Monday, May 18, 2015

40 Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (16): Dispute Over Religion

Though Muhammad guarantees the “religion and property” of the Jews in the Treaty of Medina, he still warns them of Allah’s “punishment and vengeance” if they fail to convert. He enters a Jewish school accordingly, and the rabbis challenge him:

“ ‘What is your religion, Muhammad?’
“ ‘The religion of Abraham’ [says Muhammad].
“ ‘But Abraham was a Jew’ [say the Jews].
“ ‘Then let the Torah judge between us’ ” [says Muhammad].

As the rabbis then refuse to convert, Muhammad declares a verse of the Qur’an coming down from Allah: “Hast thou not seen how those who have received a portion of scripture when invited to [Allah’s] book that it may judge between them, a party of them turn their backs in opposition.”

The Jews claim Abraham as their own, with their Judaism tracing back through to the Israelites and Isaac. But here Muhammad challenges them to prove it from the Torah (the Pentateuch), and also, he includes the Torah in Allah’s book. They refuse, which is historically curious given rabbinic love for debate and searching the scriptures. Perhaps it is because Muhammad never quotes the Torah – he only cites it as an objective reference point – and they assume he is going to argue from the Qur’an, which is historically ex post facto, and in their eyes, settles nothing. Then some Jewish rabbis and Christians dispute whether Abraham is a Jew or Christian, and Muhammad claims Abraham is Muslim.

Jesus: The identity of Abraham as the father of faith is summed up when Jesus says to the Jews: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” In other words, as Jesus is the incarnate Yahweh Elohim, Abraham is a Hebrew man who is called to be a blessing to all nations, out of whom the Messiah for all nations is to come, and not to be exclusively claimed by one group over and against another.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Does the Church Have Responsibility for Same-Sex Marriage? The Question of Animus

As same-sex marriage is set to revisit the United States Supreme Court, a question has already been raised by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Namely, is political and legal opposition to same-sex marriage rooted in an “animus” against homosexual persons qua homosexual persons?

Sadly, there is a reality within the church and culture of such animus, and this has only served to disembowel the constitutional argument for the social goodness of one man and one woman in marriage. This animus is usually the exception, but its presence is poisonous.

In the fall of 2002, I was baptized into this animus reality as I addressed a forum at Boston University on the topic: “Is Same-Sex Marriage Good for the Nation?’ My interlocutor was Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. We had not met before, and I arrived at the auditorium first. When she entered the room, with a number of followers behind her, I stepped forward, reached out my hand to shake hers, and with a smile said, “A pleasure to meet you.”

As I did so, her followers all reared back in surprise, which is say (as I interpreted the moment), they expected me to be a “homophobe” and were not prepared for genuine humanity and hospitality.

Arline led off the evening and said up front that every other person she had debated on this subject “had palpably hated me, but not so tonight with John Rankin.” I was surprised, and even more so later when she also said, “John, we know that you love us.” I never used the word love, but certainly showed respect for her equal humanity, and sought to listen well.

After a forum some years later, Arline gave me a hug, and in an email said to me: “John, you are a true gentleman and a thoughtful advocate.” She also gave me permission to publish and attribute these words. This from the woman who successfully led the lobbying movement for the nation’s first “gay rights” bill in Massachusetts in 1989, and again in 2005, led the lobbying effort for the first in the nation same-sex marriage law.

In my post-graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School in the 1980s, I was once took a class in feminist ethics. During lunch, early in the term, three women classmates approached me as I was sitting in the refectory. One of them introduced herself along with her two friends, and she said, “You know John, for an evangelical, you’re a nice guy.”

She continued, and introduced a topic de novo. She noted that the three of them were lesbian, and every lesbian they knew had been the victim of “physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse” by some man in her early years. This was new information to me. And why, I still wonder, were they sharing this testimony with me?

I remember praying in my spirit as I heard these words, Dear God above, has the church ever heard this? Or do we merely pass judgment on those who are homosexual and move on?

In 2003 I shared this story at a huge turnout before the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut State Legislature, broadcast live on CT-N. The topic was pending legislation on same-sex marriage, and as I relayed this story briefly in my testimony, the whole room was filled with groans so cacophonous I could hardly hear myself speak. A friend in the audience later told me that all the groans were from women wearing same-sex marriage stickers, and that they held their breaths until I was done with that segment.

I was neither questioned nor challenged by anyone there, nor subsequently. It was something to get past for those in charge. What I did, unknowingly, was to speak a pain that dares not speak its name – and to speak it with unfeigned human care for those who have suffered. This reality has deep resonation among the male homosexual population as well.

I have addressed this and related topics in many other settings such as the University of Rhode Island, Yale, Wesleyan, New York University, Syracuse, Harvard, the University of New Hampshire, Smith, the Chautauqua Institution, a homosexual restaurant, churches of various theological persuasions, many personal conversations with avowed homosexual persons, Trinity, Dartmouth, Brown and the University of Hartford. As well, at the behest of an ad hoc meeting of fellow ministers, I was the scribe for The Ministers Affirmation on Marriage in the Hartford Courant: “Yes to Man and Woman in Marriage: No to Same-Sex Marriage.” It never elicited any public critique, as first 200, then 700 ministers and Christian leaders signed it. I even once debated the infamous and late Fred Phelps of “,” itemizing fourteen ways in which he made an idol out of hate.

Yet all the while, in my proactive theology and politics, I argue that one man and one woman in marriage is sine qua non for a healthy civil order, and that same-sex marriage undermines this foundation. This is in ways that almost no one discusses, and why I have submitted an Amicus Curae before the Supreme Court posing seven questions – where the well-being of all people equally is the goal.

Here are the questions:

1] Is there any written source for unalienable rights in the United States apart from the Creator identified in Genesis 1-2?

2] Is marriage itself an unalienable right – one that all people can demand for themselves – or is it an option under liberty?

3] How does the Creator define human sexuality?

4] Are same-sex marriage advocates thus forcing a choice between unalienable and ultimate rights given by the Creator, on the one hand, versus basic and penultimate rights defined by human authority, on the other?

5] And if so, are same-sex marriage advocates decoupling the Declaration of Independence from the United States Constitution and civil law?

6] Can same-sex marriage advocates give any example in human history where a homosexual ethos has advanced the well-being of the larger social order?

7] Is homosexuality a fixed or immutable trait? In Goodridge, re Marriage Cases and in Kerrigan, no scientific basis for a supposed genetic or social determinism for homosexual identity was even attempted. And I have seen none attempted otherwise. Apart from clear evidence of a “fixed or immutable trait,” Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, relative to defining a “suspect” or civil rights class status, is not met for homosexual persons qua self-identified homosexuality. Homosexuality is not a civil rights class in U.S. law.

Before the Court can make any ruling, I believe these questions must be addressed and answered.

On my website,, at the Marriage or Pansexuality icon, there are nearly 70 articles that explore this plus much more cognate territory. I invite those in the church to consider a question: To what extent does male irresponsibility despise and abandon boys and girls into an ersatz human sexuality, one that teems with sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and early death? And for those so abandoned, as they find homes among communities of shared suffering, what would we have done had we suffered such violation, and sans a true grasp of the Gospel?

The harshest language Jesus ever used was in calling some of the hypocritical elite “sons of hell.” Any man who betrays true manhood, and does sexual violence to others, along with the hatred of a Fred Phelps, are clear examples I know where such judgment is merited.

I also invite those who disagree with me in any capacity, inside the church or outside, to pose their most rigorous questions.

Jesus removes the condemnation from a manipulated woman caught in the act of adultery, and then calls her to leave her life of broken trust (my language for the most biblically comprehensive definition of “sin”). And he gives the power of his Holy Spirit to all those who want to heed his words. I have a friend, a Unitarian minister, whose church has welcomed many avowedly homosexual persons. And yet, he made a remarkable statement to me once in a public conversation. Namely, though in his counseling with many of them, he affirmed them in their homosexual identities, but saw no resulting improvement in their psychological and physical health across the years. There are far deeper painful relational realities at play. Does legalized same-sex marriage cause any remedy for such human suffering, or only give imprimatur to deepening broken trust?

If same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, the church bears great responsibility. Broken relationships will continue to multiply and the social order will continue to crumble on many fronts. I pray otherwise, but we in the church must be proactive and not reactive in our grasp of the Gospel. And if same-sex marriage does not become federal law, our calling remains equally the same.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

40 Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (15): Offer to the Jews of Khaybar

As the interaction with the Jews in Medina continues, Muhammad writes a letter to the Jews of Khaybar, saying: “O scripture folk, and you will find it in your scripture[,] ‘Muhammad is the apostle of [Allah].” He then gives some statements as to why this is the case, and concludes, “If you do not find that in your scripture then there is no compulsion upon you. ‘The right path has become plainly distinguished from error’ so I call you to [Allah] and His prophet.”

In these words, a remarkable challenge is posed. Yet Ibn Ishaq gives no follow through of any discussion of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) itself (which neither Muhammad nor Ibn Ishaq ever quote), and whether Muhammad’s assertions are confirmed or not. Ibn Ishaq does continue here and say: “Among the people concerning whom the Quran came down, especially the rabbis and unbelieving Jews who used to ask him questions[,] and annoying him in confusing truth with falsehood … the apostle as he was reciting the opening words of The Cow: ‘Alif, Lam, Mim, That is the book about which there is no doubt.’ ”

So the Qur’an is used again to silence questions and discussion, and Muhammad is also challenging the very basis of the treaty he just made with the Jews of Medina – to respect their religion and property. He calls them to submit to Islam, but also, at this juncture, leaves open their freedom, at least in that one moment, to say no if they do not see Muhammad in the Tanakh.

Jesus: In his dialogues with his enemies, Jesus invites them to prove him wrong relative to fulfilling the scriptures. His patience in this regard is never exhausted, and he does not cut off debate.

Monday, January 26, 2015

40 Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (14): Questions by Rabbis

A number of “Jewish rabbis came to the apostle and asked him to answer four questions, saying that if he did so[,] they would follow him and testify to his truth and believe in him. He got them to swear a solemn oath that if he gave them the right answers they would acknowledge his truth and they began …”

The four questions address various details, including matters of superstition and post-biblical concerns. Muhammad is unable to answer their questions to their satisfaction, and again resorts to a recitation of the Qur’an that “comes down” at the moment from Allah, and the discussion ends.

Jesus: In the face of his enemies, Jesus allows them to prove him wrong if possible: “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does.”

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

40 Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (13): Pattern Establishes Itself

At this point in Ibn Ishaq’s narrative, a building pattern is in place – a) Islam intrinsically mocks pagan gods from the outset, b) pagans and Jews mock Islam in response, c) Muhammad gives directives for violent responses, and d) military war follows.

Ibn Ishaq attributes the first hundred verses of Sura 2 in the Qur’an to “rabbis and hypocrites,” a Sura that covers language in invitation to Islam, a statement of freedom from religious compulsion (2:256), but also an initial call to jihad or holy war in 2:190: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you.”

Jesus: The pattern of the Gospel is to bless those who curse us, and to turn the other cheek to mockery, thus cutting off cycles of revenge, violence and warfare. Its definition of freedom is proactive, and not contradicted by a “holy war” for temporal political power.

Monday, December 22, 2014

40 Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (12): Hatred of the Jews

The Arab peoples of Muhammad’s day love poetic verse, and compete in it often. In the ratcheting conflicts with non-Muslims that Muhammad catalyzes, one poet is “suspected of hypocrisy and love of the Jews.” A lead Muslim poet, Hassan, says of him:

Who will tell al-Dahhak that his veins
Were unable to be glorified in Islam?
Do you love the Jews of al-Hijaz and their religion,
You liver-hearted ass, and not love Muhammad?
Their religion will never march with ours
As long as men roam the open desert.

Some rabbis also assemble at the mosque and laugh and scoff at Islam among themselves. Muhammad orders them to be ejected, and this happens with violence, where a Muslim grabs a rabbi “by his robe, slapped his face, and dragged him forcibly out of the mosque, saying, ‘Faugh! You dirty hypocrite! Keep out of the apostle’s mosque, you hypocrite!’ ” Another Muslim seizes a rabbi by his long beard “and dragged him violently out of the mosque. Then clenching his fists he punched him in the chest and knocked him down, Zayd crying the meanwhile, ‘You have torn my skin off!’ ‘[Allah] rid of you, you hypocrite,’ he answered, ‘[Allah] has a worse punishment than that in store for you, so don’t come near the apostle’s mosque again!’ ”

Jesus: The cursing and mocking of others is foreign to the Gospel. When Jesus pronounces seven woes against his enemies, it is only after they silence themselves in public debate, unable to rationalize their plans to kill him. In the opposite of ejecting scoffers, Jesus welcomes them, fulfilling the Hebrew Bible’s vision of Mount Zion as a “light to the Gentiles,” and as the “Court of the Gentiles” in the temple of his day evidences. And then on the cross he submits to the humiliation of those who mock him there.

Monday, December 8, 2014

40 Vignettes on the Life of Muhammad (11): The Question of Hypocrisy and Annoying Questions

Following Muhammad's one-way treaty with the Jews, opposition arises. As well, the polytheists “obstinately clung to their heathen religion.” They are “compelled to pretend to accept [Islam] to save their lives. But in secret ways they were hypocrites whose inclination was towards the Jews because they considered the apostle a liar and strove [jihad] against Islam.”

Commenting on Ibn Ishaq here, the translator Alfred Guillaume notes that “Muslims look with a tolerant eye on a man who conceals his belief [in Islam] through force majeure, but to pretend to be a Muslim is a crime.” This antecedes the doctrine of taqiyya, where deceit is permissible, if necessary, in the advance of Islam.

Hypocrisy is thus permitted for Muslims, but is a crime for non-Muslims. Ibn Ishaq then notes that “it was the Jewish rabbis who use to annoy the apostle with questions and introduce confusion, so as to confound the truth with falsity. The Quran used to come down in reference to these questions of theirs.”

Jesus: Concealing faith in Jesus is not an option for his disciples – no hypocrisy or strategic deception is possible. As he says: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” And as well: “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.”