Beatitudes PSA – The Rich don’t need your blessing.

[Image description: Photo is of the cover of The New Interpreter’s Bible.]

I led a discussion of the Beatitudes in Sunday School today. In the Bible, the Beatitudes are statements of blessing that Jesus gives to his disciples at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. These are the Beatitudes as told in Matthew 5:3-12: 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The Beatitudes are tricky. In context, they are revolutionary; Jesus and his disciples were persecuted and eventually executed by legal authorities for threatening the established social, political, and religious order of the Roman Empire. When looking at the key words’ original meanings, I learned that underpinning the Beatitudes is a drive for justice. For example, as the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary noted, “righteousness” isn’t about being “personally pious.” In the original Greek, the word dikaiosyne, usually translated as “righteousness” in this passage, also means “justice.” 

The Beatitudes contradict typical social attitudes about wealth and power with shocking fierceness (see also “The Woes” in Matthew 23). They turn expectations upside down. When I read them, I get the impression that God loves and honors those whom society looks down on (like the poor). We don’t need to become rich or powerful to be worthy of love and justice, but God celebrates the difficult work of peacemaking; God understands the sorrow of those who cry out for justice and is on our side–that’s huge. Unfortunately, many people (myself included) have defanged the Beatitudes, making them all about personal piety. It’s hard not to; the powers that be don’t want justice for the poor and downtrodden, and that agenda shows up all the time in Christian communities. It’s difficult, especially in the United States, to push back against the notion that if you’re poor or suffering, you’ve done something to deserve it. Sunday school illustrated this problem. 

When we discussed the Beatitudes today, I noticed an interesting pattern: people defended the rich. Even though I tried to emphasize the importance of justice in the Beatitudes, the discussion kept cycling back to these three areas: defense of the wealthy, personal guilt, and individual piety. The class struggled with the language around wealth and poverty, asking “How can that be? Does that mean that you’re not blessed if you’re not poor?” 

I don’t actually know the answer to that question. I suppose it depends on how one defines wealth (and how that wealth was acquired, and what you do with it). In Jesus’ day, social mobility was limited. In general, the rich stayed rich, and the poor stayed poor. Resources were limited. In order to become ‘wealthy,’ you would have to take from someone else, in the way that a king collects tribute by force (see 1 Samuel 8 for more spicy commentary on that). In other words, if you became rich, there was a good chance you were also greedy

In our current culture, where we like to think that wealth is a meritocracy, that idea can be uncomfortable, even for people who aren’t wealthy. Here in the American South, it’s common to believe that financial benefits will accrue if you are faithful to God and that abstract benefits to the economy justify the runaway accumulation of wealth. The (often unrealistic) belief that you should be able to get out of poverty through hard work and dedication, the “bootstraps” narrative, is also common. 

Some folks turn to an explanation I call the “IN SPIRIT Loophole” to avoid acknowledging the blessing of the poor alongside the peacemakers and the merciful. We don’t know exactly what “poor in spirit” means; some think that it refers to humility, while others think it refers to a sense of ‘downtroddenness.’ Literal, physical poverty and blessedness just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence. The Gospel of Luke doesn’t leave room for that. Luke just says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Way to refute the Prosperity Gospel in one fell swoop.

It may not mean the rich aren’t blessed by God (though it probably did when first written), but it entails a countercultural worldview either way, one that lifts the lowly, sorrowful, and oppressed. It doesn’t tell them to change. It does challenge us all to do hard work (including acts of mercy, peacemaking, and things that make us unpopular with the powerful forces that govern our lives), secure in the knowledge that we are loved, respected, and valued. We don’t rely on the blessing of governments, corporations, or other powers for worth, even though we live under their influence. 

That idea was very hard for my class to accept (and I don’t blame them). We went around and around, raising defenses whenever I steered the conversation toward justice. It was a bit like trying to work the knots out of tight muscles; when a muscle is chronically tense, it forms a habit of tension. It may need regular massage and other caring work to stay relaxed for very long–and that can be painful. Reading challenging scriptures like the Beatitudes in unconventional ways is challenging. We can only get so far in thirty minutes of meandering group discussion, but I hope that it inspired feelings of compassion and courage alongside the frustration. 

Further reading: 

Some Modern Beatitudes – A Sermon for All Saints Sunday” – a different but beautiful take on the Beatitudes 

Rightwiseness and Justice: A Tale of Translation” – why dikaiosyne ends up getting translated as “righteousness” instead of “justice”

“How Are the Mighty Fallen?” – A David Study, Part I

[Image description: Photo is a close-up of the face and neck of Michelangelo’s David at an angle.]

Content notice: non-graphic discussion of rape and other forms of abuse

A few days ago, I wrote an epistle called “The Story Still Matters,” a rant about how hard it is for me as a Christian divinity student to use critical theory to interpret the Bible in fruitful ways without missing the stories themselves. To keep the stories alive, I’m going back to the Text. This is the first entry of a series about David as seen in 1 and 2 Samuel–the story of the rise and fall of a wildly charismatic, passionate, and often brutal king. Seriously, Samuel could be an HBO series. 

In these posts, I will dig into who David is and the choices he makes, writing from my perspective as a queer Christian. I will use some theory to help me make sense of it over 2,000 years removed. And I will ask how a man with such faith and love can become so cruel and conventional as a ruler. How does this queer romantic hero, whose love for Jonathan is almost startling, become a tyrant, a rapist, and an enabler of rapists? What does his story say about the God that anoints him? 

Can Christians learn something from David, especially about sex and sexuality? I believe we can, but it isn’t easy. Tools and background information can help. We need to start before David and even outside the Bible itself. Let’s think about the Christian communities that tell David’s story. 

Most churches don’t talk much about sex in the Bible, especially mainline Protestant churches like mine. In fact, a friend once pointed out that fundamentalist churches often talk about sex more than mainline churches do. We’re getting more affirming of same-gender relationships and of gender diversity. We may have even done a study or two on the “Clobber Passages.” But we avoid talking about sex when we can (and we certainly don’t talk about the possibility of queerness in the Bible). We gloss over the passages where our ‘heroes’ (like Abraham and Sarah, and later David) are sexually abusive with barely a thought. We laugh nervously when anyone brings up Song of Songs, a book devoted to sexual pleasure. Academic classes have helped me to see that the Bible has a “multiplicity” of ideas about sex because it was written by many different people and that we get to choose whether we agree with any of them. 

Take these two passages for example: 

“…your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). 

“I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (Song of Songs 7:10). 

In Song of Songs (a.k.a. Song of Solomon or Canticle), we see luxurious sexual desire and love thwarted but never killed (Song of Songs 5:7). In Genesis, we see a cruel, enslaving desire, in a passage used over and over to hurt women (it can be interpreted in many ways). What variety! 

David’s story is a microcosm of that variety, with issues like rape, adultery, polygamy, and homoerotic desire all rolled into one epic saga. The funny thing is, we often don’t even notice. Normally, we see the boy with the slingshot, the great warrior king, and the adulterer. We’re not socially equipped to see much else; we live in a society that likes to edit its heroes for our comfort. In doing so, we fail to explore huge chunks of these rich, strange stories even as we use them to inspire our own choices. That’s just tragic. 

What about biblical background? To understand David, we need to understand Ruth, his grandmother. Let’s look back at the book of Ruth. If you’re feeling especially nerdy, I encourage you to attempt to draw a family tree for David (if not, I made one already :)). 

When we read the book of Ruth, we learn that some of David ancestors were poor foreigners who did things to make ends meet that would be condemned in many churches. Naomi sends her daughter-in-law Ruth out to seduce Boaz and “uncover his feet” (Ruth 2:3-3:18). Most Christians never learn that in biblical Hebrew, feet are a euphemism for genitals. Professor Brittney Cooper reveals (heh) this topic delightfully in Unscrewed podcast episode #BlackChurchSex

Long story short, Ruth doesn’t go to Boaz so that they can have a chaste courtship; she goes to have sex with him in hopes that it will save her and Naomi’s lives; women in that time and place depended on the provision of male relatives. It was not a fair system, but they did the best they could. Ruth loves Naomi, so she engages in scandalous sexual activity.

Before we look at David, who started with few options but eventually had many, let’s remember Ruth, Rahab (a sex worker), and other female ancestors whose choices were seriously limited by circumstance. Their bodies were treated like mere containers for the descendants of Abraham. 

David enters the scene in this context. As I follow his journey and the choices he makes (as a sexual being and as a person in general), I will keep in mind the ancestors who made it possible for me to live. I’ll think about my ability to make choices that they never had in conversation with David’s choices, when he rises and when he falls. 

Recommended Readings and Sources:

The Bible. I generally use the New Revised Standard Version because that’s what’s used in the academic world, but other versions are valuable too. I would urge readers to keep in mind that every English translation of the Bible reflects the biases of the translators (Ex: for clarity, why not translate ‘feet’ as genitals?). 

Bird, Jennifer Grace. Permission Granted. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.

Hornsby, Teresa J. Sex Texts from the Bible. Woodstock: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2007. 

Weems, Renita. “The Song of Songs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Pages 363-373. Print.

I’ll work on finding more accessible sources as I go along!

The Story Still Matters – An Epistle on Theory

The birds had just begun to lift their songs of praise as I reverently opened my laptop. Illuminated by the glow of the screen, I sought the sacred PDF: “Postmodern Biblical Theory.” I trembled with emotion as I read, eyes welling with tears. “Yes, I see now,” I said aloud. I knew, as rosy-fingered dawn appeared on the horizon, that I now understood the Bible. Heavenly music played as I typed my ardent one-page reflection. Now fully prepared to deliver the Gospel to this troubled world, I emailed the quote “Nothing is original” to a custom bumper sticker company. I said a quick prayer to the Academy as I filled my metal water bottle, fortified by my faith in postmodernism. 

That totally did not happen. 

Closer to reality: I skimmed the PDF at 11:30 at night, my brain promptly shut down, and I slammed my laptop closed in disgust. I had hoped that going to divinity school would help me to reconnect with the Bible. Unfortunately, this New Testament class had turned out to be a survey course of critical theory. We read a whole lot about the Bible but hardly the Bible itself. I felt less connected than ever. 

That’s not to say that critical theory isn’t valuable. Theory helps us to see consequences of writing and interpretation, especially for groups then tend to be on the margins of society. It trains us to be flexible; we’re not stuck with the old “Eve sinned and now all women have to obey their husbands” nonsense that often gets repeated in churches, for example. I think that many of us find comfort in theory because we’ve been hurt by people who repeat “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Theory reminds us that nothing is actually ‘settled.’ 

But theory is a set of tools we can use to understand the Bible’s role in our lives. The story still matters. Unfortunately, my class was often “all theory and no Text.” Without the consistent opportunity to read the Bible, it was hard for me to figure out how to use these tools, let alone imagine how I could communicate the value of theory to other Christians who love the Bible and read it…religiously. 

All theory and no Text makes Fox a dull boi

I’m pretty grumpy about it. As a result, one of the purposes of this blog will be for me to read the Bible as a beloved story book, informed but not driven by theory, and to find what moves and inspires me as a Christian. What might this look like? Bible studies, spiritual practices, poems, stories, and songs. In other words, church activities minus the peer pressure (love you, Church). I’m going to start with a series on the story of David and see where it takes me. 

Be of good courage!

Perpetua Fox

She/her/hers

“Herod, They’re Lesbians!” In Praise of Biblical Fanfiction

[Image description: Photo is of a stack of weathered old dark green and brown books, including works of Shelley and Shakespeare.]

As a divinity student, I read and write a fair amount about queerness and sexuality in the Bible. A lot of it’s depressing or just needlessly complicated. There will be a time and place for me to dig into the nuances of biblical meaning, the authors’ intentions, etc., and recommend scholarship here, but not now. 

Right now, I want to give some love to a genre that most people can read, even outside the academic world: fanfiction! In short, a fanfiction is work based on a piece of pop culture, like a book, movie, or show. A fic author might ask “What happened after the end?” or “What if this had happened a little differently?” or “What was happening behind the scenes?”

Most fanfiction is archived on websites like FanFiction or Archive of Our Own. While fanfiction based on the Bible may seem like sacrilege, it’s been around for quite a while. The Prince of Egypt, Jesus Christ: Superstar, and Milton’s Paradise Lost are all fanfictions. Other works, like Harry Potter, use biblical themes to tell new stories. 

The point is, the Bible inspires all manner of creative work. Some of it invites us to see ourselves in the stories, to reimagine them as we learn. For people accustomed to seeing the Bible used as anti-queer purity culture propaganda, fanfiction can be a refreshing oasis of healing affirmation. And most of it’s free. 

It helps us see the Bible not as a dusty old rulebook or tool for bigots but as a living collection of stories that we’re still in conversation with today. It helps us bridge the gap. 

Here are a few Bible fanfic gems that I enjoy: 

Mature/Sexually explicit works:

“…Jonathan became one in spirit with David…” Quintessential David/Jonathan slash fic based on 1 Samuel 16-2 Samuel 1, written beautifully in the literary style of the Hebrew Bible

“Afterwards she blamed the serpent. It wasn’t a lie, really, because the serpent had been there, and the serpent had encouraged her. In fact it was quite possible that the serpent had arranged the whole thing. But, truthfully, it was not the serpent’s urging that made her lips part uncertainly and her teeth slice into the skin of the fruit.” Juicy and poignant Eve/Lilith femslash based on Genesis and Jewish tradition

Works for teens and older: 

“Stop telling me to leave you, because it’s not going to happen. I’m not turning away from you. Wherever you’re headed, I’m headed there too. Where you stay, I’ll put down roots. The tribes of Israel will be my tribe. Your God will be my god. Because the only thing that’ll keep me from you is Death, and even then, I’ll be right there at your side.” It’s Ruth/Naomi…in Space.

  • Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett 

This book (now a charming miniseries on Amazon Prime), is especially fun for me right now. It contains a queer bond (not necessarily sexual but deeply loving and subversive) between an angel and a demon who team up to try to stop the Apocalypse. It raises good questions about the nature of God, humans, redemption, and the “Divine Plan.” It’s also spawned some fanfiction (great but not always appropriate for all ages ;)). 

General Audiences: 

“The Exercise of Virtue” by tree_and_leaf

“Exegesis! fic, to invent a new genre label, on the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30), who may be anonymous, but is the only person in the Bible who changes Jesus’ mind.” No pairings, but good retelling. 

Do you have any favorite fics to recommend? Have you ever been encouraged by a story? If so, let me know in the comments! 

Endnote: In case you didn’t catch the reference in the post title, it’s a play on the “Harold, they’re lesbians” meme. You’re welcome. 😉