Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dead Faith of the Living

The argument developing in the Anglican Communion over the election, as head of the U.S. Episcopal Church, of a woman bishop who has blessed gay civil unions brings to mind a phrase of the late historian of Christianity Jaroslav Pelikan.

"Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living," Pelikan told an interviewer with the U.S. News & World Report in 1989. "Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition."

In his Jesus through the Centuries, Pelikan insistently reminds the reader just how much of what is attributed to Jesus is really in the eye of beholders throughout history. This is something that the author of the five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History and Development of Doctrine should know well.

The Jesus of the gospels shows absolutely no interest whatsoever in the moral status of homosexuality, same sex orientation and so on. The absence of direct teaching from Jesus on sexual behavior was so patently obvious that it continued in the teaching of those who lived and accompanied Jesus while he walked this earth.

It's not until at least 30 years after Jesus' execution that we have the very first imprecation against homosexuality (and almost every form of sexuality outside marriage). This comes from a man who first persecuted Christians, then changed his mind and became, to be anachronistic about it, more papist than the pope; I'm referring, of course, to the apostle Paul, a man who never actually met Jesus in the flesh, the way you and I might have.

Paul felt he had to introduce a farrago of maledictions upon a wide range of sexual behavior, although he admits to a "thorn" in his own flesh, the nature of which could very well be precisely the activity he deplores. No greater temperance leader than a former drunk.

But never mind Paul. What was Jesus concerned with?

Take Jesus' "basileia theou," a Greek phrase commonly translated as 'Kingdom of God," which I think is more aptly rendered as the "reign of God." In what could easily be described as Jesus "constitution" of the new realm, the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11; Luke 6:20-26), he exalts the poor, the meek, the mourning and those who hunger for justice; he reviles those who are rich, who are satisfied, who are laughing, who are blessed by men.

In brief, Jesus up-ends every known social order in history, including many that churches and clerics have blessed from their questionable perch as spokesmen for God.

In the remainder of the discourse surrounding the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not once -- not a single time -- dwell on the subject of homosexuality, and never on the subject of the appropriate sex of priests.

Indeed, Jesus has no kind words for priests at all. The one time he portrays one, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest is in too great a hurry to get on with his priestly business to care for someone who lies wounded at the side of the road. Throughout the gospel narrative priests show nothing but hostility toward Jesus.

Oddly enough, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has insisted that the message of the General Convention that elected her is that "we're more interested in feeding hungry people and relieving suffering than we are in arguing about what gender someone is or what sexual orientation someone has."

Jefferts Schori was referring to the adoption, at the Cincinnati, Ohio, convention held in June, of a new initiative, called ONE Episcopalian, which seeks to rally Episcopalians -- one by one -- to the cause of ending extreme poverty in the world. It's not a bad idea, considering the average influence and wealth of Episcopalians, who include the father of the current U.S. president.

Each Episcopalian who joins the advocacy campaign will pledge that "We believe that in the best American tradition of helping others help themselves, now is the time to join with other countries in a historic pact for compassion and justice to help the poorest people of the world overcome AIDS and extreme poverty."

The campaign will advocate fair trade, debt relief, fighting corruption and directing additional resources for basic needs education, health, clean water, food, and care for orphans in the poorest countries -- and a pledge to assure one additional percentage point of the U.S. budget to this purpose.

That's a lot more like what the Jesus in the gospels was talking about.

(Telling trivia quiz: What percentage of the U.S. gross domestic product (or gross national income) do you think goes to foreign aid? Click here for an answer. A good article on the myths about foreign aid is found here.)
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