Blessed Be the Bond

I am happy to announce the publication of the third edition of my book Blessed Be the Bond: Christian Perspectives on Marriage and Family. First published by Fortress Press in 1985, it was reprinted in 1989 by University Press of America. In 2010 Professor Richard Hunt, of Fuller Theological School, encouraged me to prepare an edition for ministers and students that he had worked with in recent years. This second edition circulated as an unpublished file until I decided, last year, to bring out a fresh edition, fully reformatted, that would make it available to a wider audience.

On the one hand, the social relationships of marriage and family seem to have changed rapidly in the past few decades, especially with regard to same-sex marriage, but family structures have always been varied and constantly changing under the impact of economic, political, religious, and other social forces. On the other hand, the powerful psychological motives and perennial religious dimensions of marriage endure as indelible aspects of the human condition—what we have also called “human nature.” Because of this, I have found that the framework I proposed originally still offers helpful insights into the sociological, psychological, and religious dimensions of this complex feature of human life.

The book emerged in the wake of my own experience in marriage, family, divorce, and new marriage, so it has an intensity and focus borne of those rich and difficult times. The basic relationship models of hierarchy, equality and organic complementarity still pervade marital relationships. We still experience a complex interaction between the four “subjects” of marriage and family that I identified then: person, couple, family, and household. This sociological ensemble still finds rich connections to classic Christian symbols of sacrament, vocation, covenant, and communion. In a short compass, this book tries to show how these elements are woven together in various people, churches, and cultures, offering models for all of us to consider and even incorporate into our own lives.

This book arose as a companion to my work on public life, God’s Federal Republic, which was reprinted last year by Wipf and Stock Publishers. Both of them fed into the project of work, family and faith that Sylvia and I developed in the 1980s as the OIKOS Project. They lie at the core of much of the research, writing, and teaching that I pursued in the ensuing years.

The revolution in printing and publication that has occurred in the past few years makes it possible for people like me to offer easy access to their work—an intellectual legacy, if you will. If you’re lucky enough to have a wife who is an artist and a daughter expert in graphic arts, you can put out a pretty nice cover as well! Kudos go to Sylvia and Aneliese for their work on this and other books. Because of the low cost of these volumes, a wide audience can take advantage of the presence of these reflections for years to come.

As always, if you take a peek inside, I’m interested in your own reflections, comments, or questions. May we all continue to find many blessings in the bonds that give us life.





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Sanctuary — For Guns?

In the midst of our enormous efforts to hold our Republic together around its founding principles and values, a movement, fostered by the gun industry and its lobbies, has arisen to get local governmental bodies to resist and not enforce any laws or policies infringing on “Second Amendment rights.” Scholars agree that this Amendment to the US Constitution was approved to defend the rights of states over against the federal government, guaranteeing that they could maintain “well-regulated militias.” Long after these militias were professionalized and integrated into a federal military system, these words have now taken on a life of their own as a defense of every individual’s right to “carry and bear arms” as they see fit. In defense of this interpretation, these groups are asking for “sanctuary” from laws that might encroach on their interpretation of that supposed right.

Here in western North Carolina some 200 of my fellow citizens came to a county Commissioners meeting to petition them to “uphold the Second Amendment rights of the citizens of Haywood County” and not to use our public resources to restrict these rights or ”to aid or assist in the enforcement of any unconstitutional restriction of the rights” of the citizens of Haywood County to “keep and bear arms.” I wrote an Op-Ed for our local newspaper opposing this petition. Here’s what I said.

First, the Second Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court in a much narrower fashion than this petition recognizes. As I wrote earlier in the Smoky Mountain News, until 2008 the Second Amendment was almost universally understood to apply to the maintenance of state militias, not free-roving bands of gun owners. In District of Columbia v. Dick Anthony Heller the Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 decision, interpreted the Second Amendment to mean than individuals have the right to possess a handgun in the home for purposes of self-defense. Beyond that, the ownership and use of guns falls within the regulatory powers of the states and the Federal government.  (You can read the Majority and Dissenting opinions at Any demand to resist laws beyond this narrow periphery are contrary to prevailing Constitutional law.

Second, I am concerned with the way in which this petition seems to be driven by irrational fears. The unreasonable fear by gun owners that their firearms will be taken away from them is dwarfed by the legitimate fear that millions of Americans now have that their lives, their schools, churches, and public spaces will be the scenes of death and gun carnage. The fear that stalks our precious land undermines the mutual trust, care, respect, and collaboration for the common good that are so prominent and treasured in our community and in similar communities across the country. Public display of firearms and even the awareness that people are carrying deadly weapons creates a climate of fear that undermines the very public life we would protect and nourish. A declaration such as that proposed by the petition creates fear rather than trust and hospitality.

Finally, as someone deeply involved in the church and theological work, I need to point out that the term “sanctuary” means a place where sacred objects and rituals take place. The petition implies that our guns have become sacred objects whose ritual use protects our lives from all harm. I have to ask, then, how this sacred object squares with devotion to the God in whom we are to trust to overcome our fears. Rather than declaring our county a sanctuary for guns would it not be better to declare it a sanctuary for hospitality to the stranger, to the self-giving exemplified in so many lives around us, and especially in the life of our friend and neighbor, Riley Howell? I hope that the Commission can continue to foster these values in positive ways so that people do not rush to a defense of unregulated gun ownership and use that seems to have generated this petition and which only fans the fires of fear that threaten our public life.

The Commission subsequently passed a resolution to uphold all our Constitutional rights, among them those claimed in the Second Amendment. It was a delicate compromise that I hope gives people time to cool off, even if it does not challenge this radical interpretation of the amendment.  Our nation is the only one I know of that is saddled with such a Constitutional provision whose radical and anachronistic interpretation corrodes the very essence of civil society. However, this implicit radical anarchism is only part of the wider undermining of the rational argument, separation of powers, and reverence for law we are struggling against in these days. May God’s own flourishing republic emerge in the midst of our honest speech and deep listening. Let me know what you’re thinking—and doing— as well.



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The Worship at the Heart of Liberation

Each year our church seeks out 40 people from the congregation to write a brief meditation to help people follow a discipline of reflection during Lent—the forty weekdays leading to Holy Week and Easter. I was on this year’s list and was offered a passage from the middle of the book, Exodus 23:1-9. As I read through the entire book and reflected on its meaning for us, I came to the following reflection. Here’s the passage:

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.

When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits.  Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty.  You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

We are used to seeing the book of Exodus as a story of liberation from slavery. It is about freedom from oppression—something that resonates with the American story of revolution and emancipation from slavery. However, beyond that I have come to see it as Israel’s answer to the question: How can we rightly worship the mysterious “I am” of our life? How can we live in single-minded devotion to the Source of our life?

When this mysterious YHWH tells Moses to go to Pharaoh on behalf of his people, this YHWH says “Let my son [Israel] go that he may worship me.” At each point in the deadly events leading up to Passover and the escape from Egypt Moses goes before the Pharaoh with the words “Let my people go so that they may worship me.” The issue at the core of Israel’s bondage in Egypt is rightful worship, not merely the physical suffering of the people.

To worship this YHWH rightly the people are led into a wilderness where they must strip away all their usual safeguards and supports. They subsist on daily manna and miraculous water from a rock. Only when they have entered this world of naked dependence can they then rightly worship YHWH. And what is this right worship? It is the reception of God’s divine law and covenant. It is devotion to the right ways of the “I Am” so that they can live out a fruitful life in a new land.

The middle section of the book contains the commandments, laws, and ordinances that shape the right way, including the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). Some of them, like provisions for the sale of daughters into slavery, are revolting to our own consciences today. But in many places, as in chapter twenty-three, we come to the core of it all. It is clear that the Israelites were a quarrelsome lot. Moses has to set up a whole judiciary to deal with them. Thus, the list in this chapter begins with prohibitions of false witness, lying, perjury, bribes, and betrayal of conscience for the favor of the majority. But above all, they are admonished not to “oppress a resident alien, [for] you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  At the core of the way of life that rightly worships the source of all being—the great “I AM”—is identification with the alien, the outcaste, the poor and oppressed of the earth. It is this identification with the oppressed and marginalized that finally undergirds the Great Commandment to love others as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 12:37-40). It is a claim as foreign to many of us today as it was to the fearful refugees at Sinai.

It is only after the recitation of numerous commandments around this theme that the final chapters of Exodus proceed to the temple construction and priestly instructions for expressing this devotion to YHWH in symbolic ways. Above all, Exodus calls us to remember that our liberation consists not in having control over our lives so that we can do what we want but in stripping away all our powers in order to embrace the mysterious life of the “I Am” that underlies the life of all creatures on this earth. That is rightful worship. That is the way of exodus into abundant life.



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Whose Apocalypse?

Australia is burning. It’s been burning even from the beginning of its springtime. The fires will not relent for some months to come. And then California and parts of other western states will take their turn before the fire of climate change. It is like a blow torch sweeping over the earth between the episodes of floods in Indonesia, Bangladesh or North Carolina. It is an apocalypse.

Apocalyptic. The word flows through the news reports beside “catastrophe” and “wake-up call” for the near brain dead. In the night I turned this ancient Greek word over and over in my mind. For most of us it signifies destruction in the end times, the razing of the world as we know it. As I chew on the word I realize it has two meanings for us, one ancient and Biblical, the other contemporary and scientific.

The Greek meaning of apocalypse is “unveiling” or “uncovering.” It carried over into Latin and then into English as “revelation.” Hence, the apocalyptic vision in John of Patmos’s writings at the end of the New Testament is usually titled “The Revelation According to St. John.” In this biblical literature what is revealed is the cosmic struggle between the forces of Good (God, Christ) and Evil (Satan) and the victory of God or Christ, ushering in a new era of peace and justice. The fallen age of sin in which we now live is succeeded by an age of righteousness. Apocalyptic in the Bible is a prophetic vision revealing the enormity of evil in our world and the greater power of God for transformation according to God’s purpose of Life. Thus, John’s Revelation concludes with the famous passage:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Revelations 21:1-5a)

Biblical apocalyptic is a prophetic vision calling us to judgment, purging us so that we can live into God’s act of redemptive struggle on our behalf to claim a redeemed world, whether through the destruction of the present order or its perfection in God.

A scientific vision, based in evolutionary theories, does not see our present apocalyptic time as a struggle between Good and Evil. It is the natural consequence of the way humans have been living in the fossil-fuel era of the last two centuries. The inexorable laws of physics that explain greenhouse emissions and global warming are not evil. They are simply “the way things are.” While we can call our normal way of industrial life sin and perhaps even evil, the apocalypse we see in these fires and floods is not the work of Satan. Our present course of human behavior ensures that we will extinguish the very conditions of human life. The earth will go on without us and many other species that have shared our ecological niche in the evolution of this planet. Our descendants will be no more. God will have a new earth without us, God’s failed ecological experiment. Apocalypse is simply the inevitable outcome of the way human beings have developed.

Both views of apocalypse shape our vision and our arguments today. The biblical vision can easily fuel the survivalist ethos portrayed  in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Tara Westover’s family in Educated.  For McCarthy, however, the world they survive into is the burned cinder we see today in the Australian outback. For Westover’s isolated Mormon family in Idaho, we presume, it is John’s “new heaven and new earth.” Neither, however, responds to the cry of the scientific apocalypse that, though the laws of climate change are unalterable, our collective behavior might, just might, be able to change enough to avert total destruction. The outcome would not be a new heaven and a new earth, but it might be livable for some, at least after horrendous warfare over the spoils.

I would like to find a way to claim both—the optimism of John’s apocalypse and the scientific call to change our collective ways short of extinction of a human-friendly planet. But that requires a planet-friendly humanity. The fires in Australia and California may illuminate our way toward planetary redemption, but they may also frighten us into acquiescence to an inevitable destruction. Apocalypse invites our decision and we should be trembling, awestruck, as the smoke rises in God’s temple that we call earth. The decision is upon us.


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