Every time I encounter a challenge in following Jesus, I think of a woman named Florence Byerley.
Florence and her husband Lester were spiritual mentors to my husband John and me. Flo in particular was “Miss Ecumenicity,” as one of our pastors named her (although she often referred to herself as an “ecumaniac”). She not only believed in Christian unity; she believed in the unity of all faiths, particularly of Judaism and Christianity. John even attended Jewish culture classes with Flo when he was a teen-ager in her Sunday school class. She named her personal memoir “My Favorite Jewish Mother,” a reference to her longtime, unsuccessful campaign to get an image of Mary with a young Jesus made into a Christmas postage stamp.
Most of all, Flo and Les were peace workers. Every Friday for years, they and other peace advocates stood on a corner opposite the General Electric plant in the middle of our county, witnessing against the plant’s business: making triggers for nuclear bombs. Rain or shine, cold or heat, they were there every Friday with signs and songs, trying to convince GE workers to stop making nukes.
Florence was fond of quoting G. K. Chesterton: “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and so not tried.” Her fondness for this quote has been on my mind all week as I struggled with this week’s “Darkwood Brew” episode on Romans 1, 2, and 3.
Once again, I must confess: Although I consider myself a good lay theologian after 30 years of professional Christian service, I have never been able to get my head around Romans. Even the Rev. Eric Elnes’ helpful diagram of Paul’s logic in Romans leaves me still doubting my understanding.
However, I think that I’ve grasped some of it upon deep reflection, thanks to my memories of Florence Byerley. Flo wasn’t successful in her Christian witness by the world’s standards. But she was non-judgmental, a humble giver of grace to all she encountered, cheerful and faithful to her Lord to her utmost ability. Contrasting Flo with Paul’s descriptions in Romans has illuminated some of his argument: the difference between our self-righteousness spawned by our egos and the liberation God gives us from these false selves that cause us to sin, by the model of Jesus Christ.
Sharp-eyed readers will note that I said “model” of Jesus rather than “sacrifice” or “salvation” or any of the other words and phrases associated with the penal substitutionary atonement theory of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection. Penal substitutionary atonement, or PSA as we’ll call it for these purposes, is a theology that I’ve struggled with for years and finally decided to abandon altogether. Why? Because the idea that Jesus, the Divine One, was incarnate in human flesh solely for the purpose of dying a horrible death is utterly abhorrent and incomprehensible. How could God, who supposedly is the essence of Love, will such a thing to happen? It smacks of holy child abuse. How could we as human beings love a god who would do such a thing to his or her own child? No, Jesus died because he spoke Truth to Power, that is, he dared to preach and teach that there is but one God, infinite in Love, who is not the emperor or the empire. Yes, Jesus died because of our sin, but not for our sin. That God resurrected Jesus testifies to his standing as the Christ, our liberator, our friend and brother, who points us toward our own redemption by God’s grace.
To my mind, then, the misinterpretation of penal substitutionary atonement from Romans has to be one of the worst theological mistakes perpetrated on the Church. I believe it’s also one of the big causes of the church’s mistreatment of GLBTQ people. After all, if the Church can point to scripture describing “unnatural” relations between same-sex partners as sin by those who will never be part of God’s people, then any and all abuses of those who practice such relations can be justified as following God’s will.
The kicker, of course, is that because of the way Romans is written, and the way it is read out of its historical context, God’s true will for humankind has been obscured for centuries unless the text is read both deeply and broadly. Elsewhere in his writings Paul makes it clear that God’s true identity is Love, and that we are loved beyond all imagining. And Love – genuine love that puts another’s good before one’s own – has no place in judgment.
So now I get the nub of my longtime discomfort with Romans: Instead of recognizing its own culpability, the Church has long fallen into precisely the trap of judgment against which Paul warns. When it comes to the authentic nature of God’s grace, we who claim to follow Jesus have been found wanting of the very definition of grace that he taught, namely loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Thus our sin has enabled the world around us to demonize and terrorize GLBTQ people, to make them our scapegoats.
This failure to love, to put others’ welfare ahead of our own, is what Florence Byerley and G. K. Chesterton and other perceptive Christians must have meant about the difficulty of following Jesus Christ. Even when faced with countless examples of faithful gay and lesbian couples in long-term committed relationships (without the benefit of social contracts until recently), we still fall back on this now-ancient misjudgment of GLBTQ people as irredeemable sinners while we ignore our own infidelities, our own abuses, our own sins.
Like Paul and his Romans, we are all people of our own eras, which makes me frequently aware, as the Rev. Cynthia Lindenmeyer noted, in this week’s Backwoods Buzz, that I can try to make the Bible say whatever I want it to say. Hard as it is, I can only hope and pray that more of us who claim to follow Jesus will make the effort not to be found wanting when the challenge to love as we are loved comes our way.