In seminary, I learned to think of truth as a symphony rather than a single voice or instrument. The goal is not to get everyone to play the exact same note with the exact same instrument; the goal is to enter into harmony with each others’ instruments so that we can become God’s song. It’s not the absolute relativism of playing our own autonomous songs; that would be a disastrous cacophony of sound. Rather, we are all playing our own particular improvisational variations on God’s melody. God designs the harmonic that we have been created to inhabit by helping us appropriate a particular set of experiences of His grace and by tattooing certain verses in His word onto our hearts over the course of our lives. Though there are tons of scripture passages that have touched me, five in particular define the gospel I was given to proclaim. The first I’m going to cover is 1 Corinthians 1:28: “God chose the base things, the despised ones and those who are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”
I discovered this verse in the fall of 2003 at a particularly low point in my life when I had moved back home to live with my parents after a failed relationship. I had gone through several years of severe depression, which was particularly meaningless suffering, because there was nothing particular about my life that merited being sad, which meant that I hated myself for being not only spoiled and privileged but also ungrateful. So I latched onto this verse as a way of narrating my redemption and the basis for a restored dignity. I decided to understand my brokenness as my chosenness. The Greek word for “the despised ones” is exouthenemena; the singular version exouthenemenos is a name that I have taken on for myself. The literal meaning of the word, which is a passive participle, is “one who has been stomped out.”
As I have read Henri Nouwen and several liberation theologians like James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Jon Sobrino, I have come to see this verse more expansively than merely a means for narrating my own personal victory over mental illness. I have come to believe that those who are crucified and despised by the world are the ones Jesus chooses to be the vanguard of His movement. It is not that they are better people; they are not more qualified, morally speaking. But the exouthenemena have two distinct advantages that make inhabiting Christ’s kingdom more natural for them.
One is that they have no stake in the demonic normalcy of the world’s dominant paradigms. As outsiders who have nothing, they are free to trust in God completely, instead of just tipping their hats to God on the way to meeting with their financial planners to discuss their investment portfolios. People who have nothing and trust God are free to imagine the completely different world that God wants to create on Earth as it is in heaven, while those who are comfortable in the world the way it is are much more inclined to say, “Isn’t Jesus being a little bit hyperbolic with that Sermon on the Mount? That’s just not the way the world works.”
The second advantage the exouthenemena have is that they can empathize with people who have been bullied, ignored, and marginalized. It’s true that not everyone who is stepped on responds in a constructive way. Some become abusers or nasty, bitter people. But brokenness can create a genuine humility and gentle mercy that those who have never lost their dignity cannot quite seem to grasp.
One of the most powerful encounters I had with exouthenemena was at the first Methodist church I ever attended in 2002, Central Avenue UMC in Toledo, Ohio, at which almost everyone else was LGBT. I had serious crises going on in my life, like a self-destructive party lifestyle and an alcoholic girlfriend who attempted suicide multiple times, and the lesbians at that church mothered me and made me safe in a way that I don’t think would have happened with a group of people who hadn’t been stepped on and crucified by the world. They were Christ to me in a way that even the best-intentioned people of privilege couldn’t have been (because I wouldn’t have opened up to people I perceived to be reaching down to me from a place of having everything together).
Gay Christians are uniquely despised, because they get attacked by both the Christians and the secular gay community, though of course not equally. The “persecution” experienced by straight evangelical Christians from the secular world is categorically different than what gay Christians experience from fellow Christians.
Here’s why. Straight evangelical Christians have no interest in fitting in with or making sense to the secular world; they litmus-test each other for “compromising” their faith according to whether they believe things that are in sync with secular world values. So the world’s persecution is actually a proof of legitimacy to evangelicals; sometimes they even seek to stoke it for this reason.
Gay Christians on the other hand desperately want to be accepted by a community that considers them to be the biggest problem with the world and tells them the only acceptable way for them to exist is to be utterly without physically intimate partnered companionship for the entirety of their lives.
Other despised ones in our society are undocumented immigrants, Arabs and Muslims in general, homeless people, the mentally ill, youth that look like Trayvon Martin. It doesn’t necessarily make you a good person to be despised. But it does make you a person whose humiliation has severed the worldly attachments and assumptions that privilege has instilled in people like me, which means that a despised one is more ready for Jesus’ kingdom than the rich young ruler who went away sad because he had too much world in his closet.
So how do the despised ones “bring to nothing the things that are”? That’s the fascinating question I’ve been trying to understand, and I have a theory. I really think that God has thrown His people a huge curveball with the homosexuality issue, for example. It seems like an epic Solomonic test similar to the case in which two women were arguing over a baby and the woman who was willing to lose the argument was the one whose genuine love was revealed as a result (1 Kings 3:16-28). We are baited into revealing our true nature by how we respond to this debate.
The despised ones are forcing us to wrestle with how we read and use scripture and hopefully in the process “bringing to nothing” inadequate approaches to Biblical interpretation. Our polemical context gives God a teachable moment, even if most of us are completely oblivious to the lesson we’re supposed to be learning from Him while we’re screaming at the other side.
We need to be confronted by the question of whether we have been reading the Bible for the sake of discipleship or ideology (which we use as a substitute for discipleship). We need to ask whether holiness is about our embodiment of the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 or if it concerns our willingness to hold an unpopular stance about what other people are doing. We are discovering that it is insufficient merely to use the Bible as a flat collection of propositional truths. There is a logic underneath those truths just as there is always a framework in which commands are given.
Leviticus 18, for example, presumes an exclusively male audience (without ever acknowledging it explicitly) in the boundaries it sets for sexual behavior because only men were understood to have a choice in sex. Women were passive recipients of the male seed who needed to be protected but did not have sexual agency themselves. When rape occurred, the solution was marriage (Genesis 34, 2 Samuel 13). The means of protecting women was not to teach men that “no means no,” which was not yet a concept, but to organize the society into households with strict taboo boundaries where the “nakedness” of the women and children was “covered” by the household patriarch.
That’s why taboo sexual relations are described in terms of “uncovering nakedness” in Leviticus 18, which also says that uncovering the nakedness of your father is uncovering the nakedness of your mother (v. 7). As long as the father stays covered, his household is covered; that is the means of their safety. But the patriarchal boundaries are shattered if one household patriarch uncovers the nakedness of another by “lying with him as he does with a woman” (v. 22), because doing so uncovers the nakedness of the whole household and takes out the wall holding back other men in the community from pulling a Sodom on that household’s women and children (Genesis 19). Patriarchy is the framework of boundaries in which the Biblical prohibition of same-sex intimacy applies.
So here’s the million-dollar question: is this patriarchal social model permanently normative and the “natural” way in which things are always supposed to be? First century Jews like Paul certainly thought that organizing households under patriarchs for the safety of the women and children was the “natural” way to organize society, which is why they continued to oppose homosexuality, since it would throw everything off. Mark Driscoll and other pastors in today’s neo-patriarchal movement think that we should still do things the same way today.
The Bible’s prohibition of homosexuality stands or falls with the Bible’s prescription of patriarchy, the latter of which has a much more formidable pile of proof-texts supporting it if our Biblical interpretation is limited to surface-level proof-texting. If one is permanently normative, the other is also, and there are plenty of neo-patriarchal fundamentalists who have expressed this point explicitly as the reason for holding the line on patriarchy, saying that if the feminist rebellion had never happened, we would not be dealing with homosexuality today. Doug Wilson goes back even further and says that the abolitionists were the ones who originally took us down the wrong path by opposing slavery in an un-Biblical way.
But would Paul tell us today in a world where patriarchy isn’t the ubiquitous given in every known surrounding culture, as it was in his day, that patriarchy and gender essentialism are essential non-negotiables to his gospel? The neo-patriarchs would say yes, let’s make it a third Great Commandment. But I’m not so sure. Paul proves himself to be a pragmatist who is willing to contradict himself depending on the pastoral context (how in the world did the same man write Galatians 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 11:8-9?). He seems quite emphatic that “nothing is unclean; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Romans 14:14), which doesn’t mean that we get to decree which behaviors are unclean to us and which are not, but it absolutely does mean that Paul’s concern is with the impact of unclean behaviors on a person’s soul as opposed to the duty of following rules for the sake of duty in abstraction.
Our challenge in submitting to an authoritative book and interpretive tradition developed almost exclusively by men who presumed that men were always supposed to be 100% masculine and women 100% feminine is analogous to having a language which only knows how to account for two syllable words because the accent must either be on the first or last syllable. I actually wrote a poem about this. What do you do when you discover three syllable words which don’t always fit into the two categories of first or last accented syllable words since there’s a middle syllable?
That’s the crisis that the exouthenemena create. Their crime is being three syllable words in a language whose words are not supposed to have more than two syllables, since all the teachings of our tradition on gender and sexuality apply to two syllable words, which were the only words known to exist when the tradition was developed. And the anguish that our language has to wrestle with is whether or not to allow nuance into the equation, which would involve saying, yes, all two syllable words are either accented on the first or last syllable, but when we encounter a three syllable word which our forefathers did not anticipate, then we can deal with this phonetic crisis by constructing the best analogy we can make from our existing rule structure instead of demanding that the third syllable stay silent so that it can behave according to the rules that were developed when only two syllable words were known.
Many people accuse the exouthenemena of completely wrecking our moral order. This is certainly true in the same sense that three syllable words in a two syllable language force you to make a new dictionary or at least write in the margins of your old one. But what if a new, more nuanced moral order would actually be more faithful to God’s plan for us than the one that we currently have?
What if what we thought was the moral order most faithful to the authoritative witness of Jesus Christ has actually been corrupted by idols we don’t recognize that will continue to impoverish our pursuit of holiness until we do a reboot? For instance, when we say that the single moral duty of Christians everywhere is to be sexually pure so they can “focus on their families,” it provides us with a powerful means of making ourselves comfortable with living the embodiment of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.
What if the new interpretive approaches that we could allow ourselves to develop for the sacred poetry that God wants to tattoo on our hearts actually cause this poetry to penetrate us more deeply than it could before when we thought what we had was no more than Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth? The authority that has not been affirmed by an overly confident, literalist approach to Biblical interpretation is the authority of God to speak through each verse to a particular issue in a particular moment of my particular life. If the verses that I read have only one universally self-evident meaning and I already know that meaning, then I have been immunized against the possibility of being transformed by those verses. God has said very strange things to me through particular verses that could not be universalized to all Christians.
I really believe that God is indeed using those whom we despise to bring to nothing the way we thought things were. Whether or not you agree with my Biblical interpretations, our present crisis in evangelical Christianity is forcing all of us on every side of every debate into a more intensive season of metanoia, the Greek word we inadequately translate as repentance, which means the perpetual willingness to leave behind our prior paradigms as we chase after the ancient One who has always been “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Metanoeite kai pisteueite. That’s the demand of Jesus’ first sermon: leave behind your old ways and trust me. As long as He continues to tattoo His poetry onto my heart, I’m good.