not explicitly mention these factors). The act of which implies ethnic superiority, and inequality as well as religious hypocrisy in Paul’s mind as it treats Gentiles by a double standard that even Peter did not follow. Gentiles were being treated as inherently impure, warranting the circumcision faction and Peter refusing to sit with the uncircumcised in table fellowship (2:12), and therefore they are expected to “act like Jews” (2:14) in order to be acceptable.
However, the work of Christ undoes the basis of superiority here. Paul argues that Christ, who died on a tree, took on the cursedness of those separated from God, existing outside the law and covenant, and in so doing redeemed those under the curse (3:13-14). Any blessed/curse, clean/impure distinction is therefore absorbed in Christ. Paul’s logic presupposes quite a bit in 3:14, but it implies that Jesus is the Son of God (2:20) as well as the offspring of Abraham par excellence (3:16) and by dying on the cross, the Gentiles now have the inheritance and blessing of Abraham as if they too are his offspring. The inheritance is the gift of the Spirit (3:14). This gift of the Spirit, making possible new relationship, occurs by trusting the work of Christ alone – justification by faith – not by meritorious obedience. Since the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, God’s Son, those who have the Spirit, are therefore also God’s children, able to cry out as Christ did, “Abba! Father!” (4:6). Paul’s argument then has an experiential base: he has witnessed uncircumcised Gentiles, who do not uphold the entire law, be granted the gift of the Spirit purely because they trusted Jesus, and so, he continues to encourage the Galatians to stick with this paradigm.
This overcoming of cursedness and uncleanliness implies a powerful social revolution in Paul’s thought through the work of Christ. We miss it because we expect him to argue on the basis of civil rights. Women were often restricted because of the uncleaniness associated with their gender. For example, Lev. 12:1-5 states that a woman who has given birth to a boy is ritually unclean for 7 days. If the baby is a girl, the mother is unclean for 14 days. Male babies, therefore the male gender, was considered more clean than then female babies. Women had to go into seclusion during their menstruation cycle, because they were unclean (Lev. 15). Thus, women were restricted in worship. Second Chronicles 36:23 states that women were not allowed in the sacred space of the temple as they has their own space, considered the least sacred.
Thus, given that women were treated as as less pure in the ancient world, the notion that Christ bore the curse of the law and that true impurity is wrong doing (Matt. 15:11) would have opened up unprecedented liberty in Jewish culture.
Some might press the notion that Galatians is only about spiritual equality, so let’s explore it further. Here we see that all are given the Spirit through faith in Christ, which has very practical consequences. Paul is advocating what we might call “pneumatic equality.” Paul does not mention what the nature of the gift of the Spirit does beyond causing adoption and spiritual fruit. Nevertheless, Gal. 3:28 insists that whatever the gift of the Spirit is, the gift is given indiscriminate of ethnicity, economic status, or gender. Whatever the gift of the Spirit entails, it is applied indiscriminately for “you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is the argument for equality that this passage implies. If one had something or another could not have something on these premises, the result is inequality.
To be clear, Paul only talks about the gift of the Spirit in general principle, but the principle is strictly egalitarian. Complementarians can only at best downplay the importance of the principle, silencing it with other scriptures that sound more complementarian. Thus, if the gift of the Spirit implies all the gifts listed elsewhere in Paul’s writings (cf. Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11, which include the gift of apostles, prophets/prophecy, teachers/teaching, leadership, administration, etc.), the criteria of their distribution should be, by this principle here, indiscriminate of gender as it would be of race and income inequality. It implies that if a Jew can speak in tongues so can a Gentile, if a free person can be a prophet, so can a slave, if a man can have apostolic gifting, so can a woman. Anything less amounts to the denial of the promised inheritance for some.
Thus, it should not surprise us that the Spirit has been so indiscriminate, even in the Old Testament. There we see Deborah, a prophet and judge over all Israel, despite the qualifications a judge in Exodus 18 stating “men who…” (which would form the paradigm of reading the elder descriptions that refer to “a man who…” in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 as generic, inclusive, or non-absolute). Also we see the formidable prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22: 14-20), who has the God-given authority to rebuke the king himself. We see Philip’s daughters, who are prophetesses (Acts. 21:8-9). There is also Priscilla, who seems to be an apostolic co-worker with Paul along with her husband (cf. Acts 18: 24-26; Rom. 16:3-4; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19); Chloe, whoever she is, seems to have authority in the church of Corinth such that her people report to Paul (1 Cor. 1:11); Phoebe, who seems to be a deacon of Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1) come to give the church in Rome direction; Nympha, who has a church meeting in her house, which strongly insinuates she lead that church (Col. 4:15); Junia, “prominent among the apostles,” which suggests that she is an apostle in the fullest sense of the word (Rom. 16:7); and finally, Euodia and Syntyche, who are listed as leaders along side Clement, which again, suggests apostolic authority (Phil. 4:2-3). If the implications of these passages are correct, this further corroborates the notion that the Spirit does not show favoritism if bestowing the gifts.
Does Justification By Faith Imply Egalitarianism?
Indeed, anything less than an egalitarian application of the gifts of the Spirit would imply legalism. Gentiles, by faith in Christ, are not obliged to follow rules that no longer function, that detract from the work of Christ (which circumcision did), that do not fulfill the law of love (5:6; 5:14) or do not manifest the fruit of the Spirit (5:22). Where there is the fruit of the Spirit, “there is no law against these” (5:23). Conforming to any laws, whether biblical or not, that do not meet these criteria is problematic. If the Gentile believer took on circumcision, such an act would be an act of inequality, reinforcing the superiority of the Jewish ethnicity before God that God has abolished in Christ. Jews and Gentiles have the same access and unity to Christ. Similarly, denying a slave or a woman the Spirit’s gift to preach or to teach, would be in some way saying that they have less of Christ in them than in a free male, implying almost that their submission and slavery was meritorious obedience. Is a complementarian comfortable saying that not all are truly “one” in Christ by faith? This is what the logic implies.
In fact, to take up circumcision as a meritorious action, functionally becoming a Jew in order to be an heir of the covenant, this action seems to imply slavery: “We are children, not of a slave but of a free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (4:31-5:1). Gentiles, who have the Spirit by faith, have everything the Jewish believers have. Gentiles are able to relate to God unburdened by their previous estrangement from God; they are given the same status, namely, children of God and they are given the same inheritance, namely, the Spirit.
Interestingly enough, that argument could be made, albeit provocatively, that since justification by faith and the gift of the Spirit is linked in Galatians and the gift of the Spirit is for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, if a person imposed laws of gender on a woman that denied her what the Spirit gave to her through her faith in Christ, that person can be understood to be implicitly denying justification by faith in the same way a Judaizer would be denying justification by faith in imposing circumcision on a Gentile. All are one in Christ.
The Preference of Liberty
This sets an applicable pattern: liberty is preferable to slavery, yet liberty is not to be valorized outside the work of the gospel. This has a very real application for gender. Submission is not virtuous if it does not function, and such submission, especially imposed submission by other Christians, implies inequality in Christ’s unity with humans. It implies slavery. Laws that do not function, should not be followed if they are not loving, do not produce spiritual fruit, or promote the notion that the Spirit is prejudiced. Under these principles, gender and economic equality becomes a secondary concern of all who seek the Holy Spirit to be made more evident in creation.
This does not mean a person who is not given the gift of teaching, for instance, should feel that God is unfair in giving another that gift. What this is saying is that on principle these gifts are given indiscriminate of race, economic status, or gender, and so, not withheld on that basis. There are different roles in marriage, society, and church, the point is that the distribution of these roles cannot be on the basis just described. While we all may be called to serve and submit on mission for Christ, refusing Spirit-given liberty for another, imposing submission, is slavery. Men can be leaders if they have the character, but then again, so can women. A man can be called to be a pastor, if he has the qualities, but then again, so can a woman, if she is qualified. In principle then, a woman could be given any gift of the Spirit just as much as a man could (or Jew, Gentile, slave or free person), but that does not mean every person gets that gift. Men will be called to listen and submit to their wives (“submit one to another out of reverence to Christ” Eph. 5:21), a man must submit to a gifted female teacher as in the case of Huldah and the King (2 Kings 22: 14-20) or Apollos and Priscilla (Acts 18:28). Thus, we see no basis in Gal. 3:28 that any gift of the Spirit is restricted to a gender. To be clear, this does not take offense at the notion that some are called to have authority while others are called merely to submit and trust that authority. The problem lies with any attempt, especially by Christians, to restrict a gift the Spirit sees as open to all, particularly on the basis of ethnicity, gender, or economic status. It does not take offense at the call of some to be enslaved, but see the unnecessary imposition of submission on another.
This clarifies the rhetoric often used by the complementarian that women are spiritually equal, but functionally different. There is no problem in stating some are called to different things, while others are not. Some are called to more difficult lives than others. A person, who feels that it is there vocation to be an accountant for God, will be functionally very different than the person called to be a missionary in the undeveloped world. However, if we used the example of slavery and segregation in the United States, the problem is then the church limits the liberty of others, imposing a supposedly God-sanctioned social order that prevents some to pursue a Spirit-given vocation to a position of authority.
Is Slavery a Defeater?
One could object that if Paul did not abolish slavery, the application of the spiritual equality that equalized Jew and Gentile, removing the requirement of circumcision, cannot be fully applied to gender equality.
What the Gospel in Galatians does imply is the notion that all people are God’s children, thus able to cry out “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6-7) and are heirs of the inheritance. This in a very practical sense meant the elimination of social separation between Jews and Gentiles in table fellowship (Gal. 2:11-14), but also in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 mean the equalization of access to food at the Lord’s Supper. This equality was lived out in the community of goods, where believers sold all individual property and live as if a single household (Acts 4:32). It was a scandal if a member of a church had much and another was in need.
With regards to slaves, while Paul did not seek a full and potentially destructive and violent emancipation, he did insist that all members of a church, whether slave or free, were considered family. If a slave was considered the family of a master, the implication is that freedom would be sought for the slave along with all other facets of general well being. It would be despicable that a person would own a family member as a slave. Thus, we see in Philemon, Paul plead (not force, we should note) that Philemon free Onesimus as the runaway slave (a criminal offense) is “no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16).
Some are called to endure suffering and subjection for the sake of the Gospel, including wives (1 Peter 3:1-6) and slaves (1 Cor. 7:21), however, this subjection is for the purpose of witness vocation. Slaves in Christ are free, and the free in Christ are slaves (1 Cor. 7:22). In the case of a slave, Paul recommends not being obsessed with emancipation, continuing on in the state that the person is in. However, Paul clearly expresses the preference that a person must not become enslaved: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.” Again, witness is more important than emancipation for Paul, just as martyrdom is a greater witness than a long and comfortable life. Paul does not easily fit the profile of a social revolutionary. He is an evangelist that sees slavery, hardship and even martyrdom as opportunities to show Christ. However, is social inequality of little significance to Paul? No. Freedom was preferable to slavery.
Again, Paul was not a social revolutionary primarily, but the Gospel does imply liberation. The Gospel implies social progress, but the Gospel does not seek self-assertion let alone violent emancipation to cause progress. Social progress is not the Gospel, salvation to sinners by the free gift of forgiveness in Jesus Christ is. However, the social progress and liberation is a byproduct of redemption as it seeks to remove all barriers to authentic vocation and all effects of sin.
As this relates to gender, the notion that Christians would seek to enshrine and perpetuate limits on women in the home, church, and society, would be going against this principle that Paul offers. Again, Paul is not a human rights activist, and we need to draw close to his logic. He is advocating that the Holy Spirit does not discriminate with regards to the spiritual gifts, some of which imply leadership authority. Refusing to recognized that the Spirit could call a woman to lead, for instance, in the church, is tantamount to limiting the work of the Spirit and perpetuating a requirement of submission that falls back into legalism, subjection to the law.
By analyzing the logic of Galatians 3:28 in the context of the epistle, we see that it offers the principle that the Spirit does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, economic status, or gender in regards to the Spirit’s gift, the inheritance of Abraham. Justification by faith implies a type of egalitarianism. Refusing a gifted woman preacher in the church is analogous to imposing circumcision on a Gentile. It is a similar type of legalism. Thus, I offer the provocative push back to some complementarian polemics against egalitarianism, where complementarianism denies justification by faith (which I offer not because I actually think complementarians deny justification by faith, but to point out what the logic implies). While I have worked against the notion that Paul can be absorbed into the caricature of a modern civil rights activist, this does not dismiss the fact that Paul would not allow any inequality in his churches. Refusing to recognize that a woman could have a gift of preaching, prophesy, teaching, administration, or even apostolic leadership is to go against the Galatians principle here.
This is a reflection I wrote back in 2011, when my first son, Rowan, was born. It is, as I call it, a “theo-poetic” reflection, as I could not help but think about the grandness of this event as connected with faith in God.
Some would question whether fatherhood is a valid impetus for religious reflection. What do the two have to do with each other? I am of the opinion that even an atheist, when gripped with the beauty of life’s greatest moments ultimately resort to religious-like vocabulary: words of transcendence like “sublime” or even, “sacred.” There is a reason why the Hebrew prophets were not scientists or philosophers – those who think the mysteries of life can be objectified, scrutinized, and exhausted, those that naively hold that thought begins in doubt and ends in certainty rather than beginning and ending in wonder. Rather, all of the prophets were poets.
Many know their fathers as appearing cold and silent, perpetually poker-faced. After my son was born, my wife turned to me wondering why I did not cry at the sight of my son. I said that I did not know. I almost felt ashamed that I did not. Could I be that emotionless? However, as I reflect on this, and many of the powerful moments of my life, I have found that there are, for me, moments so profound that their magnitude invokes such a complex polyphony of emotions, our bodies do not know how to express one where our minds are wrestling with many. It is not that men are emotionless or emotionally shallow (as some have said), it is, I think, that sometimes we are so complicated, no one expression of emotion does justice. Thus, we appear reductionistically simple.
For this reason the Christian scriptures were not written as pure historical reports, logical propositions, and empirical data – objective yet dry, stale, and irrelevant – but rather as narratives, poetry, proverbs, and epistles – subjective, personal, and thus, real and relevant. Poetry is the enemy of science, as science accuses poetry of un-realism, yet it is poetry that seems to come to grip with what reality is for the human experience more than science. In French, the same word is shared for an account of history and a story, l’histoire, as it is understood that in order to communicate the flavor of life’s memories accurately, one must ironically use the metaphor, forsaking the demands of the factual in order to fulfill it and employing the rich meanings found typically in fiction. The wondrous thing about poetic reflection is that it is the attempt to wrestle into words the things that matter most to us, yet render us silent and speechless.
It is a strange wordless feeling becoming a father. Watching my wife’s pregnancy was just that: watching, a position that intrinsically predisposes a father to a sense of aloofness. Another’s pregnancy, for all its power to produce the sense of maternity, is no process to prepare for one’s own paternity: no inherent connection is formed between father and fetus, no nesting instinct clicks on automatically. A guy does not spend his childhood unwittingly rehearsing for childcare with his toys and their many nursery related accessories. Compared to the astounding ability to produce life from within oneself, to shift seamlessly and intrinsically into a parental-consciousness, men are left feeling as the “weaker sex.” Fatherhood, at least in its initial impulse, far from its place in perceived male headship, subverts the great chains of social hierarchy – hierarchy with all its promise of strength and security – that we as men wish to remain unthreatened.
I take Meagan in to be induced on the evening of Good Friday. We stay the night for observation. I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep: part anticipation part the stiff hospital chair-bed-thing is not actually suitable for sleeping.
Then the labor happens in the morning, Easter Saturday, April 23. Trumpets from heaven might have well of blasted: all the signs were there, all of it expected, however, an urgency sweeps over you that makes you feel you were never ready for what is to come. All preparations feel illusory and inadequate. It is the eschaton of my life, as I know it.
Moments become eternal as memory fragments into snap-shots that somehow also bleed together like a long exposure photograph: At the hospital, Cervidil administered, epidural, lunch from the Hospital’s Subway, contractions set in, the movie Ben-Hur plays in the background, cervix is fully dilated and ready to push. I look at my watch, its 4:25. Ben-Hur is at the chariot race scene. I hold Meagan’s hand. I hold her leg. Meagan’s mother, on the other side, does the same. Breathe. Push. Pause. Breathe. Push. Pause. I see the head.
I am not going to lie, it is gross. Life in it’s most raw forms, we often find disgusting; without all our prim and proper adornments to shield ourselves from the overwhelmingly messy purity that life is, we find it scary before we can properly appreciate it as sacred.
A haze of helplessness, ignorance, and anxiety from watching my wife have contractions, have pain, have labor, have something I have never witnessed before and can never understand, leaves me unsure of what is going on, what I should be doing, what I could even do at all. Men are supposed to “fix things.” I don’t know what to do. I say, “Good job,” as if I am the expert, as if I am not feeling awkwardly pathetic.
It all comes to the pivotal moment I see the little body and the loud cries begin. The sur-reality of labor splits sunder by the sharpness of the in-breaking reality of delivery. Adventus at 4:57.
The image behind the shadowy ultra-sound phantasms and amorphous movements within the belly manifests itself for the first time in one tiny distinct form: the crying naked body of a tiny baby boy. The tohu-wa-bohu of childlessness break by the bara of conception, that leads to the badal and miqveh of pregnancy, and culminates in the final barak of birth.
I give my wife a kiss, no longer simply between two lovers, but from the father to the mother of our child. A mature love is affirmed, love that culminated in new live, a new journey: our family. I hold my wife, my wife holds the baby, the baby holds my hand. Bone of my bone holding flesh of my flesh: we are three, yet, in love, we are one.
We named him Rowan Albert Boersma, Albert after my dad, John Albert Boersma. However, I was so tired after the birth that when I called my family to tell them the news, I told them the wrong name! It was the most pleasant point of exhaustion, I’ve ever felt!
I take my son in my arms and I look at him, and he opens his eyes and stares at me. Some refer to a religious experience as an “I-Thou” encounter, the finite “I” encountering God’s absolute “Thou.” The presence of the infinite being produces a sense of being infinitesimal, under the weight of the wonder of that which is Wholly Other. To hold my son for the first time is an similarly unspeakable feeling, apophatic yet oddly inverse: I feel like the thou, staring down at this being that is in my “image and likeness,” this person that is utterly dependent on my providence: so small, so fragile, so vulnerable, so innocent, but above all else, just so. With all that I am, I pronounce blessing on this being: I see him as “very good.” His finger reaches out and touches my finger in Michelangelo-esque sublimity.
As I sense myself as the Thou, the child becomes the I. And thus, I see myself in something other than me. In doing so, eye to eye, I sees I, self-hood is seen in another and otherness in self, an infinite reciprocal circle of identity and alterity. A type of self-transcendence occurs. The I-Thou reverses as I stand before a new tiny Thou. All senses of deity, the feeling of being bigger than you have ever been, paradoxically permeates with the sense of being smaller than you ever have been, feeling the full weight of fatherhood, the magnitude of responsibility, and the fear of innumerable potentialities of failure. The future in all its awesome potentiality presents itself, simultaneously dazzling as dangerous.
In holding that child for the first time, with the instantaneous love, you feel that you are more sure about what is right in the world than ever before, yet at the same time the most unsure. With love, an kenotic agape occurs as someone other than yourself becomes the measure of your essence. As you love this little someone, you see yourself in them, and your own idenity as a loving person becomes bound to them, covenantally. You bind your self-hood to something other than yourself, freely allowing yourself to be taken hostage to this someone that you know has the uncontrollable judgment to pronounce you a success or a failure in your task of loving, in your ability to be loving. The certainty in love appears also as the greatest risk. For those that define masculinity as a man’s self-sufficiency, power, and ability, fatherhood appears as a threat-to more than a fulfillment-of manhood.
Is this what God felt like as he beheld Adam? Is this what the Father felt as he looked down upon Christ lying in a manger? Through the divine tzimtzum, is this the risk of God’s essence as love entails as he constantly proclaims to his children, those other than himself yet from himself? Is this the mystery of God’s promise and proclamation to all humans, when he says, “I am love; I created you from love; I love you; I will always love you”? Is it in the finite response of gratitude for God’s love that God’s infinity is realized? Did God, as a being whose supreme ontological predicate is love, risk his very deity in the act of creating humans? It is only when every “knee bows and tongue confesses” the Spirit’s love, Christ’s lordship, and the Father’s paternity that God will truly be “all in all.” The marvel of God’s sovereignty is his willful vulnerability.
How can God be vulnerable? In Greek mythology, Cronus the Titan devours his children so that none can challenge his sovereignty. Zeus the all powerful, Cronus’ son, slays his father, only to become an absent uncaring father himself to myriads of bastard children of the women he seduced. He, the “father” of all gods, is a god that intervenes to win wars for his subjects – wielding the symbol of his power: the lighting bolt – only for the profit of more temples, more worship, more reputation, more fear of his might. The gods of the Greeks were defined as timeless, impassible, unchangeable, omnipotent and omniscient. And because of this, the Greeks logically concluded, in all their metaphysical sophistication, that the gods do not care about us. They must not care, or else they would not be gods! To care is to be weak. This is what the world conceives of as divinity: power and control.
Some wonder why an infinite deity would choose to identify himself as gendered and allow himself to be named by his people as “our father” (although there are many parts of scripture, I should point out, where God is depicted as motherly too), yet everywhere in our world we see absent fathers – people, perhaps, afraid of the risk of love – broken homes, abandonment, even abuse. And yet in our darkest moments something, someone, beyond all our experience, beyond all notions of how the world is, pierces the veil of despair and shines through in glorious consolation: God as love appears as the one that never abandons, always keeps his promises, always protects, is always proud, is always daring to love.
The God who identifies himself with the stories retold by the community that claims their brother is Christ is a God that we profess does nothing like what a god is expected to do: he comes into history, changes himself into a sacrifice, suffers with us, becomes weak and helpless choosing powerlessness over violence, chooses compassion over wrath, and even is said to have become the very thing God is not: the misery of sin and death. Though the vile yet beautiful cross – the symbol of the Christian God’s awesome ability – all this was done to say to all the fatherless: to all victims those crying out for rescuing, to all the abandoned that will never understand themselves as being worthy of a father’s proud smile. All this to say to all people: you have a father! Daddy loves you. He is proud of you. He will rescue you. He is never going to leave you.
Indeed, no psychological projection, no philosophical system, no misguided mythology constructed by human minds could invent the notion that a God would choose to use masculine language to define his magnificent characteristics yet fundamentally in his very essence, in his very being and becoming, be something so unbecoming of the impassible power and sovereign invulnerability of our notion of “male” deity, that is, the unfathomable and ineffable reality that God is love.
Hearing my crying child, holding him for the first time, and not knowing what to do to end the crying is an absolutely terrifying experience. Something so small renders someone so much older, bigger, and more capable that itself, ultimately incapable: omnipotence dissolves into omni-incompetence. However, he calms down and sleeps sweetly, and I pause to take in the strange soothing fragrance of a new born baby at peace on my chest, his soft head against my cheek. We both rest, I in pride and Rowan in purity. I think to myself that this is how God must have felt on the seventh day. Shalom, the peace that all existence strives for, engulfs us.
I use the blue musical teddy bear to comfort him, the same one my father used to comfort me. Now I understand what my parents felt, and I regret every moment that I ever took their love for granted. My father has passed away, my mother also, yet I am here. I say, “Daddy is here. Daddy is never going to leave you.” A generation passes, a generation comes, and yet in the flux of life’s frailty, for all its uncertainty, love is what remains eternally and assuredly the same. Death is no competitor to the renewing power of life through love. The “risk” of becoming a father, love’s risk of being inadequate, vulnerable, and the potentially a failure, in turn, is then what becomes illusory, dissolving into epiphany, as love’s jeopardy becomes life’s victory, as love demonstrates itself as the essence of immortality, as love demonstrates that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, never ends and never fails.”