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I’m on a mission to rid the world of theological malarkey – Molly Marshall

 

Molly MarshallAt the recent meeting of the Baptist World Alliance I had a friendly exchange with an interlocutor after presenting a paper. In my response I summoned an old term of uncertain but perhaps Irish origin, “malarkey,” which means foolish or nonsense, to describe what I believe is a grave heresy in trinitarian thinking. My comments created a bit of a stir, so, being a theologian and educator, I feel compelled to go further in explaining its significance.

The beauty of trinitarian theology is that it describes the relational God who dwells eternally in the richness of community, pouring out life to construct identity. The generativity, hospitality, and diversity of the Triune God offers a model for human community. To speak of one member of the Trinity being eternally subordinated and thereby a model for the subordination of women in marriage is heretical, and I called it theological malarkey. Equality is the hallmark of the dynamic movement in the divine life, as centuries of theological reflection have confessed.

We all know that Christian faith is suffering a credibility problem in many places, beginning here in the United States, for the willingness of white evangelical Christians to be co-opted by a demagogic racist. President Donald Trump’s recent diatribe toward congressional women of color, telling them to “go back where they came from” is being excused by his enablers as staunch leadership for the good of the country – and for Israel. That this sector of Christianity will put up with anything that comes out of this president’s mouth in order to secure the Supreme Court conservative majority for their signature issue is deeply troubling. They defend his verbal incontinence as serving a higher purpose, which is theological malarkey.

“Any church that is unwilling to risk its resources – letting some things die – in order to give itself to being the presence of Christ in its context is captive to theological malarkey.”

While at the BWA I observed a brochure that stated the nations in which Christians most likely would be vulnerable to mass killings by their governments. I winced when I saw it; putting this information in print only further jeopardizes this demographic and draws attention to a situation Baptist Christians in North America can do little about. If such information is generated only to make the privileged feel righteous by lamenting this situation, then it is theological malarkey. I remember with what care Christian leaders in Myanmar speak about their government; it is unwise to do otherwise.

One of the beautiful things about the BWA is the decentering of North American hegemony as voices of the global south and east articulate their vision for the church. In an epoch when the awakening to the burden of colonialism continues, it matters that these voices shape the narratives of what it means to be Baptist around the world and that those usually presuming to speak for all listen quietly, or else we protract xenophobic theological malarkey.

Last December, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, published an extensive study of its founders and learned more deeply of the slave-holding traditions that were ingredient to its early history. When challenged to make reparations by donating a tithe of its substantial endowment to Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically black institution in the same city, the administration said it could not do that because Simmons is not officially related to the Southern Baptist Convention and does not teach in accord with its tenets. Missing a huge opportunity to signal “fruits worthy of repentance,” the seminary will cling to its resources while its sister school struggles. The nit-picking argument of Southern Seminary is theological malarkey.

As churches face hard decisions about properties and personnel, often self-preservation precludes mission. As congregations we need to give ourselves to the kind of passionate reading of Scripture John Webster describes “as an instance of the fundamental pattern of all Christian existence, which is dying and rising with Jesus Christ through the purging and quickening power of the Holy Spirit.” To read Scripture this way as guidance for congregational decisions is “to be slain and made alive.” Any church that is unwilling to risk its resources – letting some things die – in order to give itself to being the presence of Christ in its context is captive to theological malarkey.

To live as if resurrection is only the story of Jesus and not of his larger body is to live a faithless existence. The resurrection renews the whole world, as the old Roman liturgy puts it. The same mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead is igniting authentic Christian witness. As Richard Hays writes, “The Resurrection purges the death-bound illusions that previously held us captive and sets us free to perceive the real world of God’s life-giving resurrection power.” When we wonder if there is enough spiritual power to live as faithful disciples of Jesus, we have succumbed to theological malarkey.

I am on a mission to rid the world of theological malarkey. Will you join me?

 

 

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A question both ancient and modern: Whose side is God on? –

 

Molly MarshallMy Sunday school class has been studying Jeremiah for the last several weeks. We usually hear these searing texts in Advent, but out of lectionary season, we soldier on. This prophet had a tough calling, and his words were met with disbelief and scoffing. His time of service is during the fall of Jerusalem, and the worst possible thing descends upon the people. The book of Jeremiah chronicles the dismantling of the northern and southern kingdoms, Israel and Judah. The land promised by God will no longer be theirs – a grave, unsettling horizon.

The book of Jeremiah, which could cover up to 250 years of history, displays heavy editing by the Deuteronomists, those responsible for Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. The theology of the Deuteronomists is pretty concrete in terms of cause-effect. If you obey the covenant, you will be blessed. If you worship other gods, God will not protect you from your enemies. At times, God may be more with the enemy of the people of God than their ally, more against them than for them.

“At times, God may be more with the enemy of the people of God than their ally, more against them than for them.”

Such is the message of Jeremiah – more doom than comfort.

His nation could hardly swagger through the Ancient Near Eastern world as a super-power. A small nation, not particularly arrayed with the armies and weaponry that the Assyrian and Babylonian empires could boast, was vulnerable to attack. The location of the land, with its access to the Mediterranean Sea through its varied ports, made it even more attractive to those with plans for domination of the region.

Some scholars have suggested that one might read the whole of the Hebrew Bible through the lens of asking this one question: How did the covenant people fail to keep the land? And inexorably, these questions follow: Could not God preserve them from exile and captivity? Does all the blame fall on a faithless people?

Scholars of Jeremiah conclude that it is very difficult to find a coherent theme in this wide-ranging, prophetic text. Further, scholars of the Hebrew Bible struggle to construct any linear historical narrative out of the morass of judges, priests, prophets and monarchy. The episodes of covenant fidelity, followed by idolatry and everyone “doing what was right in their own eyes,” stain the pages that recount the roots of our present identity as Christians.

We know the challenge of reading ancient texts in a way applicable to our own context; yet, the questions raised by our forebears prompt our own examination of the times we are experiencing. We ask a similar question: Is the tumult of the nations an act of divine judgment or simply the working out of the fall to violence, which is the hallmark of sinful people? And, as Jeremiah queried: Whose side is God on?

Written as a retrospective analysis of what went wrong in the divided nation’s relationships with neighboring powers, the prophet and editors seemed to assume that God determined whoever won in the political-military fray. There are those who follow that viewpoint today, believing that God micro-manages the ongoing machinations of warring people.

“God has created space for us to do what only we can do, joining God’s side of justice and mercy.”

For example, President Donald Trump’s step into North Korea was viewed by many as a bold overture toward peace, prompted by God’s favoring of this elected leader, as many white evangelicals continue to aver. Others viewed the incident as a fool’s errand, intended only to provide optics for a leader whose next move usually serves a measure of self-interest, not national security for either nation. Which is it?

I believe it is an over-reach to conscript God’s favor for our political calculations, as if God has a pre-determined plan for each discrete nation, political party or individual leader. Instead, God plays the long game, seeking to influence all toward justice, mercy and flourishing. Our prayers to God about present circumstances should prompt our own actions to mend the world. God is always on that side.

In a day when nationalism is on the rise around the world, modeled blatantly by the United States, it would be dangerous to claim God’s complicity in policies that do not think about the most vulnerable in the social contract. In the biblical vernacular, widows, orphans, the poor and the alien are the focus of God’s concern, as attested by the prophets who refuse to “tickle the ears” of those listening.

God’s providence in the affairs of humanity requires that we are full participants. As my former colleague, Frank Tupper, taught generations of seminary students, “God always does the most God can do.” God’s engagement with creation is compassionate. This “transforming engagement” calls humanity to do its part, and in the process we become ingredient in a larger vision of interacting factors in nature and history. This suggests that God has created space for us to do what only we can do, joining God’s side of justice and mercy.

*Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall was the featured speaker twice at the Hamrick Lectures at First baptist Church of Charleston. She is the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

 

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Five U.S. Presidents; Five Great Americans – May 6, 2013 – ethicsdaily.com

I wrote this column six years ago and it is still true today. I just spent the 4th. of July with my sister, brother-in-law and their family. It is a great reminder of what a great country we have and who we are as a people. I could not get the picture of the five presidents to reproduce here. I need my son, Michael, Brandy or Lori to help me with that. The message is clear. We live in a great country. We may be divided at times over issues, but we are never divided in our love for our country.

The picture of President Obama standing with the four living former U.S. presidents at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas is a grand statement for us, and the rest of the world, as to whom we are. No one had to die for any one of them to take office. None was deposed by some despot.

Each took office as a result of a vote by a free people. Each has his strengths and each has his weaknesses. Although each of us has our preferences, only time will sift through the remains for an accurate judgment.

Each one separately, and all of them together, tell a great story. Although each of these men is flawed in some dramatic way, I am happy to be represented by any one of them.

Along with whatever baggage each man carries, he is a great American. He has stood the test. He has walked through the fire and emerged a winner.

Your vote may have been different from mine, but that is the point. We do not have to agree to live together in peace. We do not have to think the same or vote the same.

I am happy with the choices I made and would make the same choices again. I am sure that you feel the same way about your choices.

Those men can stand there together because each one knows fully the burdens that each one shouldered.

Each one knows the agony, heartache, sleepless nights and the great joy of serving the American people. Each one understands that one word from any one of them during his turn in office could have plunged the world into instant chaos.

These are good men. They are us. Soon, too soon, each one of them will leave us. As each one goes, we will mourn his passing.

We will remember his accomplishments. We will lament his failures. In many cases, we will regret not heeding some of his advice.

Each has taken his turn on the world stage. The country, our country, will endure.

We are a strong people. We are resilient. We are capable of unbelievable acts that dishonor our national conscience, but we are also capable of unbelievable acts of honor, kindness and love.

For a season, we divide ourselves into blue states and red states, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, gay and straight, but when some misguided individual or group tries to harm us, we become one people, indivisible.

I am proud of those five men pictured there because I am in the picture and so are you. We are all holding hands. When it matters, we are one.

I am for national health care, gun control and immigration reform, and I understand full well that you may not be. We will decide these issues at the voting booth.

Each of us will have the opportunity to state our case to anyone who chooses to listen. No one is forced to listen, and no one is forced to vote.

We are free to follow our consciences, but no one is forced to follow us. We are free to become involved, and we are free to sit on the sidelines.

I am free to worship as I choose, and I am free not to worship at all.

Sometimes in the heat of debate, we forget how fortunate we are. We are free to debate. That is a hard-won freedom.

Look, again, at these five men. With all of their faults and virtues, they are us.

I, for one, am giving thanks for them individually and collectively. You are free to join me.

 

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Sinners at the Laundromat* – Rev. Susan Sparks – Shiny Side Up

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, while all good Christians were congregating in church, all evil sinners (including me) were congregating in the laundromat.

I thought we were safe until somewhere mid-spin cycle when the door to the laundromat opened, and a scarily clean-shaven gentleman walked in and said, “A blessed morning to you, brothers and sisters” (a warning sign, if ever there was one).

I could see he had a number of brochures in his hand, but I tried my best not to make eye contact. Sure enough, he came to me first. I think it was because of the t-shirt I was wearing that read: “Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself.”

“Sister,” he asked in the most earnest of tones, “have you met Jesus?”

Not wanting to get into a whole thing about how I was an ordained Baptist minister on vacation in Wisconsin skipping church because I wasn’t Lutheran and, more importantly, was planning to go pan fishing afterward, I simply said, “No sir, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Jesus this morning.”

He then handed me a tract with a picture of Jesus holding a tiny lamb that was looking a bit queasy, and said, “You know, Jesus can wash your sins away better than any of these machines.” And with that, he went to the sinner next to me at the industrial-sized dryer and started his pitch again.

Later, I thought about my new friend and his earnest attempts to save us. Was there a lesson here? Spiritual laundry, perhaps?

Consider the three categories of dirty clothes. First, things that don’t really need to be washed. If you are like me, you tend to occasionally leave clothes on the floor that aren’t dirty–ones you can put right back on and wear with pride. Similarly, there are things in our lives that don’t need cleaning, like our physical traits (signs of aging included), our ethnicities, our race, our gender. These are gifts from God that do not need to be washed; they need to be celebrated and worn with pride to celebrate our maker. As Psalm 139 tells us, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Then there is the second category of laundry which just needs the delicate cycle with the least agitation. In regular laundry, these would be things like silk or polyester. In life, these would be things like mistakes, hurt feelings, or use of colorful language because you couldn’t get into your jeans that morning.

Don’t waste time getting agitated over this stuff. Use a short and delicate wash cycle. Acknowledge that you’re wrong; say you’re sorry and move on. And do it now. If you wait, delicate stains can become hard to get out.

Which brings us to category three: the industrial-strength stuff. These are the heavy stains that have been ground-in over time. Things like anger, shame, resentment, and self-loathing.

The only thing we can do with this nasty pile of laundry is to get ourselves an industrial-strength spot remover—a spiritual OxiClean—something or someone that will go deep into those buried places and release the stains.

Again, the Psalmists have the answer. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)

When we allow God to work—when we accept God’s forgiveness, something profound happens. The stains start to break up, we begin to forgive ourselves, and we walk back into the world clean and fresh, ready for the work ahead.

The next time you are doing laundry, ask yourself three questions:
1)    What in my life does not need washing?
2)    What in my life just needs a delicate cleaning?
3)    What in my life needs an industrial-strength stain remover?

Do a little spiritual laundry. In the end, it will all come out in the wash.

*Sunday morning sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church, New York City

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