Monday, March 22, 2010

It Passed!

I've been twittering a good bit tonight about the healthcare bill that is on its way to Obama's desk. I haven't talked about such things much here, but providing decent healthcare as a basic right is something that is very much in line with Jesus' calling to care for the sick and needy, I believe. And due to the huge amount of fearmongering and politicking surrounding this bill, I decided to sit down and read the thing. Or at least a summary of the thing over at THOMAS - still no small feat, at over 20,000 words. But I read through it - skimming when it started getting into technicalities here and there. I'm not nearly a lawyer, but from what I understood, here's my overall summary of it:

Unsurprisingly, there was no dictated communist takeover of the country's healthcare system. What was there was the expansion of Medicaid to all the poor - the most important part of the bill for me. I wasn't sure, because it was a relatively short section. But Title II expands coverage to everyone below 133% of the poverty line, mandating it by 2014 and allowing it as soon as April 1 of this year. Previously getting Medicaid required you to be disabled, pregnant, or a child, with a few other qualifications. This bill removes those requirements. The bill also established a lot of basic requirements for health insurance - regulation of the insurance industry and of insurance plans to ensure that everyone (for some definition of everyone) has a given basic level of health coverage, and sets requirements for individuals to purchase coverage. It also, as promised, sets up a healthcare exchange that is kind of a central repository for insurance plans, monitored by the government. These were obviously the meat of the bill - health coverage standards, the individual mandate, and the insurance exchange - so they're in there for sure. There were also several sections that worked towards making information about doctors, healthcare plans, hospital ratings, and the like more available and open to the public. Additionally, there were many things to improve the existing programs, adding checks and requirements, and Title V added lots of funding to encourage students to go through medical school - loan forgiveness, additional loans, money to schools. These are all good things in my mind.

There was also a lot of fluffy language - requirements for things to be planned, "senses of the Senate," advising people to do this and that. I'm assuming this is pretty standard in politics, but it would be better without it.

Obviously, there was a lot more in there than that, but that's the quick version. I also took some notes of a few sections I found interesting or pertinent given everything that's been thrown around, that I've listed below:

  • Abortion, as I read it, is basically up to states, but there is no federal funding for abortion (Sec. 1303)
  • In addition to the expansion of Medicaid, people below 400% of the poverty line get special tax breaks for healthcare coverage (Sec. 1402)
  • The bill forbids discrimination against hospitals that don't participate in assisted suicide (Sec. 1553)
  • Coverage for anti-smoking medications is added to Medicaid (Sec. 2502)
  • There is funding for sex ed, both abstinence and contraception, with a special mention/funding of abstinence education (Sec. 2952 and 2953)
  • An Office of Women's Health is established in several departments (Sec. 3509)
  • If I'm reading it right, a federal mandate similar to the one in King County for restaurants to post calories and other nutritional information on their menus (Sec. 4205)
  • Special assistance for pregnant teens (Sec. 10212)
  • Employees at free clinics are protected under malpractice laws as if they were employees of Public Health Services (Sec. 10608)
For a more informed overview of the healthcare bill, check out PolitiFact's take, The New York Times' summary, or FactCheck's summary of recent arguments. But overall, I'm glad this thing finally passed, despite all the fearmongering, confusion, and deception that did its best to bring it down. Healthcare should be a basic right, all the more if you are concerned with the welfare of the least of these.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Theology of Love

"A theology of love." This post has been cooking for a long time. I've had that title in mind for months now. I've tried to start this post several times - I have drafts from ten months ago, four months ago, and a few in between. And as I look back, I think I've tried to make it too complicated. So here goes.

My theology is this: God is Love.

There's a lot packed in that sentence - firstly, for me to have a theology that I can actually believe in is a big step. It's been a long process. See my prelude for the "quick" version, and the rest of this blog for the long version. And as for the theology, it's more than just three words. But it can be summed up in those three words.

To elaborate a little, I believe that the very essence of God is Love. And I mean essence in the most literal sense possible: containing God's characteristic properties in concentrated form. An extract that has the fundamental properties of a substance in concentrated form. Looking at the various definitions, essence is actually an excellent word. The most important ingredient; the crucial element. The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing. The basic, real, and invariable nature of a thing or its significant individual feature or features. All of these definitions get at the relationship between God and Love. Basically, they are one and the same. Now, this isn't anything too radical - I'm pretty sure I'm on fairly solid theological ground so far. But where this begins to differ from a lot of theology is that I believe that Love is everything. I saved one of the definitions to illustrate this: Love is the intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify God. I like that one. How do you characterize or identify God? Love. Take anything, and ask of it - is there Love? If not, I seriously question if it is of God, or represents God faithfully. I intend on taking this to its fullest extent possible - which has some interesting implications that I'll outline below. But I think I still have pretty good support. After all, a great man once said:

"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
-Jesus (John 13:35)

But first, how did this come about? Well, during my deconstruction phase, I was looking at the things that are wrong with the Church (and this country, and society in general) - of which there are many - I kept coming back to what I call the "summing up" passages. There are several places in scripture "sums up" the Bible, the nature of Christianity, into a short space. They are arguably some of the most famous passages in the Bible. The Golden Rule. The Greatest Commandment. For example:

"This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."
-Jesus (John 15:12-13)

"And [Jesus] said to [the lawyer], "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?"
And [the lawyer] answered, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.' And He said to him, 'You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.'"
-Jesus and the Lawyer (Luke 10:25-37)

"If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing."
-Paul (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)

"But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love." -Paul (1 Corinthians 13:13)

"The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love."
-John the Apostle (1 John 4:8)

"God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."
-John the Apostle (1 John 4:16)
Half the beatitudes are about loving your enemies. And so I thought about it, and when it came time to form some kind of positive theology, I realized this was it. Love. But when it comes to forming a whole theology, most people add more to it. And indeed, I'm sure most reactions to my theology thus far are something along the lines of "That's all well and good, but it's simplistic. It sounds nice, but what about sin? What about the hard stuff? You can't just go around just believing in love. It's more complicated than that."

And with that, I tentatively and respectively disagree. And not just flippantly. Because I've thought about this. Because Christians tend to focus on either sin or love, neglecting the other. Neither is correct. God doesn't wander around the universe, looking for things people are doing wrong, punishing them for it, making sure they stay in line. Neither does he traipse around the heavens, throwing out platitudes and packets of happy, telling everyone that it's okay, he loves them anyway, just do better next time. I know this. But after some consideration, I realized that the important concept of sin actually fits right into my theology of love - with a little bit of a perspective shift.

For that, I'll take a little sidetrip. The Law. All good Christians know that God came to fulfill it, not abolish it. But do we really understand what that means? I didn't. The way I used it, and heard it used, it basically meant that Christians could still use the Old Testament to back up their opinions if the New Testament wasn't good enough. But I think I actually get it now. And that, by the way, is not what it means.

When Jesus showed up, the religious leaders of the time had taken the Law of the Old Testament, codified it, and written up hundreds upon hundreds of very specific rules that dictated exactly what you could and could not do, when. From what I've read of the New Testament, Jesus wasn't a huge fan of these Lawkeepers. Many of his strongest words were reserved for the Pharisees and Sadducees (he called them "vipers" and "white-washed tombs" for example). The intention of these groups was to make sure that the Law was followed down to the letter, and no one stepped outside of the lines defined by their interpretation of the Law. Their intentions were noble enough - they wanted people to follow God's Law. But Jesus did not like what they were doing. He didn't like them checking up on everyone, making sure that people were doing it right, punishing the slightest deviation from their rules. Of course this isn't because was an anarchist. The lawkeepers were doing it wrong. They focused on the letter of the law, counting steps on Sabbaths. Jesus deliberately disobeyed their precepts! He healed on the Sabbath just to see what they would do. He had his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus wanted to show people that the letter of the law is not what mattered. What matters is the spirit of the law. God is hardly offended that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath. The point of the Sabbath is to relax, take a day off from the ever-increasing distractions of our world, and focus on God. Rigidifying the spirit of the law kills it. Cementing God's will into a set of precepts renders it useless. My point is, the lawkeepers had it so backwards! I believe this is true in a very large, very overarching sense, and have written a whole post on just this. In fact, read that post, you'll get a better idea of where I'm coming from. But to sum up: humans like rules because they're easy, clear cut, don't require thought, and most significantly, are easy to find people breaking. God doesn't like rules, and just wants us to follow his will. Unfortunately, humans aren't very good at that, and he reluctantly set forth precepts to help us figure it out. They're imperfect, which is why he sent Jesus to fix things. To fulfill the law. To quote my other post, God basically said, "These rules are annoying, and not really what I want. I'm going to send Jesus down to fulfill the law so we don't have all these obnoxious rules. The humans will figure it out, and be much happier. They'll see." Unfortunately, we didn't get it, killed Jesus, and resumed telling each other exactly what rules we were breaking.

So that said, I believe that the idea of a simple precept, a single concept, being the core and source of all divine law, is pretty valid. And from what I remember, the simplest, most commonly-agreed upon definition of sin is "going against the nature of God." The nature of God, of course, is Love. If sin is going against Love, what more is sin than an absence of perfect love? And this is a beautifully unifying idea. We wouldn't have to worry about loving too much, or failing to call people on sin. Telling people that their sinning would just be admonishing them to more perfectly love God, others, or themselves. Loving people would, in and of itself, be striving to not sin. This sounds like a cop-out, but in reality, it is extremely, even impossibly, difficult. Rules are way easier. We have to love completely and truly. Oftentimes, this means calling out people when they are being unloving towards our fellow human beings. That's called sin. And that is my theology of sin.

And that is my Theology of Love. Love. Always. Period. Which doesn't just mean being nice. It means putting all the six billion other people in the world before yourself, defending them from injustice, hate, and corruption, and being absolutely loving to those around you - even those that annoy you and hurt you and are wrong. That's hard. But no one said Christianity was easy. In fact, Christ often said it was downright hard.

Before I end, a quick note on salvation. I will take a whole note to explain it more fully, but briefly: the evangelical movement seems to be preoccupied with Romans 10:9-10 and Acts 16:31. "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." and "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved". It is where the "saved" language comes from - you "become a Christian" when you are "saved" by saying your salvation prayer. This doesn't really follow from my Theology of Love - it doesn't contradict it, but it's kind if anticlimactic, to say the least. Instead, I focus on two different passages. The end of Matthew 25, and the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In these, Jesus says that those who do "the will of [His] Father" and those who care for "the least of these" will inherit eternal life, and those who do not will be rejected and cast into the eternal fire. That is my standard for salvation - faith is a necessary component, but without love, without caring for others, without doing the will of the Father, it is nothing. It is dead, as James put it. Does a dead faith still get you a golden ticket into heaven? I don't have an answer to that - but it doesn't matter, because I intend to follow Jesus' mandate of love.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tim Timmerman

So this fall, my brother went of to GFU, and I was rather surprised to find out that they, generally considered more conservative than my own SPU, had an openly gay professor: Tim Timmerman, an art prof. I was pretty excited about this, and was even more excited when I found out he was going to speak at chapel about homosexuality. I was a little wary when my brother sent me the link on iTunes U with the comment "Let me know what you think...I'm interested :P" and even more wary when my father (who I don't exactly see eye-to-eye with on this issue) forwarded it to me with the subject "A good message from GFU". So today, I finally found time to sit down and watch it (after a brief run-in with iTunes that I got around with Boris Fritscher's iTunes store alternative). I'll kinda-sorta liveblog it after the fact, as I'm watching it. So, here goes:

He introduces the talk by stating that he understands he is talking about people people know, or are, or are related to, and also notes that he himself has struggled with homosexuality. He also made an interesting comment that he believes that what the church does in the next ten years with this issue is crucial for the direction of the church - something I tend to believe as well. Then he starts out by dividing the church into two caricatures. He clearly denotes them as caricatures, but still, they are so hugely's not a good start. One is highly homophobic, very non-confrontational, telling them to be quiet, holding the Bible up as a shield between them and the gay germs (I'm not kidding, he included "we think you might be contagious"). The other is very sappy, concerned with wronging the gays, saying they're sorry, telling them they're okay, to "go settle down in a gay marriage and do whatever you do there" to but shoving them out the door with a "God bless you" because they don't want to deal with them. He (obviously) condemns both of these approaches as being "from the pit of hell" because they're very passive.

Now, I'm sure there are plenty of churches that are like this. And maybe it's just because I'm in Seattle, where churches mostly simply can't ignore or brush away the issue because we have the second-highest percentage of LGBT individuals in the nation, right behind San Fran. But most of the churches I'm familiar with don't come close to either of these camps. I'll summarize some of my experiences, with generalities, but not caricatures. My home church and my current church up here (both relatively small, conservative congregations) largely ignore the issue, at least publically, as far as I have seen. There might be a reference in a sermon to the sinfulness of homosexuality. I seem to remember my home church noting that it's not the gravest of all sins as well. But mostly, it's just not dealt with, because it doesn't have to be. Gay members are either pretty quiet, taking their struggle outside of the public sphere of the church, or leave altogether. Then there are the churches with more public faces. These, in Seattle at least, can't afford to not deal with the issue, and can't afford to fit into one of Timmerman's caricatures. They generally fall along a spectrum, illustrated by a few examples: some either publically ridicule and/or condemn homosexuality (e.g. Mars Hill), some see homosexuality as a sin but embrace homosexuals as sinners like the rest of us (I believe Seattle Vineyard), some publically admit that it's a difficult issue, and not one that they can settle easily (e.g. Quest), others are open-and-affirming (e.g. St. James', St. Mark's, Wallingford UMC). Nowhere have I seen a church that is described by his caricatures. So, with that said, we'll see what he proposes.

He correctly notes that both of his examples are "totally passive," avoiding involvement, saying "be well, be warm, and be on your way." He accuses the church of exchanging the first passive response for the second. Again, being a resident of Seattle, I want to stand up and offer any of my local churches as a counterexample - for better or for worse - as most of them are anything but passive. Open and affirming churches - the forefront of the pro-homosexual movement within the church - are hardly "blithely blessing" their gay brothers and sisters and being absent in their lives.

It was good to hear that he is more worried about the passive church than about condemning homosexuality. And he clearly noted that no one chooses homosexuality (but with a cheap shot at the absurdity of gays wanting to choose "hairy guys" over "lovely women" - what about the women who choose the disgusting "hairy guys" over the beautiful "lovely women"?). He then terms homosexuality as having "higher same-sex needs" and "deep needs for their own gender" and says that this won't be fulfilled by "having sex with the same gender" - which it won't, of course, any more than "higher opposite-sex needs" will be fulfilled by "having sex with the opposite gender." He then cites that he knows hundreds of gay men who have been in committed gay relationships, and came back to him feeling "less of a man" for it. He then clarifies that he met these men via his involvement with "People Can Change" - from the appearances, a pretty stock, if loving, ex-gay program - this isn't just a random sampling of the gay community.

He then starts talking about the "gay identity" being a lie, and seems to mix up gender identity with sexual identity. Where you are on the scale of "manliness" or masculinity doesn't strictly correspond to where you are on the sexual orientation scale. He also says that "sodomy" historically referred to anything from man-on-man sex to oral or anal, regardless of who was involved - basically anything outside the norm. He gives a bunch of negative examples and statistics to show that the "gay lifestyle" is basically poisonous, that gay relationships fall apart more often than straight ones. I don't have the time or energy at the moment to find the studies that contradict this claim, other than the study I'm immediately familiar with that lesbian couples, at least, are better parents, but I think that comparing gay relationships, which are just now being seen as acceptable in some places, to straight relationships, which are part of the nuclear family woven into our culture, is hardly fair. Opponents will say that that's gay relationships aren't okay, but that's not my point. My point is, regardless of absolute acceptability, relationships, especially marriage, are not an island. It's well-known that without the support of their community, marriages are much more likely to fall apart, and straight relationships have default cultural support, while gay relationships don't. I'm not proposing that that's the whole story, but I do think it's a contributing factor.


Tim has moved onto homosexuality in childhood, in absence of relationships or a "gay lifestyle", blaming homosexuality on childhood problems - certainly not a negligible phenomenon, but I don't think it explains all of homosexuality. He then quoted James 1:26-27 ("pure and undefiled religion"), which caught me off-guard as it's one of my favorite verses, and said that these homosexuals are "orphans," orphaned from their masculine identity. He gives the example of St. Gregory of Nyssa as a strong, non-sexual male friendship that fulfills the "God-given need for someone to walk with us in this life" and gives the example of "wedded friendships" and "covenant brotherhoods" in the early church, where men vowed themselves to each other, which basically from his description sounds like marriage without the sex. I'm not really sure what to do with that - where does it cross from being friendship to being same-sex attraction? When they start having sex? How do we map that to our culture today? I don't terribly understand it, so I'll leave it for now. But it's interesting.

He also called the church out on its focus on marriage, and largely ignoring and even shunning singleness - the classic problem of "singles groups" being matchmaking services. Bravo for that - I've always been kind of confused about that, especially with what Paul had to say about marriage. He closed with some advice, on how to deal with the young men who didn't have good relationships with their fathers.

In summary, it was a decent message - I don't want to strangle Tim like I do most of the times I watch a Mark Driscoll sermon. He didn't further reinforce his caricatures of the church, and just kind of let them lie, which was good. But he seemed to be focused on one specific cause and expression of homosexuality, and a very specific "gay lifestyle" of promiscuity and noncommittal relationships, as if there was a "straight lifestyle" that was universally monogamous. He focused on men needing same-sex relation on a non-sexual, heterosexual level and turning to homosexuality to get that, emphasizing the difference between same-sex needs and sexual desires, the former of which can be fulfilled by friendship. I'm not denying that - that may sometimes be the case - but I don't believe it covers all of homosexuality. Additionally, he didn't mention lesbians at all - maybe that wasn't the point of his talk, maybe he doesn't have experience with them, but they are also very present, and don't fit into the nice box of homosexuality that he made, and seems to assume takes care of the problem. Basically, he may be write for some gay men, but I don't think simply putting all homosexuals (gays and lesbians) in his box will work.

If you want to watch Timmerman's talk, you can grab it via iTunes, or via Boris Fritscher's iTunes browser like I did, if you don't have iTunes, and don't want to download all of its 90MB heft.