Friday, May 27, 2011

All or Nothing

All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” (Galatians 3.10-11)

The Slippery Slope

If find yourself in our fair city of Chicago, here are a few tidbits to stay clear of strict police officers steeped in civil code. Don’t dine in a burning building. Avoid sharing your whiskey with dogs. It’s OK to ride a giraffe as long as you refrain from fishing while doing so. Leave your kite at home; flying kites is illegal in Chicago. If you’re in the Pullman neighborhood, whatever you do, don’t sit on a curb and drink beer from a bucket. Go ahead and rip off all your clothes to protest whatever vexes you in front of City Hall—provided you’re 17 or younger and secure a permit. If you’re of age or haven’t filed the paperwork, nude protests aren’t such a good idea. Of course, you’re free to do any of these things and run for the border when the cops show up. But should you cross into the suburb of Cicero and it’s a Sunday, contain your glee at eluding arrest. Sunday humming on Cicero streets buys a ticket to the hoosegow.

I undertook my search for arcane Chicago edicts facetiously, thinking it might be a fun way to introduce today’s clobber text: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” (Leviticus 18.22) Yet given what I found, I confess a double-edged discomfort. First, some of the city’s blue laws are just too silly; comparing them to the goofier Mosaic ordinances (of which there are many) would demean Scripture, which is unacceptable. Additionally, a few ordinances raise concerns about my civic duty, as none of the crazy-law lists provides rationale for their enactment. Without this information, I’m uncertain of how to interpret them and my responsibility to assist in their enforcement.

For instance, I have a neighbor who, before driving with her dogs, spikes their water with a little beer to sedate them. Otherwise, she says, they jump around, endangering her and other motorists. Assuming the ban on serving dogs whiskey is a humane ordinance, does it strictly mean distilled liquor or all alcoholic beverages? Does it also apply to other pets? Should I warn her she’s headed for trouble if she keeps it up? We live across from Lake Michigan, where a warm day rarely passes without happy children flying kites. Obviously, they think it’s okay, and many would argue it’s natural for kids to fly kites. But the city forbids it. Am I careless to observe their lawlessness from my window without crossing the street to tell them they’re doing wrong? I know several adults who plan to protest global dependency on oil by joining the Chicago Naked Bike Ride two weeks from now. As with similar events around the world, the route is kept under wraps until the day-of. While the city promises not to interfere, shouldn’t they know they risk arrest if they cycle past City Hall?

Preferring not to upset well-meaning people with evidence they’ve gone astray, should I just ignore it and let the chips fall where they may? Perhaps I should alert proper authorities and let them deal with it. Yet that feels cowardly and dishonest. Maybe the best way to “help”—as a dutiful Chicago citizen—would be mounting or joining a campaign to raise awareness of overlooked laws. Once people hear these laws exist and read them for themselves, compliance is on their heads. More important, I can’t be blamed if they suffer the consequences of scoffing at them. Best of all, I don’t even have to worry with why the city put these laws on its books. The law is the law and must be kept—all of it. The minute we start choosing which ones we think are valid is the minute we slide down the slippery slope. Before you know it, we’ll have drunk dogs, kite flyers, and nude protesters everywhere. Who knows where it will end?

Achievers or Believers?

I’ve made my point—up to a point, that is, since comparing civil law with Biblical law only works up to a point. Proper integration of Old Testament wisdom with New Testament doctrine raises the concern level substantially higher than how we assess applicability of specific edicts, or our duty to obey and uphold them. When discussing Mosaic Law, the slippery slope’s gate opens much sooner than we think. Long before we slide into defending and disputing this law or that, how we define ourselves determines our course and positions we take. Based on Paul’s instruction in Galatians, we have a choice. Are we law-abiding or faith-drivenachievers or believers? Either we’re convinced it’s in our power and best interest to abide by the whole Law and conform to its demands, or we’re confident it’s in God’s power and best interest to free us from Law and reconcile us to God’s purpose. Paul says it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. And we’re foolish to imagine it’s not, because a law-abiding, achieving life shares nothing in common with a faith-driven, believing one.

The law-abiding life scrutinizes behavior and trusts what it sees. The faith-driven life looks beyond behavior to trust what it can’t see. The law-abiding life places primary importance on human achievement as proof of belief. The faith-driven life believes God achieves what we can’t when divine grace intersects with human frailty. The two ways of life could not be more opposite—so much so that Paul describes one as… Well, let’s let him say it: “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’” (Galatians 3.10-11) In a nutshell—with humble regrets to those who don’t agree with Paul and won’t like hearing this—achievers are cursed, believers justified.

The New Promise

Alluding to humanity’s struggles before God’s grace is revealed in Christ—i.e., life under the Law—Titus 3.3-6 explains: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” God’s kindness and love, our rebirth and renewal are not obtainable by achievement. (Not by righteous things we had done, but because of God’s mercy…) We must believe.

As the Law evolved over centuries, piling up commands and remedies for every imaginable religious, social, and cultural dilemma, its vastness became a recipe for failure—which the Titus correspondent depicts as foolishness, disobedience, deception, and enslavement that became endemic to life, setting off malicious, envious conflicts among God’s people. Relying on their power of achievement set them on a collision course with self-defeating sin. Paul succinctly explains it like this: “The sting of death is sin, and power of sin is the law.” Before his readers give up, admitting they can’t possibly meet all of the Law’s demands, he hastens to add, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15.56-57) These texts—and innumerable ones like them—form the cornerstone of Christian doctrine. They’re essential to the New Testament, the new promise that supersedes the Old Testament by reorienting our understanding of how we please God from what we achieve to Whom we believe. And ironically—though not unintentionally—freedom from the Law through faith in Christ ultimately frees the Law from the deadly, sin-inducing force it became. Therefore, to read, respect, respond or relent to its edicts as de facto commands is to revert to a cursed, grace-free existence, because obedience to one law presumes submission to all the Law expects.

An Inconvenient Obligation

This all-or-nothing perspective isn’t a freewheeling, liberal rationale to discredit conservative "Old Testament" values. Nor is it opinion Paul invents to neutralize legalism’s encroachment on Early Church doctrine. It’s the Law, explicitly decreed in Deuteronomy 27.26: “Cursed is anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” (Emphasis added.) And that’s where law-abiding Christians who conveniently pull out Leviticus 18.22 crash into an inconvenient obligation—one I daresay no sane person could possibly consider keeping. The buck doesn’t stop with citing one sentence to prove God detests gay people. That little sentence in chapter 18 is inextricably linked to a literal sentence in Leviticus 20.13: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

By law, Christians who clobber gays with Leviticus 18.22 are obliged to execute them! While a few may fantasize about it, no sincere Christian would willingly kill for this cause—simply because murder is the ultimate Christian taboo. When the buck stops at execution, the flimsiness of Leviticus’s anti-gay edict gives way. More than that, the curse of the law-abiding achiever’s life becomes self-evident. It’s a troubled existence plagued by half-truths and irreconcilable contradictions. Sadly, it saddles many good-hearted, earnest, sorely misled Christians to the Titus profile: “foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures, [living] in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” It’s no way to live—certainly not how we want to live and, above all, not how Christ calls us to live. Through Christ, we place full trust in what we believe, giving no credence to human behavior as a reliable indicator of righteousness. In John 7.24, Jesus conclusively ends a legal debate with advice every Christian should bear in mind: “Stop judging by mere appearances, judge correctly.” (v24) Jesus says faith cannot be visibly observed, assessed, or confirmed. Hence, it can’t be legally proven. Case closed.

Jesus surrendered His life and triumphantly waged our war with sin and death so we might be free from sin’s mortal sting and the Law’s power. The resurrection and new life it brings cancel any need to revive decrepit statutes. There’s no reason to defend Calvary’s singular achievement against those who refute it with doctrine that reflects their fears and naïveté. Partial adherence to the Law negates the entire Law. No response we offer could speak more persuasively to the error of their ways than that. Leviticus fans need no help exposing their folly. Which is why they need our compassion and prayers.

By its own decree, Old Testament Law is not available for slicing and dicing to suit our purposes. Either we live by all of it—including its inconvenient obligations—or we escape its curse by faith through Christ.

Postscript: We’re Not Done Yet

With Leviticus 18.22 rapidly becoming the favorite sound bite opposing same-sex orientation, it’s not only important we understand why Mosaic Law is unavailable for use by anyone who doesn’t abide by its totality. It’s equally important we’re clear on what the Law says and whom it targets with purportedly anti-gay statutes. So we’re not done yet. A follow-up post will examine Levitical texts as a whole, as well as verses many (most unknowingly) abuse.

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