Stumbling Blocks

May 11, 2007

Daily OfficeToday’s Epistle reading is Romans 14:13-23.

I love it.

It took me some meditation to love it, though.

The beginning of the passage starts out wonderfully:  Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another.  I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.

The issue at hand is one of dietary laws and groups who were offended by the others eating habits.  But the message is clear– get along and don’t let the dietary habits of others dissuade you from being in community.

In other words, don’t let theological issues divide the church.

I began to have some problems with the next parts, culminating in this verse:  Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister brother stumble.

On the surface, this seems to be the sort of argument that conservatives use against GLBT folks.  Not for dietary requirements, certainly, but that it is “our issue” that makes “them stumble” and so therefore the “break in the communion” falls upon “our” shoulders, whatever theological view of same-sex orientation is held.

This, of course, already takes the verse out of context– it is intended for dietary restrictions in Paul’s own day.  But if we continue to use it as a metaphor as I have done, we find that the opposite is actually the case.

First, it is important to note that just as in Acts 10, everything is declared clean.  Nothing that God made is unclean.  That’s important.  As ++Desmond Tutu said once in a powerful sermon that I was privileged to hear, “This [human] family has no outsiders.  Everyone is an insider.  When Jesus said, “If I am lifted up, will draw…”  Did he say, “I will draw some?”   “I will draw some, and tough luck for the others?”  He said, “If I be lifted up, will draw all!”  All!  All!  All!  — Black.  White.    Yellow.  Rich.  Poor.  Clever.  Not so clever.  Beautiful.  Not so beautiful.  All.  All.  It is radical.  All!  Saddam Hussein.  Osama bin Laden.  Bush.  All!  All!  All are to be held in this incredible embrace.  Gay.  Lesbian.  So-called straight.  All!  All are to be held in the incredible embrace of the love that won’t let us go.”

That’s important.

Second, it’s important to figure out who, in our modern context, is making whom stumble.

To my knowledge, the oppression of the church is the basis of argument in Western society for continued discrimination in civil law against GLBT people.  We cannot marry.  We are bombarded constantly with images of heterosexual images and role models.  Positive gay role models in the media are few and far between, save perhaps when heterosexual people want to use us for a good laugh.  Crimes targeting us specifically because of who we are may not be recognized as hate crimes.  Many religious groups embolden such crimes– going so far as to protest our churches, our funerals, our most private moments, with vile, cruel, and perverse images– “God hates fags” signs and worse.  It is no wonder that historically suicide among GLBT oriented teens is higher than among heterosexual oriented teens.  It is no wonder that depression is higher in GLBT people than among heterosexual people.  The last 20 years have seen things change in wonderful ways, but we still have far to go.

Who is stumbling?

Have we forced anyone to take a gay rector?  Have we forced anyone in the rest of the Communion to ordain lesbian priests?  Or rather have we eaten of our own discerned “dietary requirements”– one where all creatures are found to be clean and pure– and allowed others to do the same?  No.  It never ceases to amaze me how the white, straight, male in the United States can turn the tables and make himself the victim.  The white, straight, male in the United States is the power holder.  To allow for equality of race, gender, sexual orientation, theological orientation, and nearly every other type of diversity not only in this country but in the world, the American white male has to yield and share some of that power.  That some in the rest of the Communion– who have in the past been dominated, controlled, and manipulated by that very power– are willing to enable in the so-called victimization of the American straight white male is troubling.  He sees it as victimization, but it is merely a leveling of the playing field.  He is so unused to being dominant that he does not know what it is like to be equal.  That is troubling for him, and he lashes out in any way he can– including playing the victim.

I am willing to let that man– the white, straight, American male, stand where he needs to be to slowly come to the realization that equality ultimately allows him to know Jesus better.  I do not need to force him to accept my position; I trust that God will grow him in God’s own time– in the fullness of time, as Paul would put it.  I only need to be authentic in my own rite– to be allowed to eat the theological and spiritual food I am called to eat.

No, we are not causing others to stumble.  Others are putting stumbling blocks before us.

Paul gives us instructions for that.

Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another.  I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.



4 Responses to “Stumbling Blocks”

  1. John 2007 Says:

    “get along and don’t let the dietary habits of others dissuade you from being in community.
    In other words, don’t let theological issues divide the church”
    However much one is committed to unitu, this way of putting things–and thinking–is, surely, a jarring non-sequitur. Remember, Paul castigated churches for bad theology. He reprimanded leaders for false gospels. He hardly made a leap from non-essential being no cause for division to essentials being non-essentials.

  2. Jeff Says:

    You made the assessment of “bad theology,” not me.

    Paul’s overriding mission was that of inclusion of those who were otherwise prevented from being a part of the Jesus movement. He worked hard to bring those into the fold who had previously been prevented from being included without giving up their identity and converting to Judaism: the Gentiles, or the non-Jewish nations. One might even say he worked against the “bad theology” of exclusion.

    This situation is not so different.

    John, it is clear that you don’t understand the theology of inclusion. You are not reading the narrative of Scripture but rather reading passages removed both from their cultural context and their context in the larger story.

    That’s actually fine with me– I don’t find meaningful theology that way but if it works for you I believe with all my being that it must be meaningful for you and help your relationship with God. But for you to judge my theology because you don’t understand it– well, that’s just the whole point of this post. And you’ve just proved it.

    If you’ve got problems with my theology, why don’t you lay them out, point by point, in a systematic way, rather than just summarily dismissing it as “bad?” That way we can at least ensure that we are understanding each other. This way I rather only have the feeling that you dismiss me because you don’t understand me.


  3. John 2007 Says:

    The point is simple: what I have quoted from you is a non sequitur. Saying don’t let dietary restriction get in the way is not the same thing, just “in other words”, as “don’t let theological issues divide the Church.”

    I understand very much how “inclusivity” is the driving force in what you write. If you are aguing for it, however, and not from it, as a first principle, then you can’t establish it as you have tried. Paul was very much concerned with false teaching, false understanding, false doctrine–pick your term–about the nature and purposes of God.

  4. Jeff Says:

    Yes, I thought I covered how I got from point a to point b.

    And Paul was concerned with false teaching, the point here was that both sets of dietary habits were perfectly valid. My argument is that, while I believe that inclusion is the proper theology behind both Paul’s teaching and that of the Gospels, I understand how others can come up with something else.

    Just as 1st century followers of Jesus used Mosaic law combined with what was then known of Jesus to come up with two different views of dietary laws.

    Thus, don’t let theological views divide the church.

    Both sets of views are concerned with the ultimate same purpose: the kingdom of God, Jesus as saviour, and so on. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

    While I hestitate to go that far and it is difficult for me, because I happen to think inclusion is “big stuff”, I also realize it is only big stuff right now because of the stumbling blocks set before us. Ultimately the mission of the church is not about GLBT issues. I am comfortable taking a position that allows others to remain exclusionary so long as they don’t put stumbling blocks before me. After all, that is what inclusion is all about.

    That is the point. I hope that makes more sense.


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