‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile’ by John Shelby Spong | Interview

Battling for the heart of Christianity

Rejoice gays and lesbians! Bishop John Shelby Spong says our battle has been won already.

Bishop Spong’s critics often lambaste him for making statements they find outrageous, and when he told me during a recent interview that our battle for acceptance has been won, I too was feeling a little outraged. How can he say the battle is won when our struggles continue to rage in churches, in homes, in the legislatures of states and our Capitol? People like Matthew Shepard are dying for no other reason than being gay. The religious right is using millions of dollars that could help the homeless or other needy to put out ads offering a “cure” to homosexuals. How can the battle be won already?

Unlike the bishop’s critics, I listened closely to his answer and found myself agreeing with him.

“I think we will have those aberrations, but I believe the battle is won,” he explained. “By that I mean, consciousness is being raised, at least in the developed nations. Gay people are out of the closet today, they’re not going back any more than blacks will go back to being slaves, or women will give up the right to vote.”

It is precisely the extreme measures our enemies go to that aid us in winning that battle. At the Anglican Communion’s once-a-decade Lambeth conference in Canterbury, England, recently, the bishops rejected gay sex as “incompatible with the scripture” and said only celibate gays can be priests.

Spong doesn’t see the resolution from Lambeth as all bad news.

“The only good thing I saw at Lambeth was that fence-sitting American Bishops were so offended at what they heard and saw, they decided to get off the fence,” he said. “These are southern Bishops. Two Bishops from North Carolina signed the pastoral statement. The Bishop of Mississippi was lobbying for gay people and the Bishop of Alabama was trying desperately to find a compromise.”

Just discussing the issue at Lambeth has made great inroads to areas where homosexuality is still seen as the greatest of abominations. In Africa, for example, the Bishops there are convinced homosexuality is a white man’s disease and can even name the time and place where the Europeans brought it to them. But once the topic is unleashed there’s no putting it back in the box. Eventually, it will be dealt with, even in the third world countries.

“Africa will never be the same because they had to argue about it,” Spong explained. “Ten years ago the African Bishops said they had no AIDS in their country. They can’t say that now. It’s not even a primarily gay disease there, it’s passed through prostitution.”

It is these minor miracles that give Spong the assurance that the battle is won. However, Lambeth does send a strong message that the struggles for ultimate acceptance of gays and lesbians within the church will continue for sometime. But now, the issue is no longer in the abstract. The church must deal with the concrete existence of gays and lesbians in their midst.

“You can’t deny the insight of medical science over the last 50 years that has offered an alternative to the traditional understanding of homosexuality as a sinful act of morally depraved or mentally ill people. Homosexuality is a given, not a chosen,” Spong observed. “Homosexuality is a normal and natural part of human life. It must not be rejected, oppressed or marginalized, it must be accepted like being left handed. We oppressed those people many years ago, too.”

For those who ask questions

Theologian Paul Tillich said, “My work is with those who ask questions and for them I am here.” Thirty-five years after Tillich spoke those words, Spong has been determined to fulfill his teacher and mentor’s dream of bringing the disaffected back into the fold of Christianity. Spong, like Tillich, says, “I do what I do to try to reach people for whom the traditional words have completely lost their meaning.”

He calls those people “believers in exile.” His new book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile, is his attempt to put those believers in exile back in touch with a spirituality that has lost its depth, its life-giving hope. These believers in exile include gays and lesbians who have been so roughly excluded from church life simply because of their sexual orientation.

When we, as gay and lesbian Christians, find barriers within the church, we tend to give up our spirituality all together. We begin to question the worth of the Christian church and its message, and many of us have found its answers lacking, and rightfully so. However, we often give up on Christianity all too easily.

For Spong, Christianity is all about breaking down the barriers that separate people from God. He sees the ultimate of acceptance of gays and lesbians into the church as part of the natural order of this barrier breaking action of Christ.

“The church of Jesus Christ has constantly moved past the fences of prejudice in its drive to become a universal community. Gentiles did ultimately find welcome in the Church. Slavery was finally ended. Segregation and apartheid had their backs broken. Women did achieve ecclesiastical power and position. Mentally ill people were finally understood and treated as sick people, not crazy people. … Ultimately, gay and lesbian people are receiving the welcome of Christ into the Church without the barriers of either a willingness to “reform” or a guilt-laden celibacy being imposed upon them as the price of their admission.”

In this way, the battle for acceptance has been won. But, questions remain in the mind of the believer in exile, including gay and lesbian Christians. So much of the creeds and dogma of the church serve as a big turn-off to religion in general. How can we still claim status as believers while at the same time making sense of some of the more contradictory and downright offensive parts of Christian theology?

With God on our side

To bring understanding to our faith we should start with the notion that God is on our side during our struggle for liberation within the church. We, like our oppressors on the Religious Right, like to think God is working especially for us, taking a personal interest in everything we do. But, God is no one’s specific champion, or protector, according to Spong.

Like Tillich, Spong concludes that God is not “a parent or Santa Claus in the sky” who will give us things just because we ask, or just because we’ve been good. Instead, God is the Ground of all Being, or the “infinite center of life.”

“This God was not a person, but, rather like the insights of the mystics, this God was the mystical presence in which all personhood could flourish. This God was not a being but rather the power that called being forth in all creatures. This God was not an external, personal force that could be invoked but rather an internal reality that, when confronted, opened us to the meaning of life itself.”

Within this Ground of Being we become fully realized individuals. It is this Ground of Being that gives us the courage we need everyday to continue to fight for the right to exist in a world where others work for our certain annihilation.

By realizing that God is our very Ground of Being, and not mom or pop high in the sky, Spong says then “being a disciple of Jesus does not require me to make literalized creedal affirmations in propositional form about the reality of the theistic God who supposedly invaded our world and who lived among us in the person of Jesus.”

Instead, we are empowered by Jesus to imitate “the presence of God in him by living fully, by loving wastefully, and by having the courage to be all that God created me to be.”

That means the courage to be gay and lesbian Christians in a world that says we have no right to be such a thing. That courage is only found within the depths of a God that surpasses all theistic notions of a father in the sky.

A better way

The phrase I like most in Spong’s book is “loving wastefully.” This idea is central to his Christological argument against Jesus as the lamb of God who died on the cross to save the world from sin.

“I don’t want a God that would require a blood sacrifice of his son,” Spong told me with obvious distaste. “Yet, that’s deep in the Christian tradition. Paul says in 1 Corinthians that Jesus died for our sins as if somehow his death was effective in doing something for my sins.”

Spong says we must understand the origins of the belief that Jesus died for our sins before we can begin to see a better way to talk about Jesus’ sacrifice.

“These were first century Jews trying to make sense of Jesus’ death. They leapt onto symbols of Jewish worship. They identified Jesus’ death with the slaying of the Passover lamb that breaks the power of death. It was the experience of the early Christians that the power of death had been broken in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s the whole resurrection story,” Spong explained.

Since these first century Jews identified Jesus with the lamb of Passover, they went to other parts of Jewish literature, including the lamb of Yom Kippur. That’s the lamb killed for their sins. That story became incorporated in the Jesus story. The lamb had to be perfect, with no broken bones. That’s how the story of Jesus’ bones not being broken on the cross was incorporated into the story.

The lamb was also thought to be sinless because it was below the level of human freedom. Tradition developed that Jesus was the sinless one, so he could be the human expression of the lamb of God. That was a way first century people made sense of Jesus death.

Spong postulates a better way to look at the death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus was so connected to God as the Ground of Being that he could love wastefully. He could love even the unlovable like lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes and not exhaust the love of God that had manifested within him. He calls each of us to go past the barriers of prejudice and hatred and connect with the inexhaustible love found within and through God. With this inexhaustible love, one can imagine a person such as Jesus being a willing sacrifice out of love for all humanity, and not as a sacrifice for our sins.

Spong said, “You can see the death of Jesus as a total self-giving of the love of God and have that love call us beyond our boundaries.”

Or as he states in his book:

“The cross of Jesus revealed that one can give life away totally if one possess it, or if one is in touch with or perhaps is at one with the source of life.”

That’s the essence of loving wastefully.

Trafficking in certainty

Given Spong’s unorthodox view of Christianity, it comes as no surprise to learn that especially more conservative Christians have soundly criticized him. An entire book, called Can a Bishop Be Wrong? by Peter C. Moore is dedicated to lambasting Bishop Spong’s theology. Other critics use less civil means to make their point. Bishop Spong has been the target of sixteen death threats encased in Bible quotations; a bomb threat at Catholic University, Brisbane; shouting picketers in San Diego; and “Truth Squads” who followed him in Australia, handing out tracts designed to silence him. He even gets letters from people who say they are praying for his death, often gleefully detailing the methods they would like to see God use.

The 67-year old Bishop’s reaction to all this? “I ignore them,” he said with a small chuckle. “They’re not bad people. They are locked into a particular period of history and have identified God with their traditional explanations of God so they feel their God is under attack, that means their security is under attack. I think anybody that believes it’s their duty to defend God is delusional. God doesn’t need anyone’s defense. No human formula has ever captured the essence of God. The best we can do is point to it and approach it. It is sheer idolatry when you begin to think that if there’s a different way of looking at God it has to be wrong because my way is right because this is what God is.”

It is that idolatry that Spong sees as running rampant through the church today. Because of that idolatry, he says Christianity is on the decline. That’s a tough statement to swallow when you see a growing number of people packing fundamentalist mega-churches across the country. The pastors of those churches say God is alive and well, and a fundamentalist, thank you very much, and use their bulging congregations as proof.

The numbers are more telling according to Bishop Spong. Those joining the ranks of the fundamentalists are not new Christians, he said, but those who are shifting from the mainstream to the right wing. Why is the mainstream hemorrhaging its members this way?

Bishop Spong believes it is because fundamentalist churches “traffic in certainty.” Which the Bishop calls “a narcotic, a drug that insecure people crave but no one can provide.”

“It’s built on ignorance, fear and trying to give answers to questions that human beings ultimately cannot answer,” said Spong. “I saw a poster hanging in a church once that said “Why is it those church who claim to have all the answers don’t allow any questions?”

It’s the right wing church’s aversion to questions that will eventually lead to it’s downfall, according to Spong.

“Life has a way of destroying the certainty of these fundamentalist traditions,” he explained. “They have to spend an enormous amount of time trying to justify why God allowed such and such happened. Life has a way of knocking us all down. I know too many disillusioned former fundamentalists who are bitter about their experience.”

Spong believes God does not give us certainty but instead gives us the ability to live with insecurity. Right wing churches do not equip their members to deal with the ambiguity in life, instead giving its members black and white answers in an ultimately gray world. Such indoctrination ultimately leads to self-righteous anger against groups that challenge its rigid sense of right and wrong. It is this anger that leads to all manner of horrible acts being proclaimed in the name of God, from the killing of a gay person, to the subjugation of women, to disenfranchisement of other minorities.

“There is an hysterical quality in right wing religion that says this is the truth, you must not challenge it. There is an enormous anger when someone threatens this security level. Ultimately the Christian faith does not issue in anger, it issues in love and the affirmation of life and the calling of people to a deeper humanity. I don’t see that. The right wing religion ultimately participates in people’s neurosis,” the Bishop explained.

The right wing believes they own God. But, we on the side of the oppressed like to believe we own God as well. Bishop Spong reminds us:

The God who is the Ground of Being cannot be so owned. Got is a universal presence undergirding all of life. God does not bless and curse individuals according to an imposed prescription of conduct. God, the source of life, calls us to live fully. God, the source of love, calls us all to love wastefully. God, the Ground of Being, calls us all to have the courage to be ourselves. So when we live, love and have the courage to be, we are engaged in worship, we are expanding our humanity, we are breaking out of our barriers.