A passionate call to justice from the man Newsweek calls “one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.”
In Whose Gospel?, one of America’s greatest living preachers offers a compelling vision of progressive social change. Known as “the preacher’s preacher,” Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. has tirelessly advocated progressive views on the crucial issues of our timefrom poverty, war, and women’s equality to racial justice, sexuality, and the environment.
Long a powerful voice for progressive Protestants, Forbes draws on a record of political commitment ranging from the civil rights movement to his stirring address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in addition to his eighteen years at the helm of New York City’s historic Riverside Church. Reflecting on insights of his years as a pastor, a teacher, and an adviser to political leaders, this inspiring manifesto “for the healing of the nations” epitomizes the best thinking of one of the country’s foremost religious leaders. Published with a foreword by longtime Riverside Church member Bill Moyers, Whose Gospel? is a pithy and insightful introduction to Forbes’s thought and a welcome source of inspiration in this era of hope and change.
“Forbes . . . looks back over his life as a pastor and a black man to make a strong connection between the gospels of Christian faith and life as lived in a dynamic and changing world . . . [He] intersperses passages from the Bible with his experiences to offer a full and compelling look at making faith and humane ideals real in the lives of church members and the nation.” Booklist
About the Author
The Reverend Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. is founder and president of the Healing of the Nations Foundation, senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church, and Harry Emerson Fosdick Distinguished Professor at Union Theological Seminary. He has hosted The Time Is Now on Air America Radio. Forbes is the author of Whose Gospel?: A Concise Guide to Progressive Protestantism (The New Press). He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
A Lifelong Course in Sexuality
For several decades religious leaders of various faiths have sought to discern God's will regarding the appropriate expression of human sexuality. People in the pew have also struggled with this question, and even when governing bodies have advocated certain approaches to sexuality, individual congregations have sometimes been slow to comply with their directives. Ongoing discussions reveal deep divisions and strong resistance to new insights. Even after hardfought battles that led to compromises among competing views, many tensions remain and the controversies raise pastoral problems for individuals and families of the church. Discussants on all sides of the sexuality debates may feel that their personal convictions have been undermined. Despite the stress occasioned by such conversations, these serious questions still demand attention.
A wide range of sexual practices and church stances calls us to remain in dialogue across our differences. Some congregations still deny membership to openly gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and trans-gender (GLBT) Christians. Other churches welcome the GLBT community in their fellowship, and they enjoy all the rights and privileges of membership, including holding office, being ordained, and getting married. Will the same-sex marriages some churches perform be honored by other churches which do not allow them? What will be the response to the children of such unions, will they be welcomed in church school and youth groups?
Regarding both straight and gay adults, some churches openly accept premarital sexual relationships and postmarital sexual activity among the divorced and widowed. Some time ago, they also stopped considering masturbation to be a sin. On the other hand, most churches still experience conflict between their doctrine and their general acceptance of extramarital sex and masturbation. Some churches teach sex education as a part of religious instruction in the congregation and others avoid it or teach abstinence only.
Faith communities respond in a variety of ways to people who fail to live up to the church's teaching. Some shame and ostracize unwed mothers and fathers while others support them. Many ministers marry couples they know have lived together before marriage. Some pretend not to pay attention while others accept it as just the way things are. Divorce, infidelity, and even the use of birth control have no uniform Christian response.
Whatever position churches take regarding these issues, there is usually an appeal to the Bible to support the stand they take. Unfortunately, the Bible offers many texts about sex which can be used for widely differing understandings. A literal reading of the Bible provides patterns or marital arrangements, accepted then but not now. For example, some verses would seem to accept polygamy, concubinage, and levirate marriage.
Policies about sex have repeatedly stirred up furors in the church. There are those who urge silence because they believe conflict and confusion about these matters weaken the witness and pastoral effectiveness of the faith community. Nevertheless, we need to pray, study, talk, and listen our way toward our best wisdom on these matters, or else we will be confused when we seek to teach our children about such matters. People of faith still want to know, "Is there any word from the Lord about my sexuality and about how faith can inform it?" Mature religious leaders will seek to respond with the most responsible perspective their faith has to offer. Avoiding the issue is not an acceptable response.
Here, I offer some insights that have been helpful to me as I've continued to wrestle with what it means to be a faithful steward of the wonderful gift of sexuality. I have reflected on many dimensions of my sexual life, first as a young child, then as a student, as a husband, as a parent, as a pastor, and as a teacher; the issues are always there. I would suggest that each of us is undertaking — whether we recognize it or not, like it or not — a lifelong course in sex education intended to guide us into the fullest, most loving, and most faithful expression of our sexuality.
I: THE COURSE
Welcome to the lifelong course in sex education. You may not have realized you were enrolled in it, but in fact each of us is a member of this learning experience as we discover what it means to be human, embodied, and in relationships with ourselves, others, and our God. From the pleasurable feelings derived from the caring touch of our parents, to the awakening of powerful adolescent urges and the longings of physical and emotional attraction, through the adult bonds of selfgiving in body, mind, and spirit — we are all in the class.
Not every one learns in the same way or at the same pace. The attitudes, understandings, and practices of our families and communities affect our psychosexual development and involve all aspects of our selfhood and our relationships to others. The process will bring its share of fascination, frustration, anxiety, ambivalence, and strong convictions. We all have to learn which signals to heed — from the body, the heart, our parents, our peers, or the guidance of the Spirit. There aren't any easy answers, and we are not expected to reach maturity without passing through all the challenging stages of human development.
II: THE TEACHER
The Gospel of John offers us two sets of verses which should be a source of encouragement to every member of our class. Jesus reassures his followers: "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you" (John 14:25–26 New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]). The Holy Spirit is not a cosmic police officer seeking to apprehend and condemn us for our faltering steps toward wholeness. The text speaks of the Spirit as our Advocate, as the one beside us to guide us into the way of abundant life. The Holy Spirit is a strong life coach, teaching us how to find and fulfill our destiny as individuals, families, and communities. For Christians, the deeper meaning of the words and deeds of Christ will be refreshed, refined, and renewed under the tutelage of the Spirit who dwells within us. The Spirit does not limit instructions to so-called religious matters alone. All areas of our lives are within the range of the Spirit's expertise and concern. Our sexuality is such a central and significant aspect of who we are, it would be unthinkable that the Spirit might be indifferent to this life-enriching aspect of our being. And what kind of teacher is the Holy Spirit? The answer is — dynamic, fully embracing, and engaged with us because the Spirit is ever-present to us and in us.
Encountered in the winds of change and the stirrings of our spirit, the Advocate will teach us everything — new knowledge for the living of all our days. Jesus continues, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears and he will declare to you the things that are to come" (John 16:12–13). In these verses, Jesus expresses two important truths. In the first place, his disciples, like us today, can only take in so much at a time. Sometimes, we need to absorb more deeply what we have already learned before we can take in something new. After absorbing and integrating new things, our hearts and minds are ready for more. Even important basic truths will have little meaning for us until an interest in the questions emerges in our experience and consciousness. Answers to unasked questions are rarely valued or remembered.
Second, Jesus knew that the story of our life in community is forever being written; there are "things to come" that, in their unfolding, the Holy Spirit will open our eyes to see. The Holy Spirit instructs us not only through the words of a sacred text but also through the stirring of our hearts that calls us to broaden our compassion, through the prodding of our conscience that recognizes injustice, and through the encounters with others that open our eyes to new ways of seeing and being.
Like the good teachers we have all experienced, the Holy Spirit meets students — us — where we are. The Spirit respects our differences and discerns our unique gifts and our peculiar impediments to growth. The Spirit patiently awaits our readiness for learning and commits to walk with us all the way to the place of gracious illumination. Even though we are a class of extraordinarily diverse persons, the Spirit seeks to set a climate of mutual respect and hospitality. All the students impact the learning process through the spirit of their relatedness. In fact, the Spirit directs our continuing education and values our experiences so much that we are treated as teaching assistants. The class on sexuality is teamtaught; all our experiences under the guidance of the Spirit can help us see the truth and cultivate the discipline and wisdom for living a good life for self and community.
III: THE SOURCES
Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to be our teacher, and we are all teaching assistants. All well and good, but we also need sources to study that offer us a deeper understanding of human sexuality. These include the Bible, our experiences, the experiences of others, and the accumulated wisdom of the community.
The Bible: The Bible is a primary sourcebook for faith and values. But human sexuality is neither an elective course nor is it easy. We cannot just memorize a few pat answers or find CliffsNotes with standard answers; this is a critical thinking and feeling course. We will need to bring a host of approaches and insights to discern what is true and what applies in any given circumstance. We are expected to employ rigorous critical thinking, with the confidence that critical thinking is certainly not a sin but rather a requirement.
Biblical wisdom seeks to move us beyond the letter of the law to the Spirit the law seeks to reflect. We are not expected to memorize pages of rules and regulations formulated for specific circumstances in a particular historical setting, but rather to understand the overarching and underlying message of love. We are urged to apply the Golden Rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us in each new situation as it presents itself. The counsel we offer to others should reflect what we would be willing to accept if we were in a similar situation. By putting ourselves in the place of the other, we are more likely to be sensitive and fair and less rigid and judgmental.
In the debate about sexuality, some people claim that their position reflects a divine mandate set forth in the Bible. They assume the rules and regulations, principles and precepts they rely upon, are absolutely binding on all who profess to be faithful practitioners of God's will. Yet the Bible from which they derive their idea of "absolute laws" is not a book that captures the whole of divine wisdom for all times and places. We received a fixed order of books (canon) to be included in the Bible, a defined and limited collection of divinely inspired writings, captured at a particular moment in the history of God's people. Yet the Bible even in its development was not static. There is continuing illumination. The phrase used so often in Matthew 5 by Jesus was: "It has been said by those of old ... but I say unto you. ..." The beauty of the Bible is its pattern of addressing changing circumstances out of evolving wisdom rooted and grounded in fundamental truth. Jesus knew that each day and each generation, new winds of the Spirit would bring afresh God's word to the people, not limited to ancient words on a page but written by the Spirit on the hearts of God's people. For that very reason, Jesus promised his disciples that they must continue in the word and that the Holy Spirit would be their director of continuing education.
No time or season is able to perceive the full scope of divine intention. "Time makes ancient good uncouth." At the same time, there is no time or place without witness to God's truth. An open and honest reading of the Bible makes very clear that times and seasons elicit changed understandings and practices. Some people get nervous just hearing ideas that conflict with their inherited values. Those who fear openness to change may find it comforting to know that major changes in moral outlook are not instantly achieved with the first thoughts brought on by new times and new approaches. Basic change in moral outlook is slow. For this reason, in this class, no one is asked to give instant endorsement to the ideas that are suggested.
Students accustomed to receiving instruction from a fixed, firm authority may find this class unsettling — the complex responsibility of helping to define what is right and wrong or appropriate and beneficial for the common good is a serious challenge. Just as the Bible both condemns and condones slavery and second-class status for women, the Christian community and members of other faith traditions have been led by the Spirit to see more deeply into God's will than past traditions had indicated. Yet we can take heart from those who came before us. They wrestled with the same difficulty of discovering what was called for by a new day. We are the beneficiaries of their courageous struggle toward a more excellent way to fulfill our destiny under God.
Recall, if you will, the controversy in Acts chapter 15. There, the new church community struggled with the question of circumcision. The "way it had always been" was that only circumcised boys and men were certified members of the community of the faithful. As the church reached out to Gentiles, the community had to decide if the old rules still applied across the board. They had to discuss the possibility of a more inclusive understanding of what it means to be part of the covenant community. The conflict was so intense that a general conference of the church had to be convened to resolve the issue. There was fierce debate. Representatives from all sides presented the best case they could. Appeal was made to scripture, tradition, and how the Spirit was moving among the Gentiles. After extensive wrangling over the issue, a conclusion was reached which reversed the requirement of circumcision for all men. The leader of the meeting announced, "I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19). In the written resolutions, they included this message: "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell" (Acts 15:28–29). Those who believed that circumcision should be required of all men must have felt that the church had lost its religion, but in the course of time the change became an accepted norm. The list of prohibitions they kept included a kosher restriction and the requirement that members avoid fornication (sexual relations outside of marriage). Christians no longer follow the dietary restrictions, and those who embrace the spirit of healthy adult sexuality outside marriage have challenged the judgment against fornication.
At stake in the current conversation about sexuality is the question about which items must remain on the list of forbidden practices. We struggle to maintain the integrity of the apostles, who made changes only after they had heard from differing points of view and felt they had discerned the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such spiritual struggle and openness to difference will deliver us from both inflexible traditionalism and destructive self-indulgence. Whatever stand we take on these matters let us earnestly seek to be able to say with a good conscience, "It ... seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us."
As was the case in Acts 15, the dictionary reflects new understandings in its various editions over time. Consider this: a Webster's dictionary in 1961 notes that the word "sexuality" derives from the Latin word sexus from the base secare which means "to cut, divide." (We've certainly found that sexuality can be a divisive subject!) Sex, in the 1961 dictionary definition, meant:
1. Either of the two divisions of organisms distinguished as male or female
2. The character of being male or female — what distinguishes one from the other
3. Anything connected with sexual gratification or reproduction or the urge for these, especially the attraction of individuals of one sex for those of the other
That same edition of the dictionary defined "sex appeal" as "the physical attractiveness and personal charm that attract members of the opposite sex," and "sex hygiene" as "the branch of hygiene dealing with sex and sexual behavior as they relate to the welfare of both the individual and the community."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Whose Gospel?"
Copyright © 2010 James A. Forbes Jr..
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Bill Moyers,
1. A Lifelong Course in Sexuality,
2. Gender Equality: For God's Sake and Ours,
3. Which Gospel Do You Believe About Race?,
4. Economic Justice: Are All the Children In?,
5. In War: Which Commandments Are Broken?,
6. Critique, Confession, and Ecological Consciousness,
Epilogue: Trusting God Enough to "Go Forth",