I don’t always agree with Michael Bird, but I usually enjoy reading him. He’s witty and sarcastic, a theological comedian, which comes off as ostensibly offensive to liberal Christians because he doesn’t pay a whole lot of “due” respect to the ideologies we are being force-fed. Recently he wrote an article presenting his idea on how to solve the same-sex debate, which, though admittedly stuffed with rhetoric, made some well reasoned – though not necessarily new – arguments.
He states two non-religious reasons not to support same-sex marriage. The first is that – he says – it reduces marriage to a legal contract. That there is no “moral quality” to marriage. Yet ever since ancient times societies have “recognized the importance of the marriage-family bond for society.” He makes the point (and this is both perceptive and critical) that ultimately this debate is not about “who I choose to love” (you don’t need a legal contract for that! [It’s not about sex either since last I checked, the government doesn’t care to know who’s shacking up with whom as long as both are consenting adults.]), this debate is about the “nature and function of marriage in our society”. He goes on from there to propose what many others have been proposing as of late: separate church and state regarding the “sacrament” of marriage. Let the state issue binding legal contracts and let the Churches, Synagogues, Mosques et cetera, issue religious blessings. The second argument is one that I argued years ago in the local newspaper: who, advocating same-sex marriage, can find grounds to refuse polygamy? If you advocate same-sex marriage but refuse polygamy, I would love you hear your “rational.
“Go into exile, I must”
“Christendom is over folks. We are no longer calling people back to values they nominally consent to. There is no silent moral majority; we are now the minority, we are the odd balls, we speak a different language, we inhabit a different symbolic universe, we are now regarded as enemies of the state’s values, we are the new villains, we are the greatest threat to what the secularists think is a fair, just, and inclusive society. We are subversive ideological terrorists because we order our lives according the story, symbols, and sovereignty of Jesus Christ, all of which stands in violent opposition to the values of the secular order. We Christians represent a clear and present danger to the very edifice of secular pluralism because we refuse to believe in it and we tell a story that undermines it.”
This is not a “victim’s mentality” as some have claimed. Though Birds depiction is certainly colorful, in the midst of his elaboration is bedrock reality. We cannot assume that we live in a Christian society which means, as he said, when we challenge prevailing values according to biblical standards we cannot appeal to a “calling back” to “nominally consented” virtues. We are the “odd balls” who are considered by an ever-growing percentage of our Western population – which includes liberal Christians – “enemies of the state’s values” (he didn’t say “enemies of the state,” but of it’s “values”). Because Christian virtues are not so easily broken by “secular pluralism” we are a danger to the entire worldview.
Christians have often been called “hatemongers” for standing firm on non-violent Christian values (by “non-violent” I mean specifically the majority who do not agree with many of the values of society, but who never ever take a violent posture to it). Bird goes on to talk about “Ancient critics of Christians [who] called them “haters of the human race,” which ironically justified inflicting the most hateful and hurtful of punishments upon Christians!” Some people don’t’ think the parallel is warranted, but what makes it warranted is not that Christians today are called hatemongers just as Christians of the early centuries were called hatemongers. What makes the parallel warranted is why they were/are called hatemongers. Bird quotes Tacitus as saying that Nero burned Christians “not so much for the crime of burning the city [of Rome], but for hatred of the human race”. He explains:
“They were called human-haters because they failed to affirm the politics of Rome with Caesar at the top, they refused to embrace the pantheon of Roman gods, they refused to do their civic duty to honour the values of Rome, and they did not imitate the permissiveness of their society. When Christians are called “homophobes” for refusing to affirm and endorse gay marriage, it is just a variation of this theme.”
There are perhaps some nuances I would add, but in general that seems to make for a fairly warranted parallel to me.
But here’s the clincher for me. Bird writes, “We need to develop an ecclesiology of exile.” This ties in with his earlier statement about how “Christendom is over.” This is not new news, even though for many – myself included – the reality has not yet sunken in. People have been talking about how Western society is “post-Christian” for at least a decade now. I think if we are to move forward with hopes of being effective with the euangelion of Jesus the Messiah, we need to change the way we think, stop assuming we live in a Christian society and that all we need to do is call people back to their Christian roots. We are where we always should have been: in the periphery of society. In exile.
We have always been called to be in exile. Any attempt to usurp society or to change it politically into the Kingdom of God is to leave the plan and will of God – his calling on our lives as a Kingdom community – and we’ve seen where that road leads (all one has to do is think of the crusades!).
At the Wheaton conference in 2010 that I attended one of the questions asked to N.T. Wright was, “Are the people of God still in exile, or is the exile over?” After a moments thought Wright answered, “Both.” (cf. 1 Peter 1:17)