Long days of riding in the rain also makes us grateful for the way it greens our lives. It makes us grateful for warmth at lunch stops and our final destination. It makes us appreciate the small things like wringing our socks and gloves, and the feeling of climbing off the bike at the end of the day.
I am always grateful for hospitality on a long trip like this, but the past two days have increased that ten-fold. Today’s lunch was an incredible meal at a local Middle Eastern restaurant in Brunswick, MD. Our hosts at Am Kolel Retreat Center, and Joyce and other local friends from the Poolesville area have provided us with incredible warmth and welcome (including a vegetarian meal provided from a local farm-to-table restaurant. Water has been present in these spaces too – from the food prep, to the warm showers, to the green and growing spaces, water has been involved.
All that to say we have experienced water… the best parts and the hardest parts. We are ready for less water, and we are grateful for water.
If you grew up as a conservative Christian, you grew up with penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). If you were like me, you didn’t realize it, because you only knew it as salvation, and it didn’t occur to you that there could be more than one way of understanding it, because a core feature of conservative Christianity is that there is only one way of understanding most things. Or, at least that is what conservative Christianity says about itself, even as it makes room for all kinds of questionable theology in pursuit of greater political power.
Above, Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (15th century). As in many depictions of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb that God requires to atone for human sin, the lamb is shown bleeding into a chalice such as the one used in communion services.
For me, unlearning penal substitutionary atonement was a multi-step process. In college, I first encountered the feminist and womanist description of penal substitutionary atonement as divine child abuse, a criticism that has been around in some form since at least the time Anselm laid out the satisfaction theory of atonement in Cur Deus Homos in the late 11th century. But even when I found voices who articulated my life-long unease with a soteriology–a doctrine of salvation–based on metaphors of domestic violence, I didn’t see any options. If Christianity demanded a belief in Christ’s death in order to satisfy God’s offended honor (Anselm’s theory) or to bear a punishment that was due to humans (the theology of Calvin and many others, including all the evangelicals I knew)–well, what if I didn’t? Was that the end of Christianity for me?
I never really actually wrestled with that question. For me, it was easy enough to trust that bad theology didn’t have the power to end my faith–even though it did do real harm to me and people I love (but that is a story for another day!).
Above, Matthias Grünewald’s John the Baptist (1510-1515) shows John pointing forward, at his feet a lamb (representing Jesus) carrying a small cross and with a cup (for the wine at the Last Supper, where Jesus explicitly predicts his death and indicates to his friends that he will be betrayed). This detail is from a larger altarpiece that once adorned a monastary of the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim.
But I know many others for whom lousy theology–and the theology of penal substitutionary atonement in particular–became giant obstacles to faith. Some of them wrote to me around Good Friday in response to a story I shared on social media:
My eleven-year-old daughter is relatively well-churched, so it didn’t occur to me that Holy Week would throw her for a theological loop. (I’m not sure why, since I’m the primary caretaker of her spiritual development, so I should have been more aware.) We’d gone to Maundy Thursday services and then to a Good Friday service, both at churches were we don’t typically attend and, it turns out, are a lot more theologically conservative (which is to say, they are pretty typical of American Protestantism) than where we do usually go. Unsurprisingly, the sermon was about Jesus’ death, and the message was so familiar to me that it didn’t even register as troubling: Jesus was both God and man, fully perfect and fully human and thus able to bridge the gap between God and us. Since people are innately depraved, we are both undeserving and unable to bridge the gap of sin that divides us, because of our original sin, from a holy God. God, in his absolute holiness, cannot tolerate that sin. Graciously, God provides a sacrifice that, because he is both human and God, can create a bridge between our sinfulness and his holiness: Jesus. In accepting this in our hearts, we enter into a transaction in which Jesus’ death is a substitution for the punishment that each of us individually deserves. Pretty basic stuff, if you grew up in a PSA-preaching church. As part of the Good Friday service, we were invited to write our individual sins on a square of red paper, then bring them forward to nail them to a wooden cross at the front of the church –a theologically troubling idea, even for a PSA-church, given that it’s not just our individual mistakes (sometimes called sins with a lower-case “s”) but our very nature (sin with an upper-case S) that divides us from God, but since I don’t adhere to PSA theology anyway, I’m not too bothered by seeing it done poorly.
On the other hand, this entire episode wrenched my daughter’s heart. She was first, horrified at the theology, which I realized in the midst of this scene that I’d never even introduced her to. Then she was saddened by the thought of so many people believing it, then even sadder since she knew this meant that they didn’t understand something kinder. For me growing up, salvation WAS penal substitutionary atonement; I didn’t know it could be otherwise; for her, she didn’t even know that PSA existed–and then wondered how salvation could be that at all.
When I shared this story on social media, several people asked me what in the world I meant that PSA wasn’t the only option for understanding salvation or Jesus’ death. Some asked with relief, hoping that they would discover an understanding of Jesus’ death that didn’t rely on the violence of PSA. Others asked with worry–wondering just how far away from traditional Christianity I had wandered. (Good news! It’s totally within the Christian tradition to hold other views on Jesus’ death and resurrection.)
Because the answer is long–there are many, many ways of understanding that are part of the Christian tradition–I will lay out some of the most significant ones in Christian history in a post devoted to just that topic.
For me, though, it was the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective that pointed the way. Though the progressives in the Mennonite tradition have a somewhat contentious relationship with this document, which has been used, rather than as the guiding tool as which it was created, as a cudgel, I have a lot of love for it. Mostly because of Footnote 1 to Article 8 (“Salvation”). The footnote begins: “In the history of Christian thought, there have been three major views of the atonement.”
Well, there are a lot more than three, as I’ll share next time, but, for me, what was so important was that a document that declared itself to be guidance to my faith allowed space for multiple ways in and forward. That recognition broke open my faith, and it’s one of my favorite parts about being Mennonite–that, at our best, we respect others’ consciences and encourage each other to think deeply about our theological choices rather than to just assume them. Of course, not all of us do, and none of us do it perfectly, but that this would be valued enough to be written into the Confession made me feel welcome in the Mennonite faith in a way that a church that demanded loyalty to PSA couldn’t do; I would always have been a liar in such a church, and it’s far nicer to be in a place where I’m not.
Texas legislators want to be able to execute women for getting an abortion. While that’s the most extreme piece of anti-abortion and anti-woman legislation being considered this week, it’s not the only one.
Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, Florida–these are just some of the states that have been considering or have passed extremely harsh anti-abortion policies, ones that criminalize the procedure and threaten to throw women in jail–or the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections.
Overwhelmingly, these are states with higher percentages of women of color.
Above, a county-by-county map of the US’s black population as a percent of the local population.
The abortion rate among black women in the US is more than double that of white women.
And black women have emerged as powerful voters. In the 2018 midterm elections, they set a record for primary voting participation.
And look where they vote:
Those brighter blue dots in the map above are areas where b lack women are a greater share of the voting population.
And they are in states where new laws against abortion would jail women for getting an abortion.
And if women are convicted of the crime of getting an abortion, they can lose their voting rights.
And that means fewer black women voting.
We already live in a nation where 6.1 million people have been disenfranchised because of criminal records. This disproportionately affects African Americans, especially men. 1 out of 13 African Americans–7.7% of possible black voters–has lost the right to vote, versus 1 out of 56 non-black Americans. Mass incarceration was an effort to remove black voters from their role as citizens. And it has worked, depriving them of the one important way to shape the nation’s politics. We don’t know what American law or politics today might look like if we didn’t have such a huge number of people of color unable to vote. And in states like Florida, state legislators are terrified of finding out, which is why they fight efforts to restore voting rights to people with convictions on their records.
The US has a long history of using the law to define the behaviors of black people as illegal, which allows the state to lock them up, disrupt their families and communities, and deprive them of the right to vote. Now, state legislatures are adding abortion criminalization to the list of ways they can keep power in the hands of white people.
As a block of Southern states pass legislation criminalizing abortion, it’s worth asking what the likelihood of them taking effect is.
Not much–but that’s not the point.
If the point is to overturn Roe, these harsh measures might not work. Roe had in it the seeds of its own destruction. It was never a pro-choice law for women but instead framed abortion as a right of physicians. It allows for the possibility of revision based on new developments in fetal medicine. And in seeking to balance the right of the state to protect fetal life v. the right of women to bodily autonomy, it begins with the idea that the state has a duty to and the authority to restrict abortion. Those aren’t great starting grounds for a defense of abortion rights.
But Roe isn’t even our current abortion law. Still, it is shorthand for “the right, recognized at the federal level, to terminate a pregnancy.”
These state laws, I am betting, won’t make it to the Supreme Court, which gets to pick and choose its cases and will pick challenges to abortion rights that are less radical. They will die before they get to the Supreme Court. Three months ago, Kentucky passed a ban on abortion when the fetus at six weeks of development–a bill similar to Ohio, Mississippi, and Georgia’s and ones currently in process in eight other states, mostly in the South–and it was promptly struck down by a federal court. In 2013, North Dakota tried this law and it was successfully challenged in court, as is happening now to Illinois’ six-week ban.
And none of these bans are actually popular with regular people. Few Americans support total bans on abortion, which is what, in effect, these bans are. At the same time, most Americans support some kind of restrictions–but not like this.
So, if these laws aren’t likely to stand up in court or in the court of public opinion, why are legislature’s passing them?
One way to answer this question is to observe the effect they are actually having. Since these results were predictable, it’s fair to assume that they were intended.
These laws are energizing evangelical shock troops. After a midterm drubbing like none in recent history, with continued scandal coming out of the White House (including the threat of public disclosure of documents that show that Donald Trump is not very rich and not very good at business), a slowing global economy, an unnecessary trade war with China, and the threat of military action in the Middle East that will ask conservatives to again send their children off to war, Republicans have to deliver on something. Just like shock troops take heavy losses to break through a military line, these laws will be picked apart and shot down, but they’ll move the Trump re-election campaign forward.
Conventional wisdom is that conservatives held their nose and voted for Trump because they opposed abortion; research undermines that and indicates that it is racism, more than anything else, that drove people to vote for Trump. Abortion just gave them cover to do so. It’s racism with a side bonus of sexism and Christian supremacy.
These laws are also, if my Facebook feed is to be trusted, making women really mad, angry, sad, frustrated, and terrified. Maybe worst of all is the feeling that they are not safe–not safe to have sex, not safe to pursue a wanted pregnancy, not safe talking to their physicians, not safe with their partners, not safe as citizens.
And that, I think, is the bigger, even more frightening point: These laws are the boldest move yet among political leaders–nearly all white men–to define who does and who doesn’t have power, who can rely on the state to protect them and who can, in an instant, it feels, find themselves in the crosshairs the state.
This is much bigger than abortion: it’s about the authority of the state to put half of its citizens on alert that they have no influence on laws that intimately effect them.
Less than a quarter of Americans are white male Christians. They can’t preserve their power through demographics; they have to do it by restricting who is protected by the Constitution.
In that way, these laws are working.
In response to all the anti-woman legislation disguised as anti-abortion legislation passing through statehouses this month, there has been ample anger out on the internet. Much of it seeks to draw attention to the ways that legislators seek to police the bodies of women while ignoring the role that a man plays in every single pregnancy–a role that he could choose not to play if he opposes abortion.
Here’s one example:
I get why the argument is appealing. At the heart of the anti-abortion legislation passing in Ohio, Georgia, and Alabama isn’t a concern for ending abortion or for saving “fetal life.” If that were the motivation, lawmakers would do what works to end abortion, and pro-life activists would be picketing outside of fertility clinics, which destroy embryos as part of their businesses. Voters would be asked to swear off voting for any candidate who supported forms of artificial reproductive technology that fertilize eggs outside of the body, and Congress would be trying to prevent private insurers from covering fertility treatment plans that include such technologies.
But the argument also ignores what we know about reproduction.
In the analogy above (and other variations of it), sperm are being compared to fertilized eggs. But that’s a dishonest comparison. Pro-lifers don’t think that sperm are equivalent to fertilized eggs. They think that sperm is equivalent to unfertilized eggs.
While people who oppose all forms of artificial contraception think that’s it’s wrong to do anything except avoid sex in order to prevent pregnancy, the large majority of people, including those who oppose abortion, don’t think it’s problematic to prevent the fertilization of an egg.
Depending on their perspective, they think it’s either wrong to prevent the implantation of an egg and sperm that have been combined (the zygote) or the growth of an implanted zygote.
Anti-abortion laws have many sinister intentions, but their primary claim is primary claim is to prohibit technologies and procedures that prevent an implanted zygote from growing into a fetus or a fetus from being born.*
You can argue that such laws are wrong, for sure. But they have nothing to do with masturbation or Elle Wood’s speech in Legally Blonde.
Humor and anger both have their place in political commentary, for sure. But this comparison is sloppy, and I think that makes it dangerous. Human embryos are fascinating, and there is so, so much we don’t know about human reproduction. We’ve already discovered that embryonic stem cells turn into what look like human embryos pretty quickly–a discovery that prompted surprised researchers to start destroying them for fear that the “embryoids” would continue to diversify their cells.
For these reasons, it might not be wise for abortion rights advocates to root support for pro-choice policies in human biology. Roe explicitly states that, as medical technology advances, the state may have more authority to control abortion at an earlier stage in pregnancy. (This is just one reason why Roe isn’t the pro-choice decision many people think it is–and why Justice O’Connor said that the decision was “on a collision course with itself.”) Implied is that, as we learn more about zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, we may need to re-evaluate how our abortion laws balance the rights of women against the authority of the state to regulate the procedure. It could be that the more we know, the less value we give to these forms of life (a term I use neutrally–we can recognize that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are human (they’re not equine, bovine, porcine, etc.) and that they are made of living cells without advocating that they are legal persons)–or it could be that, the more we know, the more value we award them.
But, either way, arguments based on false comparisons don’t help achieve reproductive justice. Instead, they signal that the pro-choice side is willing to misrepresent the basic pro-life argument AND that they are willing to make faulty statements about reproduction, such as the implication that sperm is equivalent to a fertilized egg, even though there is a clear and obvious difference (sperm contains only genetic material from the father, while a fertilized egg contains genetic material from both parents) that matters deeply to many women–including pro-choice women. And that’s unwise, I think, because one of the distinctions that the pro-choice side has over the pro-life one is a greater commitment to scientific accuracy and intellectual honesty.
I don’t think that abortion rights advocates have to listen to pro-lifers and try to understand them. I do think, though, that they have a duty to themselves to be honest and accurate.
Persuasion that is based on faulty comparisons is dishonest–and honesty is central to the concept of choice of all kinds. If we don’t know have accurate information about our choices, then they aren’t really consensual. That abortion rights advocates would circulate false information undermines the pro-choice cause.
*Some also take aim at birth control that they claim prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg. Birth control doesn’t work this way, and we need to stop treating such anti-contraception arguments as if they are valid science, because they are not.
On May 1st I began a three month sabbatical from my job as the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University. I spent my first day of intentional rest taking a long ride on my bicycle. Some may not find riding for miles and miles to be very restful, but I find the pedal rotations, rolling hills, and winding journey, to be an incredibly soothing experience for my soul
Only a few miles into my ride I passed a church with a large roadside sign. You know the type – a bright white background with movable type so that the message can be changed depending on the season (or the local minister’s sense of church humor), illuminated day or night so that everyone takes notice as they pass by. This one said in all caps, “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ARE NOT MULTIPLE CHOICE.”
The pace of my bicycle gave me plenty of time to read it and have it sink in. I’m embarrassed to admit that my first reaction was an impulsive anger directed at that congregation. My work at Penn State revolves around faith-based peace and social justice, and the primary group of students I interact with are those who have been hurt by the rigidity of religious spaces. Statements like the one on that church sign reminded me of how damaging it can be when legalism becomes the center of our faith, and why a more nuanced interpretation of scripture is crucial if churches have any hope of remaining relevant for young adults. I thought about the students I know who have felt rejection from the church for the way they understand scripture, God, or themselves, and I wondered how many of them had experienced the Ten Commandments being used as a litmus test for whether they belong or not. I wondered if this congregation had any sense that their church sign may be objectionable – even to their fellow Christians. I considered the hypocrisy of well-intended church signs which rarely reflect the actual practice of the congregations they represent.
I also began to have an imaginary argument in my head with the pastor of that congregation. I wondered how that person would react if I challenged whether they were actually able to literally live up to the high standard set by those commands. I wondered if they would admit that even the most arduous rules and regulations may need to be broken if it means more fully and authentically living out our call to love God and love our neighbor. I wanted to ask them how someone who had been abused by their parents should show them “honor” (Commandment 4), how their enlisted congregants were dealing with killing on the battlefield (Commandment 5), or whether it was ever justified for someone to take back what had been taken from them (Commandment 7). I reasoned that while it is important to consider the history and tradition tied to this part of the Hebrew Bible, even my Jewish colleagues would argue that people of faith must wrestle with the text and with what it means to follow God. After all, wasn’t even Jesus guilty of breaking the Sabbath?
It took me several miles to realize how much of a hold that church sign had on my mental energy. I realized that five years of intense work trying to stand up for those who have been marginalized, rejected, or underappreciated, has made me into a cynical and critical person who is unable to take a church sign lightly. The fire that burns inside of me to create a better world also makes me unable to roll by a church sign without getting into a meaningless argument with no one in particular. While it is true that my commitment to faith-based peace and justice is an important part of who I am and those I serve, perhaps it is also something that is so tightly wound around who I am that I have become captured by its hold on how I move about the world.
My hope is that these three months of sabbatical time can be used to rest and reflect, and just a few days in I am wondering what parts of my vocational identity and calling may also need time to rest and disengage.
By the end of my bike ride I had started to make peace with the sign. I reminded myself that if I really cared about the statement the sign was making, a best practice would be to arrange for a meeting with the leaders of that congregation. I chuckled to myself about how unlikely that was during these three months of rest, and realized in that moment that I had found a sense of peace in that moment. For now, I am letting go of my own attachment and connection to that sign, and whatever theological rationale that may be tied to it. During my time of rest, I am more acutely aware of my own need to let go of things, and for the moment at least, pass them by.
My bike route passed by that same church on the way home, but by that time, just a few hours later, the church sign had already been changed to reflect some upcoming special services. Something that was of the utmost importance of my mental energy earlier in the day had been quietly replaced. Even though it has been removed from the visible landscape, the memory will live on through my sabbatical as a reminder for me to slow down and hold things a little lighter.