Does God “Embrace All People Regardless…?”
Not very long ago I was invited to sign a “declaration” crafted by a group of noted American religious scholars and leaders that condemns racism and other forms of bigotry and calls for American Christians to oppose public policies and behaviors—both public and private—that work to the detriment of disadvantaged, oppressed, marginalized people. Hundreds of scholars and religious leaders signed it. I don’t think that I did. (The list of signatories is so long it would take an hour or so to look at each name.) I just don’t remember.
As I read through the declaration I kept thinking “Yes, this is what we need—a strong religious push back against the rising tides of alt-right ideologies that are endangering the poor, the neglected, the hungry, the excluded, the oppressed.” I have myself, here and elsewhere, called for a contemporary “Church struggle” (Kirchenkampf) such as Germany experienced in the 1930s. That’s how very seriously I take the fact that many people calling themselves “Christians” seem to support public policies and public language by government leaders that echo the worst prejudices and social evils of our own history but also of European history in the first half of the 20th century.
However, I have gone back and re-read and studied the declaration several times and found a few statements that trouble me.
The one I want to focus on here, now, is this: “May we bear witness to the hues of difference in God’s life – a God who is neither male nor female and who embraces all people regardless of their identity.” (Italics added for emphasis.)
IF I signed the declaration it was in spite of, not at all because of, this particular statement.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I NEED to say, however, that not every signatory of the declaration necessarily agrees with every sentence in it. I say that because a few of my friends signed the statement and have been “taken to task” for that by people with power over them. People need to realize that signing a statement or declaration does not imply agreement with ever sentence in it.
I would have difficulty signing a statement, declaration, however well-intentioned and otherwise helpful and even necessary, that includes the quote above. Please know, however, that I am not here implying anything about the crafters of the declaration or its signers. I am only singling out this one sentence for focused theological investigation and comment.
“Hues of difference in God’s life.” I am not a believer in the attribute of God usually known as “simplicity.” I do recognize some compositeness within God. I am a believer in and promoter of the so-called “social theory” of the Trinity. However, “hues of difference” makes me wince. I tell my students to talk only about “distinctions” within God—between the three persons, for example—but never about “differences” within God.
“A God who is neither male nor female.” Yes, that I can whole heartedly affirm—that God in himself/themselves is/are neither male nor female ALTHOUGH Jesus, the second person of the Trinity now, is male. I understand that some people want to believe that somehow, at his ascension, Jesus “dropped” his maleness. What else did he “drop?” However, I am not inclined to argue with anyone about this. Overall and in general I agree with the statement that “God is neither male nor female.”“Embraces all people regardless of their identity.” The editor in me wants to say this should be “identities,” but that’s merely a quibble. My problem with this part of the declaration is more than a quibble—to me. “Embraces” goes further than “loves.” And “identity” (or “identities”) is too encompassing. Does God embrace the overt white supremacist? That’s one question I would ask the crafters of the declaration. They might say yes, and then I would have to follow up with what they mean by “embrace?” Are all people saved—regardless of their identities? What is meant by “identities?” “Hues?” What does that mean, exactly? In the context of the declaration it obviously means more than color or ethnicity. “Neither male nor female” proves that. But what else do “all” and “identities” mean? And what does it mean to say that God “embraces” all people? Does the Bible say that? Where?
That all are created in God’s image I enthusiastically affirm. But “embrace all” seems to go further than that. To embrace is to affirm as friend. Are all people friends of God “regardless?” Or is something else required than just being human?
I worry about two things about this statement. First, it sounds pantheistic. I’m not saying it is, but the language needs to be more nuanced to avoid any implication of pantheism. Second, it sounds universalistic. Third, it sounds as if God doesn’t really care about any “identities”—as wrong, as false, as breaking off fellowship with God.
The declaration may be very well intentioned and I would not in any way criticize someone for signing it. I do not assume that a person agrees with every sentence of a statement just because he or she signs it.
I do feel the need, however, to point out that this declaration (which I’m not naming here for personal reasons) contains some language that troubles me and doesn’t contain language I think it should—about God’s extreme displeasure at some people’s identities. Implied is that God is only displeased with those who are intolerant of others. Is God tolerant of everyone—regardless of their identity? The Bible does not seem to indicate that.
I’m sad that this declaration contains this and some other language that, in my humble opinion, sullies its otherwise very important call to attitudes and actions that side with the truly oppressed against ideologies that reinforce their oppression. Overall, it’s a good and needed statement. But like so many good and needed statements, language slipped in that I have real trouble with.
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