Category: Ethics and Social Justice

Have we really fallen this far?

Last week Fariborz Karami committed suicide. And I don’t think many Australians noticed. He was just 26 years old, and he had been held behind bars for 5 years without any hope of safe release. His mental health had been deteriorating for years. But I don’t think many Australians cared. Worse still, I don’t think … Continue reading Have we really fallen this far?
Syndicated from the Way?


What does Romans 13 actually teach?

Ted Grimsrud—June 18, 2018
What does it mean for the United States to be a “Christian nation”? For many, it seems to mean that people should support the political status quo, and they will quote the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support that support (“be subject to the governing authorities”). We find this most often when Christians want to offer “biblical support” for obeying the state’s call to go to war. But it comes up in many other circumstances as well.
Just lately, our evangelical Attorney General used Romans 13 as a basis to demand acceptance of Donald Trump’s policy of separating would-be immigrant children from their parents when they are arrested trying to cross the border into the US. Many commentators have noted that such a use of Romans 13 is not appropriate. I agree, but I also think that when this passage comes up in a public and controversial way, it is good to take the opportunity to offer some suggestions for how this oft-cited text might best be read.
The message of Jesus
The first step for thinking about the issues that Romans 13 are purported to address (our relationship to the state, our responsibilities as citizens, et al) is to start with Jesus—just as the New Testament itself does. Though Paul wrote Romans decades before the gospel writers wrote the gospels, the early church used these writings in a way that placed the gospels first. I think we can assume that the stories about Jesus that make up the core of the gospels circulated from the time of his death.
Paul himself insisted he simply reinforced Jesus’ message. If our basic question in looking at Romans 13 is a question of social ethics, we need to set the context for Paul’s own life and thought by taking note of what Jesus did and said that establish his own approach to social ethics.
The social ethic Jesus articulates has as its core two key elements: imitate God’s love even for God’s enemies (Luke 6:35-36) and practice a style of life utterly different from the “natural law” behavior of people in the world (6:32-34). That is, go beyond simply loving those who love you and doing good to those who do good to you—love even your enemies.
Jesus embodied an approach to politics where compassion, respect, inclusion of outsiders, non-retaliation, forgiveness all stood at the center. He taught his followers to subvert the standard political dynamic of Empire where the rulers lord it over their subjects. “Not so among you!” (Mark 10:43).
Those who make Romans 13 central to their political theology act as if Paul then came along and intentionally moved things in a different direction from Jesus. Does Paul make the necessary adjustment of Jesus’ radical ethic to something more realistic and responsible in the “real world”? Is Paul a teacher of accommodation that helps make Christian faith politically relevant? Or, is it rather the case that Paul actually reinforces the radicality of Jesus original message?
Before we look at Romans 13 itself, let’s note a couple of key elements in Paul’s thought more generally.
Paul’s social analysis
Paul introduces a way to speak of the structures of human life using the language of the “principalities and powers.” He refers to realities beyond simply our individual persons. He has in mind our institutions, traditions, social practices, belief systems, organizations, languages, and so on. This Powers language speaks metaphorically about the discrete “personalities” and even “wills” that these structures have.
(1) The Powers are part of the good creation.  They were brought into being by God as a “divine gift” that makes human social life possible.  When God created human beings, necessarily elements of human life such as language, traditions, and ways of ordering community life all came into existence alongside the individual human beings.  And like the original human beings, the Powers were also good.
(2) The Powers are fallen. They are so closely linked with humanity that when human beings turned from God—spoken of traditionally as “the fall”—so, too, did the Powers.  It is as if the Powers, as part of created reality, turn against human beings when humans are alienated from God.  The fallen Powers then seek to take God’s place as the center of human devotion, often becoming idols.
(3) The Powers remain necessary.  In spite of their fallenness, the Powers retain their original function. Human life still requires ordering; we still need elements of life such as language, traditions, and ways of organizing our communities. The Powers are still used by God in the sustenance of human social life. Consequently, the Powers are both a huge part of the problem human beings face in living in our fallen world and a necessary part of whatever solutions might be found.
(4) The Powers must be redeemed.  What is required for a potential resolution of the “Powers dilemma” is that the Powers be transformed (they cannot be abolished or ignored). The Powers must be “put in their place.”  We need them but they should be our servants (on behalf of life) not our masters (idols that make us become like them).  Such a putting the Powers in their place can only happen when we see them as what they are—creatures, not God substitutes.
(5) Jesus does redeem the Powers. Jesus lived free from the Powers’ control and as a consequence was crucified. In his death the Powers (representatives of religion and politics) collaborate. However, Jesus remained free from their allure, even in face of the deadly violence.  In doing so, he brings to light their true character. As Colossians 2:15 states, on the cross he “disarmed” the Powers, “making a public example of them and thereby triumphing over them. In Jesus’ resurrection, it becomes clear that his challenge to the Powers was endorsed and vindicated by God.  In Jesus, God has ventured into the Powers’ territory, remained true to God’s loving character, and defeated them.
Living in a broken world
Paul knew, all too well, that freedom in Jesus must be lived in a broken world.  So, he reflects on how Christian freedom may be lived most faithfully in an unfree world. Pauline writings concerning subordination in interpersonal relationships may deepen our analysis of how Paul reinforces and applies Jesus’s ethic.
Paul does not simply endorse status quo power arrangements that require those in the “lower” positions to give all their power to their “superiors.” Paul writes to people in the “lower” positions and treats them as responsible moral agents who have full (and equal) worth as human beings with those of higher social status.  These addressees, according to Paul, have indeed been liberated in Jesus and welcomed into full membership in Jesus’s assembly.  However, likely these addressees are not in positions to claim that liberation fully while at the same time remaining wholly committed to Jesus’s path of loving their neighbors.
Paul echoes Jesus in holding up two equally crucial convictions.  We are free in Jesus and we are called to love even our enemies.  In this love we refrain from smashing existing social arrangements.  Paul’s points on “subordination” are best seen as part of his thinking on the processes of negotiating this liberation/path of love tension.
The main term that Paul uses, hyptoassesthai, could best be translated something like “subordinate yourself to,” better than flatly “submit to.”  It is not connoting slavish obedience.  It is best defined in relation to Jesus.  According to Paul in Philippians two, Jesus, being free, subordinated himself for our sake and gave himself for us.  And, Paul emphasizes in Philippians 2:5, believers should “let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
In Romans, Paul cares about mutual subordination among the Christians in Rome.  He emphasizes, by the end of the book, the crucial importance to the Roman Christians of loving one another (13:8-10), refraining from judging each other (14:1-12), avoiding making one another stumble (14:13-23), pleasing others and not oneself (15:1-6), and recognizing that the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles together (15:7-13).
Paul advocates a genuine revolution against the Roman Empire’s hegemony; his readers are called to conform to Jesus’s way in resistance to the world’s (12:1-2).  However, the revolutionary means he advocates are consistent with the healing mercy of God extended to the entire world.  The certainty Paul has—and all followers of Jesus should have—in the world-transforming efficacy of God’s healing mercy undergirds lives of patient love, extended even (as with God Godself) toward enemies.
The broader biblical context for “Romans 13”
Romans 13 (specifically 13:1-7) often serves as a counter-testimony in the Christian tradition to the belief that Paul taught nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire—calling for submission, not resistance. I believe such readings of these verses fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s thought.
Our interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 should begin with consideration of the broader context of biblical politics.  From Egypt in Genesis and Exodus, then Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and down to Rome in the book of Revelation, the Bible tells us that empires rebel against God and hinder the healing vocation of God’s people.  The entire Bible calls people of faith to follow Torah in seeking to love God and neighbor. And it shows how to navigate the hostility, domination, idolatry, and violence toward this healing vocation that almost without exception characterize the world’s empires.
Romans 13:1-7 stands within this biblical framework of antipathy toward the empires.  Hence, we should turn to these Romans verses assuming that their concern is something like this: Given the fallenness of Rome, how might we live within this empire as people committed uncompromisingly to love of neighbor?  Paul has no illusions about Rome being in a positive sense a servant of God.  However, we know from biblical stories that God nonetheless can and does use the corrupt nations for God’s purposes.  Yet these nations also remain under God’s judgment.
Romans’s message
The message of Romans as a whole reinforces the broader biblical perspective—both on the problematic nature of human empires and on the relevance of the message of God’s healing love to the faithful response to the reality of empire.
Paul discusses two major strains of idolatry in chapters 1–3: (1) the Empire and its injustices that demand the highest loyalty and (religious) devotion and (2) a legalistic approach to Torah that leads to its own kind of violence (witness Paul’s own death-dealing zealotry before he met Jesus). However, Paul believes these widespread problems provide an opportunity for him to witness to the universality of God’s healing response.  Indeed, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Nonetheless, all may find salvation in Jesus.  The sovereignty of hostility to God ultimately bows to the sovereignty of God’s healing love.
In Romans 4–8 Paul further develops this message about God—reflected in Abraham’s pre-circumcision trust in God that serves as our model (chapter 4), in God’s transforming love even of God’s enemies (chapter 5), in Paul’s own liberation from his idolatrous “sacred violence” (chapter 7), and in the promise that creation itself will be healed as God’s children come to themselves (chapter 8).
Chapters 9–11 involve Paul’s deeper wrestling with his own earlier experience as a God-fearer who had failed to recognize God’s mercy revealed in Jesus.  However, Paul’s failure (and the failure of many of his fellows) did not stop the revelation of God’s mercy.  This mercy will have its healing conclusion even with the unfaithfulness of so many of the chosen people.
Finally, in chapters 14–16, in response to his certainty about God’s mercy, Paul sketches the practical outworking of living in light of this mercy—all for the sake of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth (i.e., “Spain,” 15:28).
Romans 12 and 13 should be read as a single section (contrary to the common practice of isolating 13:1-7). And this section should be read in the context of this broader flow of thought in the book.  In this section, the first word is a call, motivated by God’s mercy, to refuse to conform to the power politics of the world (“Do not be conformed to this world,” 12:2). Such nonconformity takes the positive shape of mutuality within the faith community and suffering love in response to enemies. Then comes 13:1-7, followed by a reiteration of the call to love in 13:8-10.
Zeroing in on Romans 13
What, then, does Paul actually say in these seven so-often cited verses?
(1) Paul calls for a qualified subordination in relation to government.  These verses begin with a call to subordination, not literally to obedience.  The term here that is often translated “submit” actually is better translated “subordinate yourselves.” It reflects Paul’s notion of how God orders the Powers.  The subordination has to do with respect for God’s work through the social structures of the world—not with unconditional obedience.  For example, the person who refuses to follow directives from the state that are discerned to be immoral but accepts the consequences for doing so is being subordinate even though not obeying.
(2) Paul intends to reject any notion of violent revolution. Paul rejected a reaction to the tyranny of the Roman Empire that relied on violence, even in the face of Rome’s devastating anti-Judaism and overall tyranny.
(3) Paul also intends to relativize the affirmation of any particular government.  Though opposing violent revolution, these verses do nothing to imply active moral support for Rome (or any other particular government). Paul here echoes Revelation 13, a text often contrasted with Romans 13.  Both passages advocate subordination in relation to whatever governing Powers are in place—even along with the implication (more clear in Revelation) that this particular government is idolatrous and blasphemous.
(4) God orders the Powers—a different notion than ordaining the Powers.  God is not said to create or institute or ordain any particular governments, but only to order them. This sense of “ordering” implies that God’s participation in human life is more indirect than often understood.  All states are “ordered” by God and thus in some sense serve God’s purposes.  However, no states are directly blessed by God as God’s direct representatives—least of all the Roman Empire that executed Jesus.
(5) Nothing here speaks to Christians as participants in the state’s work. When Paul mentions several functions in 13:3-4, he does not have in mind tasks that Christians themselves would take on. He expects readers to give what is “due to the authority” (13:6-7), but none of this involves direct work for the state. Whatever it is that the state does, Paul does not endorse Christians themselves having a responsibility to perform tasks that violate the call to neighbor love.
(6) Paul calls for discrimination.  “Pay to all what is due them” echoes Jesus’ call for discernment. When Jesus stated, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” he meant: Be sure not to give Caesar the loyalty that belongs only to God.  Paul writes in 13:7, “render to all what is due them.”  In the very next verse, 13:8, unfortunately often not noticed when we quit reading at 13:7, Paul states “nothing is due to anyone except love.”  This is Paul’s concern—is what Caesar claims is due to him part of the obligation of love? Only that which is part of the call to love is part of the Christian’s duty.
Romans 13:1-7, when read in light of Paul’s overall theology, may be understood as a statement of how the qualified subordination of Christians contributes to Christ’s victory over the Powers.  Christians do so by holding together their rejection of Empire-idolatry with their commitment to active peacemaking.  Their most radical task (and most subversive) is to live visibly as communities where the enmity that had driven Paul himself to murderous violence is overcome—Jew and Gentile joined together in one fellowship, a witness to genuine peace in a violent world.
Paul’s punch line in Romans 13 comes at 13:9-10: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Only by not reading past 13:7 have interpreters been able to imagine that Paul here offers a rationale for participation in violence. However, the paragraph break between 13:7 and 13:8 is not present in the original text. When Paul wrote “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” (13:1 NRSV translation), he meant that truth to complement the call to love all neighbors.
Living without idolatry
Peaceable faith communities empower a freedom from the Powers idolatry.  These are some of the imperatives from Romans 12–13 for living out such freedom:
• Nonconformity to the world of violent nation-states is fueled by minds that are transformed, being shaped by God’s mercy shown in Jesus rather than by the culture’s “elemental spirits.”
• Active love for one another leads to a renunciation of vengeance and a quest to overcome evil with good rather than heightening the spiral of violence with violent responses.
• Respect God’s ordering work in human government that, fallen and rebellious as it may be, still serves God’s purposes.
• Commit to doing good (following Jesus’ model that implicitly recognizes that genuinely doing good as defined by the gospel could lead to a cross) and repudiate temptations to seek to overcome evil with evil through violent resistance.
• Work at discerning what belongs to God and what is allowable to be given to Caesar.
• Make an overarching commitment to authentic practice of Torah, summarized (following Jesus) as love of neighbor.
What truly matters
Romans 13 calls upon Christians to hold together two uncompromisable convictions: resistance to empire and commitment to Jesus’s way of peace.  Resistance without pacifism ends up only heightening the spiral of violence and serving the domination of the fallen Powers.  Pacifism without resistance validates the stereotypes of the cultured despisers of pacifism—parasitic, withdrawal focused on purity, irresponsible.
Jesus and Paul both challenge people not to let the Empire set our agenda or determine our means of resistance.  We must not, in seeking to overcome evil, add to the spiral of evil ourselves. The true problem with Empire is not that some empires are not benevolent enough in their domination. It is the practice of domination itself.  Resistance to Empire that serves God’s intentions for human social life must repudiate domination itself.  Resistance that leads to more domination ultimately is not nearly radical enough.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

On the Occasion of Your Seventeenth Birthday

Hi kids,
It’s your seventeenth birthday today, so I suspect you know what’s coming by now. That’s right, another long-ish and perhaps not altogether welcome letter from your dad. This is the third year in a row that I’ve subjected you to something like this (see here and here). I apologize. Kind of. Well, not really. I suppose next year these letters will have to stop, what with you officially reaching adulthood and all that. So I’d better take advantage of these last two birthdays to dump all of my wisdom (or at least nostalgia) on you before you launch out into the grown up world.
Speaking of grown ups and adulthood, I saw a young man—maybe twenty or so—walking around the other day with a t-shirt that proudly displayed a slogan that said something like, “I tried adulting today, but adulting is hard.” It’s a chuckle-inducing expression that you see a lot today. I suppose it’s meant to convey the idea that sometimes being an adult is complicated or isn’t all it’s cracked up to be or isn’t worth the effort or something like that. Or maybe it’s like a kind of social endorsement of laziness and apathy—a kind of shrug of the shoulders, an indifferent “meh” to the perceived demands of an oppressive world that inconveniently insists that we grow up.
Based a few decades spent “adulting” myself, I can tell you that the slogan on the t-shirt is both true and not true at all. It’s true in the sense that it’s not always easy to grow up, to take responsibility for yourself and your actions, to learn how to think through complicated issues in a world that seems to endlessly settle for (demand?) simplistic slogans and reactionary shouting in place of careful thinking and measured responses. It’s hard to find your place in a world that demands self-definition as a cultural imperative. It’s intimidating to think about finding meaningful work in unstable economic and political conditions. It’s complicated to start dealing with things like student loans and job applications and mortgages and (far off in the distant future!) parenting. So, yes, adulting can be hard. It can be very hard.
But on the other hand, adulting is not hard. At least not in the ways that matter most. Adulthood can, in many ways, simply be another word for “maturity.” Physical maturity, certainly, but far more importantly emotional, spiritual, moral, and relational maturity. Adults are those who treat all people as human beings, who are kind and concerned about the welfare of those many deem expendable or inconvenient. Adults don’t believe something just because it comes from the mouth of someone who is rich and powerful. Adults aren’t impressed by empty rhetoric that relies on bullying and threats. Adults are suspicious of the propaganda and marketing language that fuels and inflames our cultural discourse on so many levels. Adults have the capacity to be self-critical—to recognize that we all have our blind spots and self-serving ways of understanding and moving through the world. Adults recognize that being right isn’t always (or even often) as important as being loving. And if they are paying attention, adults are always growing in the knowledge that love is a much deeper (and more demanding) word than most of the ways in which it is thrown around out there in the world.
As I’m sure you’ve observed, there are many people out there who are technically “adults” according to the dates on their birth certificate, but who are miles away from this kind of maturity. They are petulant and lazy, they are sloppy thinkers and endlessly blame others for the things that go wrong in the world and in their lives. They are unkind and reactionary, abusing power to get their way and exalting themselves by pushing others down. They are impatient and hypocritical, merciless and arrogant. Some of these people occupy some of the most influential positions in our communities, nations, and world. But there is little worth admiring in such people. They remain childish (which is different than “childlike”—see below) in the ways that matter most. I hope you will continue to set your sights far higher than this, even if it sometimes requires setting them lower on many popular metrics of scorekeeping.
And I think you also realize that there are some people who are technically “children” but who are already leading the way when it comes to adulting in the best ways. Sometimes it is people your age and younger that put the rest of us to shame when it comes to calling out the things that should not be in our world—things so many of us have lazily accepted or given up caring about. I have seen this in both of you throughout your lives, in the ways that you have a soft spot for the outsider, the neglected, the ridiculed and ignored, in the way that you don’t chase after the herd, always panting after what is popular and socially acceptable. This makes me very proud. There are many times when I aspire to adult in the ways that you already are.
Jesus talked once about how adults needed to become like little children if they wanted to enter the kingdom of God. It’s a weird thing to say, on the face of it. Taken literally, it seems like Jesus saying he wants us to be childish or something. But I don’t think that’s true at all. I think he’s telling us some of the best ways of “adulting” in faith and in life involve the simple things that many children exhibit almost instinctively—things like trust, integrity, curiosity, openness, wonder, forgiveness, and joy. These are the kinds of adults the world needs. Those who “adult” well are often those who simply follow one of Jesus’ most basic commands: “Do to others as you would have them do unto you.” A pretty simple thing, when it all comes down to it. But also a pretty hard thing. Adulting is like that—it’s hard and not hard at the same time.
Anyway, I hope you both have the very happiest of birthdays today. And I hope you remember that you are loved dearly, by your mother and I, certainly, but more importantly by the God who made you, the God who loves you more truly and fully than even we can, no matter how well you manage to “adult” in the years ahead. I hope your lives will be spent living into, embracing, and emulating this deepest of all loves—a love that holds and heals, sustains and enlivens, forgives and redeems the world.
Thanks for beings such awesome kids who are already adulting in inspiring ways. I suppose your mother will have to take most of the credit for that.
Love, always.
For those who might be wondering about this “blogging sabbatical” that I keep trying (and failing) to observe, I can only apologize and promise to keep trying. One of the ways that “adulting” is hard for me is, evidently, resisting the urge to write sappy public letters to my kids on their birthday each year.  

Syndicated from Rumblings

Interview: Shelley Campagnola, Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support

Shelley Campagnola from Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support joins the podcast to talk about their work and the current state of refugee acceptance in Canada and the United States. For more on MCRS, visit
Topics include:

How MCRS supports refugee claimants and why these claimants are seeking help (1:15)
The Mennonite roots of MCRS (4:06)
Other help for refugees in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (5:30)
The Christian/biblical basis for helping refugees (7:45)
The general process for a refugee in Canada (10:12)
Main differences between Canada and the U.S. and how they welcome refugees (20:40)
The length of the refugee claim process (25:12)
The safe third country agreement and how that impacts refugees to Canada and the U.S. (27:31)
Increasing fear of the “other”, including refugees, in North America (31:26)
How to help MCRS in their work (44:26) Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Play | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

How the Bible Sounds in Occupied Territory

One more reflection based on my time spent in Palestine and Israel over the past few weeks. After this, I shall endeavour to give this “blogging sabbatical” thing another, better, try.
It’s an interesting thing how geography and social location affects the way you read and hear Scripture. Most Sundays, I am reading and hearing Scripture as a relatively comfortable, white, middle-class Christian in a more or less peaceful country where religion often occupies a peripheral (at best) role in most people’s thinking and living. This affects how I read and hear the words of the Bible. My default, whether I want this or not, tends to be to listen in ways that will more or less endorse and validate myself and those who are like me. This is, as I said, most Sundays. Last Sunday, however, I worshiped in Palestine.
It was a tiny little Lutheran church where we gathered in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem. It was a mixture of Palestinian Christians and foreigners who happened to be lingering around the town of Jesus’ birth. The liturgical forms in the service were familiar enough, even if the language wasn’t. But they had transliterated the readings and prayers and it was possible, with a bit of effort, to follow along. The Scripture readings were done in both Arabic and English. And given what we had seen and heard in the previous week about how the Israeli occupation was affecting our Palestinian sisters and brothers, the readings sounded, well, different.
Psalm 35:1-10
We began the service by responsively reading from this Psalm. I am used to reading psalms like this through the lens of either the ancient Israelites or the suffering church. But it was impossible, in this place, to not hear through the ears of those who presently find themselves on the wrong end of the score in the Holy Land—those who are harassed and harried by teenage soldiers wielding automatic weapons, those who endure endless checkpoints and discriminatory policies restricting where they can go and when and how, those who are increasingly sequestered into urban ghettos by legislation that seems cruelly crafted to drive them from their farms and their land.

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me!
[S]ay to my soul, “I am your salvation…”
For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.
Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance. All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”

I don’t really have anyone contending with me in Canada, no real need for a shield or buckler. But my sisters and brothers from Beit Sahour do. They long for a strong arm of deliverance from those too strong for them.
It is grimly ironic that those who see themselves as descended from the same David who penned this Psalm, those who were once the weak that needed rescue from those who despoiled them, are now the ones that Palestinian Christians are praying for deliverance from.
Luke 16:19-31
The rich man and Lazarus… One enjoyed the best things in life while the other experienced only suffering and deprivation. Both die. The rich man ends up in torment in Hades and cries out to Father Abraham, with Lazarus by his side, saying, “Please, just a drop of water for my agony!” Father Abraham says, “Well, you’ve had your good things, haven’t you? You’ve been on the right end of the score for quite some time, and now the tables are turned.”
Father Abraham.
It must be such a complicated thing for Palestinian Christians to reckon with the word “Israel” in their Scriptures. But here, Father Abraham, patriarch of the nation, speaks a word of hope to them, to those who endure water shortages and intermittent electricity in the blistering heat of summer, to those who look over the (large and imposing) fence and see their Israeli neighbours with unlimited access to water and gleaming shopping malls and newly paved freeways (that Palestinians can’t use)…
Father Abraham says, “Comfort is coming, even across this vast chasm.”
1 John 4:15-21
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
This land is often called “holy.” Everywhere you go, it seems, something holy happened once upon a time. This is the place where Abraham died or where David did this or that or where Rachel is buried or where Jesus was born or where Muhammad went on his night journey. This is where God has apparently done a great many special things for a great many special people in a great many holy books. But what makes a land “holy?” What makes it matter to God? How would we ever know?
According to 1 John, it would seem rather simple. A land is “holy” because of the presence of love and unholy where this love is absent. God abides in those who love. And, presumably, takes his leave of those who persist in enmity and strife and all manner of unlove. God has little interest in this or that chunk of dirt where this or that thing happened in this or that holy book—at least not when it isn’t accompanied by love.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Like I said, the bible sounds different in occupied territory.
I took the picture above at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The man in this picture is the father of the boy in the poster below the UN sign. It is his thirteen year old son who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in that exact location. The father now spends most of his days volunteering at the UN center for his refugee camp.

Syndicated from Rumblings

BGWG 14: Farewell

Ebony and Steve return for one more episode of Black Gal, White Guy to say farewell to the show as they move on to focus on other things. Some of the topics include:

Steve’s recommendation: the podcast VS. (1:38)
Ebony’s recommendation: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown (3:55)
Ebony and the Kinky Curly Theological Collective (8:20)
Steve and Village of Hope leaving Portland (14:45)
Ebony’s concerns (23:55)
Steve giving space for other voices (27:50)
Ebony’s parting words for listeners (31:25)
Steve’s parting words for listeners (35:15)

Note: they did actually record this a while ago and I (Ryan, the editor and distributor) did not realize it until recently – I had stopped regularly checking after they told me they were wrapping up, so I didn’t realize they had recorded one more episode a few weeks later. Oops. Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Play | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

Somewhere to Be

I know I’m technically on a “blogging sabbatical,” but I decided to interrupt it to offer a few reflections and observations on a trip I’m presently on to Israel and Palestine. One of the things we consistently hear wherever we go in this conflicted area is, “Tell others what you have seen and heard with your own eyes and ears.” It’s a serious call, and one that I feel an obligation to respond to given the privilege that I have of being here. Here are some assorted stories and reflections from my first few days here.
At 5:30 yesterday morning we made our way to the main checkpoint that Palestinians must take to get from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. We were coming a bit later in the morning—most Palestians (men, mainly) arrive before 4:00 am in order to ensure that they can get through in time to get to work on the other side by 7:00 or so. After a briefing from a few humanitarian monitors of the checkpoint, we proceeded through a labyrinth of cages and turnstiles and barbed wire and metal detectors and soldiers. We wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be a Palestinian for whom this is a daily reality.
But of course we only got a tiny sense of what it was actually like. It was far emptier than earlier in the morning. We got to sleep in until 5:00 am to get there rather than waking as early as 1:00 am to travel from surrounding villages to arrive at the checkpoint by 4:00. We had no need to consider if our employer would be waiting for us on other side, no cause to worry about a medical appointment we might miss, no anxiety about whether we might be turned back once we finally got to the Israeli soldiers, often for reasons as simple as expired paperwork or the fact that there were reports of someone in our village who threw a stone at an Israeli vehicle. Or less. We didn’t have a hard day of labour in the hot sun to look ahead to once we made it through the lineup (which can take anywhere from half an hour to two hours, depending on how many metal detectors they decide to open at any given point of the day). We didn’t have any anxiety about whether we’d even have a job waiting for us on the other side nor did we have to struggle with the grim irony that surely must accompany the common reality of Palestinian day labourers building helping to build Jewish settlements on what is supposed to be their land. We didn’t have to think about doing it all over again tomorrow morning. And the morning after that. And the morning after that… We got through with barely a disinterested glance at our passports and made our way back to the hotel for hot coffee and breakfast.
At one point when we were walking along the long walkway that felt like a livestock chute, an older Palestinian man said to me, “Welcome to our checkpoint, what do you think?” I shook my head and mumbled something like, “I don’t quite know what to say when I see something like this… What do you think?” He just smiled and said, “Every day,” before hurrying off past me. I suppose he had somewhere to be.
We spent part of Sunday touring through the Old City of Jerusalem. At one point, my wife and I wandered down from the Al Aqsa mosque toward a lookout point that faces over toward the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives. There was a structure there and I offhandedly asked the guy beside me if he knew what it was. He proceeded to summon his Holy Land tour leader to come over and answer my question. What followed was some interesting theology.
“Well, you see, this is the East Gate but the Muslims have walled it off and built a cemetery on the other side… And of course we know that when Jesus returns he will touch down on the Mount of Olives and make his way over here to institute the new temple… But he can’t set foot in the Muslim cemetery, of course (of course?)… Luckily, it was recently discovered that there was a fault line on top of the Mount of Olives… And of course (of course?) we know that this fault line is designed by God to literally split the earth in half and pave the way for Jesus to triumphantly reenter Jerusalem. My face must have looked rather blank as I pondered this image of king Jesus parachuting down from heaven onto the Mount of Olives to be ushered via earthquake through the remains of a Muslim cemetery to reestablish a Jewish temple. An interesting eschatological path to take for the Prince of Peace. Jesus, too, apparently, has somewhere to be.
As I reflected upon these two experiences, I wondered what might happen if the Holy Land tour guide I met would walk through an Israeli checkpoint. I wonder if he might get a glimpse into the grinding, soul-crushing daily reality that his theological fervour feeds into for ordinary human beings. Would he pause to wonder if his need for the nation state of Israel and Jerusalem in particular to be a staging ground for his particular version of eschatological pyrotechnics legitimates the kind of struggle and suffering for ordinary people that is obvious at the checkpoint? Would he soften his position in any way? Would he think twice before mapping out Jesus’ triumphant (and violent) return to Jerusalem for eager tourists every day? Or would he only see tens of thousands of potential terrorists being daily herded like cattle through a maze of steel and barbed wire?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. Obviously. I don’t know the answer to very many questions when it comes to this part of the world. But I do know that if this land is ever going to turn into somewhere to be for both Jews and Palestinians, it is going to require a determination to imagine things from the perspective of the other and to at least try to see a human being where it’s so easy to see only an enemy. It’s going to require Jesus-y things like forgiving what seems impossible to forgive, in turning cheeks that have been stung too many times with violence. It’s going to require walking miles that we have little interest in walking to places we would rather not go because we’re convinced that there has to a better future around the bend.

Syndicated from Rumblings

The Errancy in End-Times Theology: Could It Just Be Racist?

The unfolding crisis in Gaza forces me to put to paper something that I have been wrestling with over the last month, though honestly, a period of years. As someone who grew up reading the Left Behind series almost as religiously as I read my Bible, I understand how Evangelical Christians are viewing the move … Continue reading The Errancy in End-Times Theology: Could It Just Be Racist?
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Let Us Remember: Slavery Built America

American slaves are just as much veterans as those who have served in the military.

Today is Memorial Day. A day where we celebrate our ‘victories’ and mourn our losses, while respecting those who have sacrificed. The past two years, I have written pieces regarding my frustrations and moral qualms with Memorial Day. While I could write further on the subject, this year I don’t want to be re-writing the same old thing. What I want to do, instead, is show how if we demand to participate in this day of remembering what our ‘freedom’ costs, we must remember the African slaves and anti-Black culture that dominates America. Without our racist practices, and without the free labor that slavery provided, our capitalist society, our war machine (and thereby war effort), and the ‘liberties’ we have today would be nonexistent and would have failed. Our heinous, evil practice of dehumanization is what got us to where we are today. Freedom costs us – it costs us our conscience. Which begs the question – are we really free?
Much ink has been spilled to show that without slavery, colonialism, and imperialism, the economic strength of America would be much more fragile. When one wants power, one must take it from someone else. Whether that be nationally, culturally, or individually. America is great at it.
Unfortunately, I do not have the time to put forth a well written piece, so my hope here is primarily to compile resources to show that we must remember that we are not the good guy. I repeat: WE. ARE. NOT. THE. GOOD. GUY. We have enslaved. We have pillaged. We have raped. We have destroyed. We have killed. All for our own selfish needs (don’t tell me we were justified in WWII. We refused to assist until we ourselves were bombed. We entered for selfish motive. I mean, let’s not forget we refused to help out the Jews seeking refuge while they were being burned alive.) – no questions asked. How dare we celebrate that? To do so is to spit in the face of Christ – The Suffering. The One who would rather die than kill. Who would rather carry a cross than a gun. But it is also to spit in the face of the 20 million Africans enslaved in the making of the American Empire. Without their forced free labor, without their lives being totally given to the American machine, without any say on their part, the American experiment would not have been nearly as successful as it is, economically speaking. Without the 200-300 years of slavery (slavery isn’t over. Don’t get me started on the subject of mass incarceration and unpaid/underpaid prison labor), we would not have had the resources to ‘win’ the wars we did. Oh the irony of a country that celebrates the “self-made man.” No such thing. If you’ve made it, you’ve made it because we have a history resting on a precedent of human bondage.
May God have mercy on us.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but in the broader narrative of American history, these black slaves, so dearly unappreciated, gave at least as much as veterans in the military. They gave the entirety of their existence. To this day, American culture is such that we have to consistently yell over the sea of white: Black Lives Matter. If we don’t, we forget. Heck, when we do, we’re deaf. Black people are the unsung heroes of this nation. They built it. We forced them to. They gave us our ‘victories.’ They are veterans. They deserve to be recognized. Celebrate Blackness this Memorial Day, not greed, not war, not murder!
As I always try to do, I want to be clear: I am not trying to de-value American veterans. While I think war is anti-Christ in nature, and to participate in killing is contrary to the message of Jesus Christ, I respect veterans. They are truly an underappreciated, disregarded piece of American culture. I appreciate that they have sacrificed their time, their energy, their limbs, their minds. They have given a lot. I would just argue, they did so for the wrong reasons. They did so for America, not for Christ. Christ has absolutely nothing to do with allegiance to a nation. That does not, however, diminish their importance as human beings. That does not mean Christ does not love them, nor does it mean I do not wish to try to myself, in my own frail way, of course. That does not mean when they come back home injured, bleeding, scared, alone, that we should discard them. We should care for them, help them along – welcome them with open arms. If you have served in the military, whether for this country, for North Korea, or the Nazi regime – you are beloved to Christ. But…so is the person you were sent to fight.
Below are some articles regarding how 300 years of slavery made our capitalist system possible, and therefore, our victories at war (given our economic abilities) possible. I encourage you to research, research, research. Ask questions. Seek to understand the world outside your own experience.
Peace be unto you.

Syndicated from Interdependently Independent

Right and Wrong in the New Testament

The New Testament teaches us that behaving ethically—that is, following certain commands and injunctions—flows out of the new life and identity we have in Christ. When we fail to see this the commands of the New Testament become, merely, ethical mandates for which people are encouraged to strive. We get preoccupied with the details of the New Testament commands, but not the spirit. Our thinking, then, actually brings about death.
For example, Paul teaches that love is not rude (1 Cor 13:4-5). Some take this as if it is saying, “Thou shalt not be rude.” Then people do their best to avoid being rude. When they avoid rudeness they feel good about themselves, and when they act rudely, they feel bad.
We can take this a step further by debating on what exactly constitutes rudeness and the specific conditions under which a behavior might look rude and not actually be rude. For instance, someone might appear to be rude, when in fact they are merely setting healthy boundaries. Others might have a personality type that results in words that could be taken as rude. If there are scenarios in which people disagree about what is rude and what is not, we might find ourselves planting ourselves on one side of the debate or the other. Indeed, if it is important enough to us, our posturing could result in factions of Christians arguing with one another—rudely.
This brief discussion about being rude illustrates how ethical questions typically focus entirely on behavior. We end up living in our head, filtering everything through what we think we know about rudeness. But this totally misses the perspective taken in the New Testament about ethics.
For Paul, when he wrote this verse about love not being rude, he was not saying that we should try hard to avoid rudeness. He was highlighting that we must live in love. If you are living out of love of God, you won’t be rude. You will actually fulfill the law.
In fact, you can strive to obey a hundred ethical rules you’ve created to define rudeness in particular situations but be completely devoid of love.
Paul was not giving us a list of dos and don’ts in 1 Corinthians 13. He was rather describing what life in Christ, life in love, and/or life in the Spirit looks like. His purpose was not to get us to act differently; his goal was to help us to be different. In telling us love is not rude Paul was giving us a flag to help us notice when we are acting out of love and when we are not. He was giving us a sign point so that we can discern when we are acting out of the old self and when we are acting out of the new.
The New Testament behavioral injunctions are not things we are supposed to strive to perform. Neither are they new universal ethical rules by which we are to try to motivate others to live. They are evidences that disciples are participating in the abundant life Jesus came to give. The New Testament is not about ethical behavior; it’s about a radical new way of living. It is about life lived in surrendered union to God through faith in Jesus Christ. It is about experiencing the transforming power of God’s love flowing into and through a person.
—Adapted from Repenting of Religion, pages 93-96
The post Right and Wrong in the New Testament appeared first on Greg Boyd - ReKnew.

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Older Brothers

I made a rather remarkable discovery yesterday. Well, remarkable to me, at any rate. I have never preached a sermon the parable of the lost (or prodigal) son. This surprised me because it’s one of my favourite stories that Jesus tells. I’ve written about it a fair bit on this blog. I’ve described it in pretty breathless terms. But I haven’t preached on it in the ten years I have been preaching. This seems a rather glaring omission.
Well, this Sunday I plan on addressing this gaping hole in my preaching repertoire. It’s my last sermon before I head out on a sabbatical, and I figured it would be a good story to explore on my way out the door. It’s also the last sermon in a series based on faith questions provided by members of my congregation. The specific question I’m addressing on Sunday is, “What about the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son?” What about him indeed. The bad son who stumbles home to mercy gets most of the headlines. What about the good son who stayed home?
We know the story, right? The younger son has had enough of his father’s house and sets off flush with his father’s cash and a bucket of desire. Perhaps he’s elated to be rid of the oppressive shackles of a father who doesn’t understand him and a life that he never wanted. He doesn’t know where he’s going or for how long, he just knows that he’s free and that nothing will stand in his way now. He knows that his departure is one big extended middle finger to the people and the place that formed him in countless ways, but he doesn’t care.
The older son grumbles in the shadows, rehearsing his list of grievances against his miserable ingrate of a brother, against his weak and pathetic father, against the burden of duty that he daily struggles under, against a screwed up world where merit is ignored and incompetence justified, where virtue goes unrewarded and vice has a riotous good time. He hates that his goodness goes unnoticed.
According to Tim Keller in his fantastic little book The Prodigal God, the older brother is just as lost as the younger brother. Indeed, his lostness is of a more dangerous sort, because it is predicated on his own rectitude. He believes that righteousness must be rewarded (particularly his own) and that sin must be punished. His categories are fixed and unyielding. He is a rule keeper all the way, and he has little use for those who don’t keep the rules.
According to Keller, older brothers are a far bigger problem in the church than younger brothers. Older brothers tend to be angry a lot and have a strong sense of their superiority over others. They are driven by a slavish sense of duty and turn faith into a system of joyless fear-based compliance. They can be really, really self-righteous. They resent those who haven’t earned the Father’s love and mercy (as they, presumably, have). They can’t tolerate those who enjoy all the benefits of home despite not being nearly as diligent or smart or holy or morally upright as they are.
Older brothers are everywhere. You may have noticed this.
Older brothers on the right tend to be full of evangelical zeal, doctrinal precision, and personal piety. They are faithful to the church. They like preachers who “just preach the bible.” They tend to be quite conservative politically and theologically, and look down on those who have the wrong views about abortion and same sex marriage and pipelines and race and who knows what else. They tend to define their purity in opposition to those “other Christians” who are so obviously wrong and have completely misunderstood who Jesus was and what he wanted.
Older brothers on the left tend to be activist warriors, full of evangelical zeal, doctrinal precision and personal piety (if, of a different sort). They like preachers who summon them to justice and solidarity and political advocacy. They tend to be quite liberal politically and theologically, and look down on those who have the wrong views about abortion and same sex marriage and pipelines and race and who knows what else. They tend to define their purity in opposition to those “other Christians” who are so obviously wrong and have completely misunderstood who Jesus was and what he wanted.
But there is another kind of older brother, too. These older brothers look at both conservative bible warriors and liberal activists with a sneer of condescension and thank God that they are like neither of these miserable sinners. They exist (so they think) peerlessly and comfortably above the fray, refusing to follow along with either herd. They congratulate themselves on their ability to identify the shortcomings and biases and idolatries of those other older brothers. They are confident that they, alone, have consistently been about their father’s business, while their degenerate brothers have been off chasing blindly down various dead ends.
Perhaps these older brothers are the most lost of all.
According to Richard Lovelace, all older brothers have the same thing in common:

[They] are no longer sure that God loves and accepts them in Jesus, apart from their present spiritual achievements, [and] are radically insecure persons… Their insecurity shows itself in pride, a fierce, defensive assertion of their own righteousness, and defensive criticism of others. They come naturally to hate other cultural styles and other races [and, we might say, other theological perspectives or approaches to faith] in order to bolster their own security and discharge their suppressed anger.

God save us from the older brothers that we so easily become. Protect us from ourselves. Gift us with the reckless mercy that you so prodigally distribute. Teach us how to love and to be loved. Give us the grace and the wisdom to come home.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Thinking is Hard (Or, The Value of Squirming)

I’ve been reading Alan Jacobs’ little book How to Think over the last few days. It doesn’t contain anything particularly new, but it has been yet another reminder of just how bad at thinking we often are and are becoming, particularly in the digital age. Jacobs does not paint a flattering portrait. Reactionary ideological sloganeering easily and often replaces careful, nuanced thinking about difficult issues. More often than not, the things we think are determined less by actual investigation and weighing of evidence than by our need for social belonging and our desire to have an “other” to define ourselves in opposition to. We are yanked around by emotional reactions and impulses and then tell a rational story to reframe our views as the result of logical analysis. We are masters at lying to ourselves about why we think the things we do, at taking shortcuts when we can’t be bothered to deal with complexity, and at regurgitating platitudes in the confident expectation that this will be affirmed by the people we seek to impress and the groups we hope to belong to. All in all, according to Jacobs, we’re not nearly as good at thinking as we think we are.
A few recent experiences have me thinking about the way I think. First, I was out in Saskatchewan last week speaking to a group of high school students. Not surprisingly, all anyone wanted to talk about was the terrible accident involving the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team that claimed sixteen lives. It was like an open wound in that part of the province, as I wrote about in my previous post. On the last day I was there, many people were talking about a tweet that was making the rounds online that was saying something to the effect of, “Do you think there would have been the same outpouring of grief and solidarity (and money! I believe the GoFundMe page that started to support the victims’ families is now over $13 million) if the victims weren’t white, male, and hockey players?
The tweet was as predictable for our cultural moment (there is nothing that we seem incapable of reducing to a referendum on identity) as was the response (a great deal of unbridled anger). We talked about this a bit in the chapel I was leading. I confess that my initial response to the tweet was also anger. Why would you turn a province’s mourning into an opportunity to play identity politics?! But then I asked myself why I was having that reaction. I brought it up with the students as well. Some of them became visibly angry at the mention of the tweet. But if we all were to press pause on the emotional responses and actually think about it, we must surely acknowledge that there is at the very least a question worth asking there, right?
What if the bus was carrying not young white male hockey players but indigenous kids coming back from a pow-wow or, say, a Christian high school girl’s choir returning from a competition? Could we imagine the same response? Could we imagine $13 million in a GoFundMe account? It seems unlikely to me. This is to take nothing away from the horror of the crash and the devastating ways in which it affects those who lost family and friends. But do we have the intellectual and emotional bandwidth to at some point (perhaps not in the immediate aftermath of tragedy!) ask questions about the role that hockey (and sport, more generally) plays in our cultural imagination and whether this is a good thing? Can we think about even harder questions involving race and gender without losing our collective minds (on either side of the spectrum)?
The second experience involves the ongoing crisis in Syria. Recent news has been dominated by the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Assad government in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. It has reignited public outcry and has led to military strikes by Western powers. This week, I have been having conversations with a Syrian Orthodox priest who has come from the besieged city of Homs to visit the families that our group of churches sponsored a few years ago. It has brought to the surface some political discussions that I mostly try to avoid with my Syrian friends. To put things bluntly, they do not have much use for the narrative of their country that we hear about in Western media. Syrian Orthodox Christians are mostly, although not exclusively, solidly in Assad’s camp. Where we see mostly honest reporting about Syria, they see a propaganda campaign against their president. Where many in the west see a courageous revolution against a brutal dictator, they see terrorists trying to overthrow a political regime that was stable and protective of their people.
This makes for some squirming on my part. The thought that people that I like and respect see someone like Assad as a hero is unsettling. But it also forces me to think a bit harder about why I think the way that I do. It has forced me to acknowledge that I am just as conditioned by the media that I consume as they are by theirs. It has led me to consider how I might feel if I was part of a 10% minority of Christians who had seen what happened in places like Libya when dictators are deposed and governments far less friendly to Christians moved in. It has given me pause to wonder how indebted I might feel to a government whose armed forces literally pulled my family out of the rubble of a war zone. Might I be inclined to see such a government differently? It feels more than a little silly (not to mention dangerously naïve) for someone who has never experienced war and who has only the most fragmentary understanding of the history and politics of the region to be pronouncing upon who the good guys and the bad guys really are. And it probably should.
These experiences have delivered to me a rather obvious and necessary reminder: there’s a lot that I don’t know. I try to read broadly and be reasonably well-informed, but there’s always another perspective to consider, always another experience to take on board, always another way in which my own self limits the views I’m prepared to consider and why. My thinking is profoundly constrained, often in ways I am barely aware of or willing to acknowledge. And so is yours. And so is the thinking of my Syrian friends and my grieving Saskatchewan neighbours and everyone else under the sun.
Thinking is hard.
Which is why I think that it a crucial starting point is self-awareness. We must look at the proverbial log in our own eye before presuming to straighten out the thinking of everyone else. We must be honest about all that we don’t know and about all the ways in which our thinking has very little to do with what we think and a lot to do with how we feel and what we would prefer to be the case and why.

Syndicated from Rumblings

The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018
I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.
The right agenda
I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.
Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.
One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.
Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere.
Crossan’s main argument
Very briefly, I would summarize his main argument in this way: The Bible’s teaching can be understood as combining (and not harmonizing) two distinct views of justice—retributive and distributive. These two views stand in deep tension with one another. The presence of them both leads to the Bible’s internal contradictions between a violent, punitively judgmental God and a merciful, healing God. The Bible itself does not resolve this tension—in fact, the final book of the Bible (Revelation) is perhaps the most retributive book in the entire canon. However, Christians today can and must resolve the tension in their own lives. We may do so, Crossan argues, by centering our reading strategy on the life and teaching of the historical Jesus.
Jesus as he truly was gives us clarity about the way God truly is—characterized by distributive justice and ultimately a healing and not punitive God. Now, this understanding of Jesus requires some careful discernment since the gospel writers at times may smuggle in some retributive thinking into how they tell the story. But for Crossan, the historical Jesus, the Jesus that we may discern behind the gospels, rejected the retributive view of God that is present in much of the Old Testament and certainly was characteristic of many of his contemporaries.
I find this argument helpful. I certainly agree that Jesus provides us with the clarity we need for unshakeable convictions about nonviolence—and the warrant we need to reject the pro-violence materials in the Bible as in any way normative for Christian ethics. However, there are a couple of problems I have with Crossan’s approach that I’d like to reflect on.
First, I think that “restorative” works better than “distributive” as the alternative to “retributive” justice. And, second, I think it is better to read the Bible as having a more coherent, pro-peace message than Crossan does. I am bothered by his dialectal reading, especially by how this reading requires an understanding of the book of Revelation that I believe is unhelpful and inaccurate.
The alternative to “retributive” justice?
I am pretty attracted to Crossan’s analysis about the two kinds of justice, especially his characterization and critique of “retributive justice.” I would tend to read some of the texts he cites with a little more nuance, but I agree that there are two different kinds of voices in the Bible and that we must reject any tendency to let the retributive voice override the peaceable voice.
However, I am uncomfortable with his use of “distributive” as his alternative notion of justice in the Bible. I do agree that the vision for life among the Hebrew people reflected in the teaching of Torah, had at its center a commitment to the appropriate distribution of the materials necessary for a good life to all the people in the community. But underlying this vision was a notion of justice as wholeness, as healthy relationships—what I would call the grounding for “restorative” justice.
So, we do have a sense of “distributive” justice in the biblical ideal. But what about when there is injustice and oppression, when the vulnerable are exploited and left out? Or, when there are other incidents of injustice and brokenness? Crossan suggests, “retributive justice is secondary and derivative” in relation to “distributive” justice and “comes in only when that idea is violated” (pp. 17-18). However, I think what actually happens is that when there is violation, the community faces choices about how to respond—one approach is more punitive and retributive, the other is more reconciliatory and restorative.
The roots to the latter approach, though, are found in the vision for the community. The deepest sense of community is not based on equality and fairness, but on a relational ideal. God’s agenda, according to the Bible, in creating this people is wholeness in relationships between people and other people, people and the natural world, and people and God. The hope when there is brokenness is that these relationships might be restored. Punishment as an end in itself (the motivation with retributive justice) does not lead to restored relationships. Hence, as Crossan rightly states, “there are no divine punishments” (p. 244).
In recent years, “restorative” justice has emerged as a strategy for dealing with brokenness that provides an alternative to retributive dynamics. To some degree, this movement has theological roots based on a reading of the Bible that highlights the notion of justice as being concerned with setting right damaged relationships. To think of the Bible’s core notion of justice as “restorative” rather than “distributive” can help link contemporary concerns with the concerns of the people of the Bible—and ground them in a relational context (as I have written about elsewhere).
Revelation as the culmination of the Bible’s peaceable story
Crossan uses an image of two distinct trains that symbolize the Bible’s two notions of justice. This image requires a dialectal reading of the Bible, where we have these two relatively equal impulses interacting with each other throughout—and never resolved. So in the Old Testament we do have the original vision of distributive justice, but it is joined by the strong sense of punitive, retributive justice that is attributed to God in many places. And both, according to Crossan, are present in the New Testament as well—Jesus embodying one, the book of Revelation the other.
Recognizing that we need some sense of resolution of this dialectic if we are to live lives committed to breaking the spiral of violence, Crossan advocates making central a reconstruction of the actual message of the historical Jesus who guides us on how to read the Bible in a way that helps us find a clarity that will empower peaceable living.
Along with the polarity between the two kinds of justice, Crossan also suggests we recognize a polarity between two kinds of power, what he calls “nonviolent power” and “violent power.” He sees what he calls the “Normalcy of Civilization” as being present when retributive justice and violent power are combined. It’s opposite is the “Radicality of God,” where distributive justice and nonviolent power are combined.
This analysis is helpful (especially if we substitute “restorative” for “distributive” justice. However, I don’t agree with Crossan’s reading of the Bible as leaving us with an unresolved dialectic among these options. I think the Bible actually does give us a more coherent picture on the side of the “Radicality of God” if we read it as a whole. We may do this in part because the New Testament does provide a lens with which we may read the Old Testament in line with nonviolent power and restorative justice. That is, I think Crossan fundamentally misreads Revelation and hence projects his dialectic too deeply into that part of the Bible.
I have argued in my lengthy writings about Revelation that it does present us with a sense of God’s power as nonviolent power and God’s justice as restorative justice. I will sketch very briefly some of my main reasons for saying this.
Revelation begins with a statement that what follows is “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1) and makes clear that this is the gospel’s Jesus Christ when it describes him in 1:5 as the “faithful witness” (who lived a life of resistance to the Powers that be that led to his martyrdom), the “first born of the dead” (who had this life vindicated through resurrection), and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (the ultimate “conqueror” whose politics of healing will rule the world).
The key moment in the book comes in chapter 5 when we are told of a great scroll that contains the message of the victory of God. However, initially, no one can be found to open this scroll. Then the one who can open the scroll is found—the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” who turns out to be a Lamb, slain and standing (5:6). This Lamb, the Jesus who Revelation reveals, has already won the victory and is worshiped as worthy. The only victory needed in Revelation is won not through the power of violence but through the power of persevering love, embodied in the faithful witness of Jesus.
The sufficiency of this victory is stated in 12:11 (the “comrades … have conquered [the Dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”). Then the victory is envisioned in 19:11-21, where Jesus rides forth victorious, with his rob already “dipped in blood” (the blood of his faithful witness) before his encounter with the Powers of evil, who he simply captures and throws into the lake of fire—no “Battle of Armageddon” needed. The outcome of the conquering efforts of the Lamb is the destruction of the Powers of evil and the healing of the nations and their kings who had formerly aligned themselves with the Powers. And the means of the conquering was Jesus’s self-sacrificial love joined with the self-sacrificial love of his followers.
Though Revelation is often read as portraying God as directly intervening with punitive violence toward rebellious human beings, the actual text presents God as directly active only in the witness of the Lamb and his followers. And the message of the book challenges its readers to join this witness. Jesus’s followers are to be active in the conquering work. But this call to action is not a call to be warriors doing battle in inter-human warfare where they shed the blood of their enemies. Rather, the call to action is a call to follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).
Contra Crossan
This message of Revelation, a message of the transforming power of Jesus’s faithful witness to the ways of persevering love, is about the opposite of how Crossan reads Revelation. Crossan reads the violent imagery in Revelation quite literally and seems to miss entirely the way Revelation’s symbolism works. He writes: “Revelation’s promise of a bloodthirsty God and a blood-drenched Christ represents for me the creation of a second ‘coming’ to negate the first and only ‘coming’ of Christ; the fabrication of violent apocalypse to deny nonviolent incarnation; and the invention of Christ on a warhorse to erase the historical Jesus on a peace donkey. Jesus’s nonviolent resistance to evil is replaced by Christ’s violent slaughter of evildoers” (How to Read the Bible, p. 181).
Crossan needs a retributive Revelation to sustain how he imposes his unresolved dialectic on the Bible. While his method of resolving the dialectic with the scholarly recovery of the historical Jesus as our contemporary ethical norm does indeed lead him to a strong affirmation of the path of nonviolence, I think he greatly weakens the Bible’s own peaceable message.
I think the dialectic between retributive and restorative justice is resolved within the Bible itself. And the way the Bible resolves it helps us to find a powerful peace witness in the final, canonical text read as a whole—not in an extra-biblical scholarly construct. Jesus himself brings together the message of Torah, the prophetic witness to that message, and his own embodied shalom that resisted empire (and the retributive dynamics that slipped into the biblical text) and incarnated in history transformative compassion and healing. And this embodied shalom actually is what is revealed in the book of Revelation—a wonderful coda to the Bible’s coherent message about God’s healing strategy.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism


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