Memory Eternal: Marcus Borg

Originally posted on WIT:

Marcus Borg Marcus Borg (1942-2015)

Today I attended the memorial service for the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg.  It was one of the most beautiful and moving celebrations of the life and death of a person I have ever been privileged to witness.  I have never experienced such a tangible sense shared love and joy.

I have never actually met Marcus Borg, but for the last few years, I have been regularly attending and teaching in the church where Marcus was appointed as a Canon Theologian, and Marianne Borg served as a priest for many years.  They both left and retired to their home in Eastern Oregon before I arrived, but the impression of their presence remains.  I cannot possibly count the number of times I have heard someone in this parish say, “Marcus allowed me to be a Christian again,” or “Marcus’s work was such a…

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SOGI opponents not biblical enough

We shouldn’t be surprised that several Christians have recently used the Bible as a weapon against the LGBTQ community in Springfield, particularly when it comes to the matter of relationships and, by extension, equal rights. Their use of the Bible is extraordinary. It’s not that their arguments are unbiblical. To insist that scripture is clear about marriage being between one man and one woman is quite true (which is the primary claim made to oppose same-sex relationships and LGBT identity as being normative). The problem, however, is that their arguments are not biblical enough. If we are going to insist that biblical norms related to human sexuality and relationships dictate the laws of the land (even though, last time we checked, we live in a democracy and not a theocracy), then we need to embrace everything the Bible clearly teaches about human sexuality and relationships, beginning with marriage.

From a biblical perspective, we can insist that marriage is between one man and one woman, but what else? Aside from women being literally treated as property (emphasis on literally), should we also insist, as Deuteronomy 22:28–29 does, that a woman who is the victim of assault marry her attacker? Should we pass a law stating that a widow with no sons must marry her brother-in-law in order to keep the command of God (Genesis 38:6–10 and Deuteronomy 25:5–10)? Perhaps we should—in light of Deuteronomy 7:3, Ezra 9:11–12, and Nehemiah 13:25, 27—prohibit U.S. citizens from marrying non-citizens and/or those outside of their particular religion. Or perhaps we could invoke the examples of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon and finally legalize polygamy.

And what of the New Testament? Should divorce be outlawed, since Jesus himself unequivocally condemns it in Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:11-12, then offers it a qualified condemnation in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9? Should all divorcees be denied the right to remarry, since both Jesus and Paul are against it (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)? Or, in terms of equal rights, perhaps all women who hold supervisory roles over men should be fired by legal precedent and be replaced by men (1 Timothy 2:12)? Why aren’t Christians trying to prohibit and repeal such things, since they represent clear violations of biblical principles? As far as SOGI is concerned, based on this criteria, shouldn’t a Christian have the right to deny housing to someone who is divorced, or fire an employee for getting remarried? After all, this is the logic that opponents to SOGI invoke.

But whether they’re aware of it or not, Christians who stand opposed to equal rights, protections, and relationships for LGBT people aren’t doing so on biblical grounds. Rather, they draw on a select few verses that support their previously held beliefs and assumptions. And in case you’re keeping count, there are twice as many verses cited in this article alone (verses that support mandates no Christians in the community are trying to repeal) than all the references in the Bible (six at most) that are used to condemn LGBT people.

When it comes to making ethical decisions based on faith, let us appeal not to our worst instincts, but to the timeless truths of love, dignity, and compassion that our sacred traditions point to at their very best. As Christian pastors, we’re in favor of “No repeal” — not because all of our traditions have been perfect in all times and all places, but because Love is the one thing that is (1 John 4:7-8).

Rev. Darryl J. Schafer
Senior Minister
Billings Christian Church

Rev. Phil Snider
Senior Minister
Brentwood Christian Church

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In memory of Marcus Borg — great scholar, and even better human being

I’m really sad to hear that Marcus Borg has passed away. I’ve looked up to him for many years now, and countless people from my church have expressed how much his writing and speaking touched their lives, as it has mine. Just last night, before any of us had heard the news, someone at Brentwood mentioned that it was his writing that brought them back to Christianity.

I will always remember the time Emily Bowen-Marler and I had just finished final proofs for our book, and all the endorsements were supposed to be ready, but the publisher somehow got its wires crossed and didn’t get the manuscript to the endorsers like they were supposed to. Which meant that I had to ask Marcus a huge favor. I didn’t know him all that well, but here I was, a new author, just a couple of weeks before my first book was supposed to go to press, having to ask if he would still read the manuscript and still consider endorsing the book, and “oh by the way, can you do it in two weeks time?” (which is far, far from ideal in the publishing industry, to say the least). But he graciously agreed, and wouldn’t you know it, two weeks later he contacted me with an endorsement for our book. He could’ve easily, easily said he didn’t have time, but he still offered his support. Reading his endorsement felt like an out of body experience for me. Surreal, lovely, magical. It’s one of my favorite memories. I once told him that he is a bit of a patron saint at Brentwood, and I wasn’t entirely kidding (perhaps not at all, now that I reflect on it). He is now among that great cloud of witnesses. I am grateful for him, and I am in his debt. Rest in peace, Marcus. This world is a better place because of you.

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Honor Dr. King by fixing societal structures

My latest Springfield News-Leader column

As each year goes by, I’m experiencing more and more mixed feelings when celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

It’s not that I think Americans shouldn’t take time to honor the legacy of Dr. King. After all, I believe Dr. King is the greatest Christian theologian in our nation’s history.

And it’s not that I think we shouldn’t have a national holiday in his honor. We have a variety of national holidays, and one of the primary things Dr. King left us with is a legacy of non-violent resistance (deeply rooted in, but not confined to, the example of Jesus), and it’s vitally important for us as a nation to remember the virtues of non-violence, especially when we so frequently rush to arms and valorize warfare.

Every year my church and my family march with hundreds of others in the Springfield area out of a shared commitment to justice, dignity and equality, and I wish to continue these practices well into the future. Indeed, I want to see them grow.

So why am I experiencing such mixed feelings?

Part of it, I fear, has to do with the way our nation frequently runs the risk of trivializing the deep import of Dr. King’s memory and message — a trivialization that harbors the potential of distracting us from the true — and much more difficult — pursuit of justice and equality.

During the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, we hear a lot of quotes on television and social media related to how everyone — no matter their background, race, or class — is created equally and therefore should be treated with dignity. Which is no doubt true. And we celebrate the beautiful call in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, reminding ourselves that our treatment of another person should be based on the content of their character and not on the color of their skin. Something else that is no doubt true.

But what we don’t hear much about are Dr. King’s penetrating critiques of societal structures that systematically take advantage of people — structures that produce unfair playing fields in which a person — no matter how good the content of their interpersonal character may or may not be — doesn’t always share in the same advantages that others might have, whether related to education, business, safety, or economic security (this is why racism is always about far more than personal prejudice — it’s also about systems of power that are set up to benefit some at the expense of others).

When Dr. King retold the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, he certainly highlighted the importance of the Good Samaritan helping the man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead along the Jericho Road. But he didn’t limit his analysis to the interpersonal virtues of the Good Samaritan. He went on to say that:

“A true [transformation] of values will cause us to question the fairness of many of our policies. On the one hand, we’re called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”

Even though segregation and inequality are actually on the rise in America, we’re conditioned to believe that to talk about systemic racism is no longer necessary in our so-called “post-racial America.” After all, doesn’t our annual celebration of Dr. King prove that we’ve arrived? That justice and equality have been achieved? Hardly.

It’s far too easy for us to neglect the full import of Dr. King’s legacy — a legacy that many white Americans like myself wish to conveniently repress or ignore. But when we reduce his legacy only to how we treat one another in interpersonal exchanges, and don’t pay attention to the way systems of power can be structured in unfair ways that prevent everyone from getting a fair shake, we don’t truly honor the man or the message. In such cases, we prefer celebrating the parts of his legacy that don’t challenge or push us out of our comfort zones.

If we really wish to honor Dr. King, we must look at the way systemic injustice is structured and brokered in a society in which too many people are left hurt and abandoned along the Jericho Roads of our world. This is no easy task. But it’s precisely what Dr. King did. It’s also what got him killed.

Do we truly have the courage to pick up where Dr. King left off? Or is the weight of pursuing true justice — and liberty for all — more than we can handle?

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Some thoughts on Charlie Hebdo, satire, religious violence, freedom of speech, and the baptism of Jesus

theophanyMark 1:1-11
Brentwood Christian Church
1/11/15

The Gospel of Mark begins with a bit of satire. Its opening words declare, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Now, to our modern ears, we don’t quite catch the satire, and we need to know some background.

When evangelists roamed the countryside of the Roman empire, visiting villages and hamlets such as Nazareth or Bethlehem, they were evangelists of the Roman emperor. The word evangelist means “bringer of good news,” with the word evangel meaning good news. And well before Christians were known for being evangelists — televangelists and otherwise — the Roman empire employed evangelists working on behalf of the Roman emperor, to share the “good news” the emperor had for his subjects.

The beginning of Mark’s gospel is a direct play on evangelists who represented Caesar Tiberius, evangelists who would enter a town and say, “Hear the good news of Caesar Tiberius, the son of God” — as you might recall, well before Jesus was proclaimed as Son of God by Christians, the Roman emperor was proclaimed as the divine son of God, Lord, Savior, and so forth.

But in a striking rhetorical move, the early Christians took these titles and phrases surrounding the Roman emperor and subverted them — bestowing them upon Jesus instead. This was a provocative, satirical way of saying that if you really want to hear good news, don’t look to Caesar, who, like most politicians and rulers of the day, is just out for political and material gain, often at your expense, but rather, look to Jesus for good news, for he wishes to liberate the oppressed and not exploit them, he longs to heal and mend without asking anything in return, he is the true prince of peace (remember the symbol of the dove appearing at his baptism), who brings peace not through conquest and military might — ala the Caesars of this world — but through justice, equity and reconciliation that is not about establishing a dominant empire through violence but is about ushering in a world built on mutuality and care and restoration for all people. In other words, it’s the narrator’s way of saying if you really want to know where God’s goodness is located, where true power can be used for the greater good, don’t look to Caesar or to Rome — which stand for the conventional, violent powers of empire that have ruled the world down through the centuries — but instead look to what is stirring in the life of Jesus — for there is a much better picture of where God’s goodness is located, hence the reasons early Christians reappropriated the titles son of God, savior, and Lord, bestowing them upon Jesus and taking them away from Caesar. This subversion or satire of Roman titles and phrases begs the question, where does one locate the truth of God — in the good news stirring in the life of Jesus, or the good news of empire? While Christians down through the ages have often sided with empire, the early Christians subverted empire, and said that hope is hope when it seeks the good of all subjects, as opposed to the expendability of all subjects.

The Bible is full of satire such as this. Even John the Baptizer, who plays a key role in announcing the significance of the life and ministry of Jesus, functions in the subversive capacity of turning the tables on the expectations of what God’s evangelist, or messenger, or announcer of good news might look like — instead of embracing excesses of empire, symbolized by white horses and gold rings and purple robes, John the Baptizer arrives on the scene wearing clothes made of camel hair and a simple leather belt, eating locusts and honey (he was backwoods ya’ll).

I mention all of this in order to raise the question of the value of satire as a truth-telling mechanism, which is fresh in our minds following the tragic massacre in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo paper. In the wake of the shooting, many around the globe began tweeting with the hashtag #WeAreCharlie, announcing solidarity with the satirical newspaper itself, which is not necessarily the same thing as announcing solidarity with the victims of violence and their grieving families. Part of the #WeAreCharlie response, of course, is connected to showing support for freedom of speech, which is viewed as a major value in democratized societies. Charlie Hebdo is a paper known for its provocative satirical pieces that push freedom of speech to its max, making fun not only of Muslims but of anything that might get a rise out of others.

And it’s here I must confess a bit of confusion. While I am all for freedom of speech — and while I believe satire can be used for great gain, as is often the case not only in the Bible, but, say, in the genius of Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart or the American pseudo newspaper The Onion — satire for the sake of satire, especially if it is demeaning and dehumanizing of others, as Charlie Hebdo often is, does not strike me as something to be in solidarity with. Instead, ought not we express solidarity with the lives of those who were lost and their families, the victims of tragic violence, rather than with the paper itself? And at the same time, ought not we take this moment to unequivocally denounce all forms of violence? Including violence done in the name of Islam, as well as all forms of political violence, economic violence, systemic violence, and religious violence that’s not exclusive to Muslim violence? And ought not we ask questions about the value of freedom of speech that’s only employed for freedom of speech’s sake? Isn’t the primary value of freedom of speech the freedom to speak truth to power, without being imprisoned, as opposed to simply provoking for provoking’s sake?

When the Bible tells us the story about Jesus being baptized in the waters of the Jordan, with the descent of the dove making its way toward him, it’s a way of saying that if you follow this one, you will find truth, and such truth harbors the promise to set you free. Rest assured, following this one may lead you toward encountering uncomfortable truths, uncomfortable truths about our lives and about our society, but they are truths that ultimately harbor the promise to set us free. And they are truths that don’t provoke for provoking’s sake, but in order to bridge divides, mend fences, break down walls of separation. And they are truths that set free in large part by virtue of their condemnation of violence and dehumanization in all its forms, whether physical or verbal, political or religious, implicit or explicit, personal or systemic.

The Bible uses satire to describe the kinds of truths that harbor the promise to set us free. This is what satire can do at its best. But when satire is used simply and vapidly to provoke and agitate and anger and dehumanize, with no viable greater good, it may very well be an expression of freedom of speech, but it’s hardly the kind of truth that can set us free. And when one feels like their faith is so threatened by such provocations that violence becomes the answer, as was the case with the massacre in Paris, then it’s in that moment that religion cedes its high ground and becomes nothing more than another self-defeating nihilistic pursuit. Which is precisely what any religion worth its salt is supposed to save us from.

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Mary, Did You Know?

I collaborated on the following sermon with my friend, Darryl Schafer (we preached our own versions of it at our respective churches). You can listen to the full audio here, or, if you’re just interested in the string of text messages we exchanged that gave birth to the sermon, here are a few of them:

Mary, did you know that your son would be a champion of the poor, only to see so many of his followers 2,000 years later blame, victimize, and dehumanize the poor?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would be called the Prince of Peace, yet countless wars would be waged in his name?

Mary, did you know that even though your son treated women as equals it would only take two generations for those following in his name to reestablish patriarchal gender norms?

Mary, did you know that followers of your son would deny basic human rights to others in the name of your son?
Mary, did you know that your son would be brutally tortured by state powers and that, 2,000 years later, most of his followers would turn a blind eye to the evils of torture still done by state powers?

Mary, did you know that those dipped in the fount of baptism in your son’s name would readily sanction dipping the heads of others into the waters of torture?

Mary, did you know that if your family tried to escape Herod’s violence by crossing our border today that most of your son’s followers, at least according to the statistics, would want to send all of you back?

Mary, did you know that if your son earned an executive job in America many would assume he was nothing more than an affirmative action hire?

Mary, did you know that the color of your son’s skin would make him more than twice as likely to serve time in an American prison today?

Mary, when you held your baby boy in your arms, did you know that he would end up becoming one more brown child unjustly killed by state powers?

Mary, did you know that that while your son was hanging on the cross that the cause of his death was suffocation? He could not breathe.

Audio of full sermon:

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Christmas at Brentwood

Originally posted on Brentwood Christian Church:

Dec. 17, 6:30pm — Children & Youth Christmas Program
Dec. 24, 6pm — Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Dec. 28, 10am — One combined worship service

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