“For those who want to save their life will lose it…..”
These are notorious words of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel. They have, for centuries, occasioned all kinds of controversies, confusions and just plain disturbing practices. Extreme fasting. Self-flagellation. Monks electing to live in the harshest of ways—in caves, atop poles, in the desert.
Or in the medieval period Monks, but more frequently, nuns might choose to be walled up—permanently—in a tiny crevice in a corner of a convent. This was known as “immuring” from the Latin word, “murus” for wall. These vowed religious were known as “anchorites” because they were withdrawn entirely from the world. Often their bishop would say the office of the dead as the anchorite entered her or his cell. Sometimes, too, the bishop would put his seal upon the wall to stamp it with his authority. There were also instances of the forced immurement of vowed religious, largely for violation of their chastity vows.
Self-denial in the presumed service of God’s will is one thing. But the church also has a long history of being willing to accept the lot of oppressed and suffering people as evidence of God’s will. And so it was thought—and taught--that abusive circumstances were to be endured, not escaped. Suffering was to embraced, not despised.
We see a chilling example of this thought in the writings of that towering twentieth-century giant of Protestant theology, Karl Barth. In volume III of his Church Dogmatics he wrote:
The covenant of creation dictates a certain order, a relation of priority and
posteriority, of A and B. Just as God rules over creation in the covenant
of creation, so man rules over woman. The man must be A; he must be first.
She is B; she must be second. He must stay in his place. She must stay in hers.
She must accept this order as the right nature of things through which she is
saved, even if she is abused and wronged by the man.
This quote is particularly interesting—or disturbing--considering his own domestic arrangement included not simply one but two letter B’s--his wife, Nelly, as well as his live-in mistress, Charlotte Von Kirschbaum.
To our ears, Barth’s writing about the relationship of man to woman sounds really awful. Really sick, actually. What person in this room would tell a battered spouse to stick by her husband because that was God’s will for her? Or what person in this room would defend slavery as being a part of God’s order of creation? And which one of us, if a troubled adolescent came to us, wondering if these words of Jesus meant that life was not precious, that life was not worth living, would not try our best to dissuade her?
But if Jesus words-- For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it—don’t mean that life is not precious, that suffering is necessary to holiness, then what do they mean? Do they mean anything?
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This week, a coalition of evangelical leaders released a “Christian manifesto” asserting their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and condemning the acceptance of “homosexual immorality or transgenderism.” The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood outlined the views in what it called “The Nashville Statement,” and offered it as guidance to churches on how to address issues of sexuality. Endorsed by over 150 evangelical leaders, scholars and pastors, the signatories included Steve Gaines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and James Dobson, founder of “Focus on the Family” and member of Donald Trump’s faith advisory board, as well as presidents of seminaries, editors and writers at the largest conservative publications and think tanks.
This Nashville Statement is troubling for so many, many reasons.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Eliel Cruz calls the statement a “renewed commitment to open bigotry.” And he goes on to say:
“The Nashville Statement, released by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood on Tuesday, says that only heterosexuality is permissible, calls people born with intersex conditions “disordered,” derides transgender identities as “transgenderism” and makes clear that anyone who is an L.G.B.T.Q person is immoral.
“While sentiments from a group like this, which describes itself as a “coalition for biblical sexuality,” are nothing new, the statement sent a particularly dangerous message to the approximately half of L.G.B.T.Q people who, according to the Pew Research Center identify as Christian: You don’t belong in our religion. And anyone who so much as accepts you isn’t Christian either.”
Eliel Cruz goes on: “L.G.B.T.Q youths have disproportionately high rates of suicide and of anxiety and depression — problems that are undoubtedly worsened by the condemnation of those who hold beliefs like the ones in the Nashville Statement. Those whose families reject them, most of whom are from religious backgrounds, are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. L.G.B.T.Q youths also suffer from high rates of homelessness. Because of conservative churches’ teachings about sexuality, some parents prefer their L.G.B.T.Q children sleep on the streets instead of in their homes.
“Evangelicals’ promotion of “reparative therapy” that tries to change L.G.B.T.Q people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, which has been condemned by every major medical organization, has also brought harm and death. It’s no exaggeration to say that when Americans believe their churches require them to embrace messages like the one in the Nashville Statement, lives are at stake.”
Jesus said, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
And in Jeremiah we read:
If you utter what is precious and not what is worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth.
…for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord.
As Jesus said, those that have ears, listen: Any words that deny the full humanity—and frankly, the utter and stunning beauty of that which God has created in its full variety and vastness—are worthless words, useless words, words that enslave, words that create walls, words that immure just as cruelly as those who were walled up in order to deny their sexuality and their humanity in the early and high medieval church.
As progressive people of faith, rooted and grounded in a theology that values the worth of all God’s created people, we are called, I believe, to lose our lives in the service of ensuring that others do not lose their humanity. And I believe, also that we are called to utter what is precious and not what is worthless.
That is at once our privilege, our calling and our joyful duty.