It’s once again that time of year when I don’t know whether to say it’s pumpkin season or Jack-o-Lantern season.
It all has to do with this Christian dichotomy of how we regard Halloween. Is it a nationwide glorification of all things wicked, sinful, and abominable? Or is it merely a cultural ritual that celebrates the adrenaline rush of being scared, touts the fun of dressing up like something we’re not, and grants us permission to eat high-calorie sweets without guilt?
We can answer the question of what Halloween was by studying its origins. One of the world’s oldest holidays, it started with the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in) that marked the end of summer. Believing the spirits of the dead would return, Celts lit bonfires, wore disguises and offered animal sacrifices to their deities to ward off ghosts. From that information, courtesy of the History Channel, we can imagine the evil celebrations that likely evolved as part of these practices.
But does that presumed celebration continue when we allow our kids to dress up and go door-to-door asking neighborly strangers for sweet treats? Are we acting as agents of the devil by donning our costumes for the various parties we’ll go to this weekend and Monday, likely with church worship services in between?
I would argue that the majority of people who plan to participate in the candy trade, costume parties, and perhaps mass readings of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will not consider themselves celebrators of all things wicked.
Instead, it seems as if a sizable handful of Christians have created something else, devoid of any representation of questionable origins, for the sake of fellowship over bite-sized candy instead of bread. Quite honestly, the only evil I see in candy corn and other delectable features of the holiday, is the sugar content — and maybe the fact that isn’t sold in abundance year-round.
At the same time, I don’t deny the validity in the argument of those who vehemently denounce everything related to Halloween, including the motivation to make money. That’s likely what has made the holiday the hullabaloo it has become. Some interpretations of Halloween do, in fact, include Ouija boards, séances, and satanic rituals. I’m willing to bet, though, that people who practice that side of Halloween “fun” don’t need a holiday for that.
As an alternative to all that is demonic and unholy about Halloween, many churches opt to have a “Hallelujah Night,” where people still collect candy and play dress up — just in the form of biblical characters.
I attended several of those in my younger days. One year, it took me a while to figure out why one first lady came dressed like Barney. Turns out she was actually dressed as Lydia, the lady who sold — and apparently wore — purple. I was obviously less studied then, so she wasn’t the only one who threw me for a loop. The presumed Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz turned out to be the Lion of Judah. I never dressed up, but I often wondered whether my preferred costumes would’ve disqualified me from the festivities. After all, one kid wearing a sheet over his head and a cross around his neck had trouble at the door. The irony that the Holy Ghost almost couldn’t get into the church on Hallelujah Night wasn’t lost on me.
What if I had dressed as Saul’s buddy, the witch of Endor? That’s a biblical character. Or suppose I’d shown up with a platter fixed around my neck, serving up John the Baptist? (Yes, decapitation happened in The Omen and Friday the 13th movies, but it happened first in the Bible.)
The main thing that I didn’t understand then and struggle with now is telling the difference between Halloween as commonly practiced and its church-led alternatives. Candy? Check. Games and dressing up? Check. How do we know which is which, and is there a real difference beyond what we say it is?
I don’t have an answer and likely won’t anytime soon, but I guarantee you I’ll be having some candy corn in the meantime.
Michael Eric Dyson: America is not a Christian-only nation.
During a recent interview on my radio show, Michael Eric Dyson, the social critic and author who is also an ordained Baptist minister, urged Christians to “get over” their opposition to President Obama’s decision to support same-sex marriage. Dyson, who is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, said that particularly black Christians should be the last people to stand on the side of another group of Americans being denied their constitutional rights.
“Some black people are mad at Obama over the same-sex marriage thing. Get over it. Get beyond your bigotry. Black people are the last people on earth trying to tell somebody who to marry, when we need to get our numbers up, No. 1,” said Dyson, who supported President Obama’s reelection.
Marriage rates among all groups have been declining over the past decades but remain the lowest among blacks. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies only 52 percent of black women will marry by age 33, compared to 81 percent of white women and 77 percent of Hispanic women. Meanwhile, an estimated 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers.
Dyson continued: “And No. 2, if we’ve been victims of oppression, why extend that? Forget your personal religious viewpoint, there are some people who don’t have your religion and guess what, there are some people who don’t even have religion at all. The nation should protect everybody – the religious believers and the non-believers alike.”
Click to hear the entire interview.
Dyson repeated a position that I’ve written previously here on UrbanFaith concerning the same-sex issue. It’s true that the Bible does not affirm homosexuality and therefore doesn’t bless same-sex marriage. No effort to reinterpret biblical relationships such as, Jonathan and David’s or Naomi and Ruth’s can change that. Claiming that Jesus never discussed the issue doesn’t cut it either. If John1:1-14 is true “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” then Jesus in fact did discuss the issue such as where homosexuality is mentioned in Leviticus 18:22. (This page offers a comparison of contemporary thinking on the Bible and homosexuality.)
If John 1 is false, then we’ve got an even bigger problem. All that Christianity is predicated upon — the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins — falls apart; the world that God so loved that he gave his only begotten son for, is equally doomed (John 3:16).
We Christians ought to remember that our calling as disciples is not to be agents of doom, but of hope. We are to be on the side of freedom, justice, and equality. That freedom includes the free will to make good and bad decisions. If God allows humans this free will to choose his way or the other, who are we to advocate denying this right to fellow citizens?
As Dyson correctly points out, Americans are blessed to live not under sharia law but in a nation that recognizes the freedom of religion and insists on the separation of church and state. The “state’s” (federal, state, and local governments) responsibility is to protect all of its citizens’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless to their religious or non-religious views. The government sets laws to regulate how we interact among each other, so that our rights might be secured. You can’t run a red light in your car without punishment because to do so puts other fellow citizens at danger. You can’t just pull out a gun and shoot someone because you’re obviously taking away their right to life, while potentially putting other citizens at grave risk. Do two taxpaying adults deciding they want to legally commit to each other by marrying under the laws of a state meet the test of putting the rights of other fellow citizens at risk? Besides, people can marry and divorce in America without the church ever being involved.
Sins violate divine laws that separate humans from God. All sins should not be violations of local, state, or federal laws because not all citizens believe in God. If all sins were illegal, divorce, which God hates (Malachi 2:16; Matthew 19:6; Matthew 31, 32), should also be against state and federal laws. Catholics annul (invalidate from the beginning) marriages, but typically divorce proceedings are not conducted in churches. However, in America, Christians divorce in state courts and often for good personal reasons. How would we feel if the state denied us the option to divorce?
We Christians tend to cherry pick the sins to get riled about when it suits our own personal interests, agendas, or traditions. However, life in a pluralistic democratic society is too complex for that. It’s full of a lot of gray, blurry areas. Perhaps this is why God reserves grace and mercy for everyone, but our judgment for him alone.
Dyson urged that Christians should not aim to make America a Christian-only nation, but use Christian principles to help make America a just nation for everyone, regardless of their faith.
As the apostle Paul said, the greatest of these principles to apply is love.
ACQUITTED SINNER: Former Sen. John Edwards and family last month outside the federal courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he was found not guilty on one of six counts of campaign corruption. The judge ruled a mistrial on the other five. (Photo: Chucky Liddy/Newscom)
The campaign-corruption trial of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards is history now. His former mistress, Rielle Hunter, with whom he had a daughter, is now on tour promoting her memoir, What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter, and Me. She announced during a TV interview that she and Edwards are no longer a couple, but will continue raising their daughter together. Soon, both will be out of the news cycle, but their saga possibly offers a lasting lesson for many Christians concerning this question about sin and crime.
A jury found Edwards, an admitted sinner, not guilty on one count that he accepted illegal campaign contributions in order to hide his adulteress affair. The jury deadlocked on five other similar counts. The acquittal hasn’t totally exonerated Edwards of campaign finance crimes, but the U.S. State Department dropped the case anyway.
Edward’s sin with Hunter occurred while he was campaigning for the presidency of the United States and while his late wife, Elizabeth, was dying of cancer. Like many men (and women) caught in an immoral self-inflicted bind, Edwards lied and lied until the truth, as it always does, eventually came to light. Many people who paid attention to the case agree that Edwards was put on trial more so as punshment for being unfaithful to his dying wife and for his hubris to believe he could sneak his secret into the White House.
And so Edwards publicly confessed his sins (which the Bible, in 1 John 1:9, states will be forgiven) before God and the world. However, should the government criminalize a sin that basically affects only the imperfect consenting adults involved? Should the church get riled about certain sins, while giving a pass to others?
I’ve been wondering about this most recently since President Obama announced in a TV interview in May that he supports same-sex marriage. The president caused an uproar among many Christians that still simmers, including among many of his supporters in the black church. But should the government, under political pressure from the church, legislate against same-sex marriage, especially when in America two consenting heterosexual adults can marry and divorce without the church being involved? Should most Christians insist that same-sex marriage be illegal, when homosexuality is actually listed in the Bible equally among other sexual sins, including adultery, that are not federal crimes?
A sin is a transgression against divine law for which Christians believe the sinner will be accountable at the judgment seat. The sinner mainly puts him or herself at risk with God. A crime is an action against the people that injures the “public welfare.” Like a drunk driver who runs a stop sign, or an armed robber, committing a crime puts several innocent people potentially at great risk. The government, working on behalf of the people, therefore has a duty to prevent crimes and punish criminals. Does the same duty apply to non-felonious sins?
Obviously many sins are also crimes such as, for example, being a serial killer. But what injury does same-sex marriage between two consenting adults cause to the public welfare? Is it more severe than adultery? Is it more destructive than divorce, a sin that often tears families and wounds innocent children? God allows divorce (which should be a last resort when reconciliation fails) under certain circumstances. Neither adultery nor divorces are federal crimes. Thankfully America is a democracy — a nation of Christians, believers of other faiths, agnostics and atheists, who for the most part believe in preserving the separation of church and state, and not a theocracy, as in living under Sharia law.
A recent CNN/ORC poll indicates that the majority of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be legal. Perhaps they’re saying it should be treated like adultery or divorce; it may be wrong, but people deserve the free-will right to choose who they want to (or don’t want to) be in a committed personal relationship with.
During closing remarks, Edwards’ attorney Abbe Lowell reportedly told the jury, “This is a case that should define the difference between a wrong and a crime … between a sin and a felony. John Edwards has confessed his sins. He will serve a life sentence for those.”
Perhaps Christians who are adamantly against two consenting same-sex adults having the legal right to marry should adopt this reasoning, too.
“I disagree with his decision, but not enough to make me vote for the alternative.”
“Obama is too calculating to have made this view known apart from some political strategy. I need to let this marinate.”
Those are just a few of the comments we overheard from different Christians following President Barack Obama’s announcement that he now supports same-sex marriage. His “evolution” on the issue dominated the news last week, and his explanation about how his personal faith informed the decision opened up a wide-ranging discussion on gay rights, the Bible, and the proper Christian response.
For the record, UrbanFaith maintains a traditional view of Christian marriage as an institution ordained by God to be a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman. However, we recognize there is a diversity of Christian opinion on the subject of homosexuality and gay rights, especially within the African American community. So, we asked a spectrum of Black Christian leaders to share their perspectives on President Obama’s announcement and the subject of same-sex marriage. The opinions that follow belong to the respondents and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of UrbanFaith.
Not a Central Issue for the Black Community
Dr. Vincent Bacote
The president’s public affirmation of the legalization of same-sex marriage will not be a surprise to many people, because his “evolving views” have trended in this direction for quite a while. It could be problematic in November with some demographics, but most likely he will still have the great majority of the African American vote because this isn’t one of the central issues for the community; even though same-sex marriage is strongly resisted by the community, other commitments will likely lead to a share of the vote similar to what he received four years ago…. But I could be wrong. It is certainly possible that this was a great political miscalculation.
President Obama’s position on gay marriage is not only offensive to God, it should also be offensive to all Christians. With one insidious statement, he threw another piece of dynamite at the institution of marriage that God designed and always intended (i.e. one man married to one woman). But as we rightfully criticize the president, we should also pray for him. May God send someone to help him rethink and even retract this hellish statement in the light of Scripture.
Those of us who want to see the president reclaim a position of truth should let him know. Here’s the letter that I sent to the White House following Mr. Obama’s announcement:
Because of your recent statement in support of gay marriage, you will not get my vote in November for a second term unless you retract.
Truthfully, I’m very disappointed in you. You profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ, yet you form and endorse opinions that contradict the words of Jesus. I love you, Mr. President, but I love Jesus more. What Jesus says has more authority than what you say and how your friends choose to live.
I will be glad to write you or speak with you about what Jesus teaches on this subject. Just let me know.
President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality will alienate some of his constituents who are Bible-believing Christians, including some African Americans. However, I hope that the voters will take note of his positions on weightier matters such as unemployment, education, and foreign policy and not allow the same-sex issue to overshadow them, as occurred in 2004 when evangelical voters helped to re-elect President George Bush on the basis of his opposition to same-sex marriage without regard to his miscalculated policies in Iraq and at home. I think this is an opportune time for religious leaders to assess President Obama’s accountability to African American congregations and denominations on our most pressing social and political concerns, and then apply the same measure to Republican contender Governor Mitt Romney.
Obama’s announcement reveals an inconsistency in African American biblical interpretation at the congregational and denominational levels. Black clergy routinely contextualize scriptural passages on slavery and women while simultaneously insisting on a plain, non-contextualized reading of Scripture in regards to sexuality and gay marriage. This diversity of interpretative strategies is rarely acknowledged. Regardless of where we stand, it’s time we eradicate the fiction that our moral conclusions are strictly and exclusively reached by reasoning from Scripture. Once we deconstruct the notion that any of our positions are “Biblical” with a capital B, we can then charitably discuss our respective visions of how to faithfully interpret the canon of Scripture on matters of sexuality. Such discussion can help us accomplish the positive good of Christians modeling charitable dialogue to a corrosive political culture and the negative good of ceasing to bear false witness — theologically conservative black churches/denominations in regards to theologically liberal ones and vice versa.
President Obama has supported gay marriage since his first run for public office in 1996. What has evolved, therefore, is not Obama’s position but public opinion. Some speculate that the White House tested the political waters by rolling out the support of Vice President Biden and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan prior to Obama’s announcement. I’m not sure if that’s the case—we’ll find out when Obama releases his presidential memoirs. In terms of reelection, I doubt that Obama’s support will decrease the voter turnout or the likely scenario that African Americans predominantly vote for him in 2012. Black folks know Obama is not a theologian-in-chief, but our commander-in-chief. Secondly, President Obama is generally regarded as stronger than Gov. Romney on issues of greatest import to college-educated African-Americans (his most reliable voting bloc) — jobs, supporting small business, expanding educational opportunity, and so on. As Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic once tweeted, “No one gets everything they want in a candidate.” Since the Voting Rights Act, black voters, whether Republican or Democrat, have never seen — and will never see — a fully satisfying candidate for President of the United States. Believing that such a candidate exists, or that Obama was that candidate, is an understandable but lamentable sign of political immaturity. I hope that we grow up civically, prioritize the issues according to our respective metrics, and then see how the votes aggregate once it’s all over.
Andrew Wilkes, an UrbanFaith columnist, works at Habitat for Humanity-NYC as the Faith and Community Relations associate and serves as an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York. He is an alumnus of the Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Hampton University. You can follow him on Twitter at:@andrewjwilkes.
Dr. DeForest Soaries
Not So Fast
“I didn’t hear the president propose a government program or policy. He expressed a personal opinion, which he has the right to do.”
Will President Obama lose some of the Christian Right in this year’s electorate? Sure, but he lost most of them already, and he’ll win a few back after the poor discover how out of touch “Daddy Warbucks” Romney really is. And if you think the Black Church (not a monolith) won’t vote for Obama over this: wrong again. The Latino vote (again, not a monolith) is overwhelmingly conservative theologically, and this may stir the pot. Overall, though, I have to believe there are more civil rights sympathizers (who want equal rights period, regardless of the issue) than ideologues. The media gives the microphone to the dogmatists, but I suspect the levelheaded have been listening to The Who (or at least watching CSI: Miami) and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” That is, if they remember George W. Bush.
The issue itself needs to be considered on civil and religious grounds — and not at the same time. The Bible should not dictate policy or how rights are distributed; God and Caesar make “strange bedfellows,” as Leo Tolstoy once remarked, and ironically, as Jesus agreed (Matt. 22:21). Yet as we render unto Caesar, we church leaders must affirm our prophetic DNA — to name when Caesar is denying basic human dignity. It happened with slavery. It happened with abortion. It is happening now with health-care rights for women, and with the issue of same-sex marriage. You may assess the decision itself on biblical grounds (as unsound an argument as that is), but Caesar cannot deny the ability to decide. This is a putrid yet common discrimination — to deny choice because of our displeasure at how one may choose — and it is an offense to God. Every citizen is also a child of God.
What the Bible says about homosexuality is fairly clear: not much, and almost never in the context we intend. But should theology shape policy? Should the office of the President also be a seat of moral authority? I worry that the trajectory of human history, including (mostly) politics, has been in search of a more perfect Christianity, and it has proven a crash course. But if we can use our worldview in search of Truth, instead of assuming these are the same, then the kingdom may be closer than we think.
Rev. Julian “J.Kwest” DeShazier regularly provides social commentary surrounding youth, ethics, and culture. A graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School, Julian is the senior pastor of University Christian Church in Chicago, his hometown. To build with this scholar, activist, and artist, hit him up at www.jkwest.com.
For those who didn’t know, the start to this article is my tribute to my favorite Sophia (portrayed by Oprah Winfrey) line in the movie The Color Purple. Here is the line in case you did not see the movie: “I loves Harpo, God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead ‘fo I let him beat me.” And if you did not know, Oprah’s name spelled backward is Harpo and was the name of her husband in the movie and the name she chose for her company (read: empire).
So on to my topic of the day. Oprah is a skilled interviewer and a master of ingratiating herself with those she chooses to interview, two of many qualities enabling her to be queen of talk with very little competition for a quarter of a century. And undoubtedly, Oprah has earned her place in history as a girl who was born in the backwoods of Mississippi but ultimately has become the first black woman billionaire, a world-class philanthropist, and a beloved global icon. And most recently, the owner of her own cable television network — OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network).
And yet as I watched Oprah interview author and megachurch pastor Joel Osteen on her new OWN show Oprah’s Next Chapter on Sunday, I did not feel the same energy that I felt when I would watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. And I’m a member of the target audience of her new show, which debuted on Jan. 1, because I’m a woman who love all things religious and spiritual!
According to the Chicago Tribune, her new show, which will feature weekly one-hour interviews, will essentially be Oprah on a “spiritual quest” with various celebrities, politicians, religious and or spiritual gurus and more. Unlike her talk show, there is no audience, and she is interviewing her guests in their natural habitats wherever that may be.
The premiere episode featured a two-hour interview with eccentric Aerosmith rocker Steven Tyler who is now an American Idol judge. This interview took Oprah to Tyler’s home in Sunapee, New Hampshire. For part of the interview, Oprah and Tyler explored a forest which kind of felt like an answer to a Jeopardy question. Who are the two unlikeliest people you will see in the forest together? Media mogul Oprah Winfrey and aged rock star Steven Tyler. About 1.1 million viewers tuned in, which is the second highest rating of an OWN show, according to the Chicago Tribune. The highest rating goes to Oprah Behind the Scenes, which chronicled the last season of her talk show.
In her interview with Osteen, Oprah was accompanied by another Tyler — her good friend (O, to be so lucky) Tyler Perry. The pair visited the Lakewood Church, reportedly the largest church in America, before sitting down with Osteen in his home to interview him. Although everyone knows that Oprah is a spiritual person, I have not associated her with any one religion although she has spoken about Jesus Christ and often fondly recalls giving Easter speeches in church as a child. So it was kind of cool to see Oprah raising her hands giving praises and singing along during the church service/gospel concert.
Oprah began by listing Osteen’s impressive stats: His show reaches 10 million people in nearly 100 countries, he has written 20 books and six of them are New York Times bestsellers, his church has 16,000 seats (it used to be the stadium for the Houston Rockets), two 25-foot tall waterfalls, and a 450-member choir backed by a full band. She rightfully concluded that Osteen’s church is “big business.”
In spite of all of that, Oprah did not shy away from the tough questions, asking him about how he keeps his ego in check, his reputation as a prosperity gospel proponent, the shady reputation of some televangelists down through the years, and his stance on homosexuality. The only question that threw him a little was about homosexuality: “Is it a sin?” After offering a more cryptic response, he finally declared that he believes it is a sin.
“It’s a hard thing in a sense, because I’m for everybody,” Osteen said. “I’m not against anybody. I don’t think that anybody is second-class. But when I read the Scripture in good faith, I can’t see that it doesn’t show that as being a sin.”
Watch the clip below to see Oprah ask Osteen about homosexuality, sin, and whether there’s more than one path to God.
The fact that Osteen affirmed his commitment to the Bible on such a thorny issue as homosexuality was somewhat surprising since he also readily admitted that he does not use a lot of scripture in his sermons, which he has been criticized for. But you have to appreciate the guy’s honesty.
It was a good interview and demonstrates that Oprah will always be Oprah: a seeker on a journey toward truth. But as I said earlier, I didn’t feel drawn into the show. And I’m not sure why.
I watched Oprah’s Lifeclass show some months ago and wrote about how much I enjoyed it on my personal blog. One person commented that while she loved Oprah, she was “Oprahed-out” and was experiencing déjà vu as she watched the show. Maybe her comment expresses some of what I’m feeling now. I’ve been on a journey with Oprah before, from the time she was Sophia in The Color Purple until her talk show ended last May. And I’m just not sure how much further I can go. I’m not saying that she is no longer relevant, but we have seen Oprah every weekday for 25 years and it’s not clear whether her spiritual quest has landed her any closer to genuine truth. I certainly hope her circuitous path will ultimately take her there.
And as far as Oprah’s cable network is concerned, I’m just not that into it. I’ve not been a fan of Rosie O’Donnell since her mean-spirited (and mercifully short-lived) stint on The View some years ago, and the rest of the network lineup doesn’t look too exciting either. I do like Suze Orman though, and I will probably tune in to watch her show, America’s Money Class with Suze Orman, which debuted on Monday. And others seem to share my sentiments. According to an article in the International Business Times, OWN is struggling, averaging “just 136,000 viewers per day, a decline of 8 percent compared to Discovery Health, the channel it replaced.” And “Oprah’s OWN Network is apparently losing money monthly at a healthy clip. Media reports suggest Discovery has pumped in $254 million above a $189 commitment.”
Like I said, I loves Oprah, God knows I do, but Oprah has a challenge on her hands. Still, it’s not as though she hasn’t beat the odds before. If a poor black girl from the country can become a billionaire media mogul, then only God knows what the future of OWN — and Oprah — may be.