Friday, June 30, 2017

Some Thoughts about the "Contested" Bible of Our Day

How should we respond when we discover passages or ideas in the Bible that mystify, offend, or scandalize us? Discussions of violence, God, and the Old Testament over the last few years keep the issue on the front burner. Should we reject the whole thing? The parts that offend us? Or grit our teeth and refuse to jettison these parts hoping that somehow we can find a way to live with them? There may be other options but these three are the major ones so I’ll go with them for now. Just a few comments from my seat in the peanut gallery.

Obviously, one’s view of the Bible will in large part determine which way you go. If you don’t think God’s involved with it in any way that appends his authority to what it says, you’re free to go any of the three ways I mentioned above, though usually the first two ways will appeal more to you.

If you do think God is involved with and gives a special authority to these writings, you are probably not free to take the first option. You could go with either the second or third options, though. And it’s these I want to comment on.

God is clearly in the dock over these troubling issues in scripture in our culture today. I recognize the issues, know they are unavoidable, appreciate the energy many are expending on better understanding them, and realize that we should be troubled/offended/outraged at these stories in our holy book. How else can 21st century Western people feel about them?

I don’t doubt we must press our case. These matters must be faced. But do we have to end up making ourselves arbiters of what should be included in the Bible or not? Three things make me wonder if that’s appropriate.

1.       It is often noted that Jesus appears to accept the Old Testament in toto as God’s Word. He gives no criteria for us to determine what is or is not to be included or excluded from it. The Prince of Peace was apparently not offended and scandalized as we are by these stories. This not necessarily decisive depending on one’s Christology (or lack thereof), but it’s not a negligible as far as I can see.

2.       Elie Wiesel tells a story of Jews in the Nazi concentration camp who put God on trial for faithlessness to his promises to his people. Arguments are made and adjudicated. God is found guilty. Then the Jews arise and say to one another, “Come. It is time for prayers. Let us go.” God is found guilty; yet God continues to be God. Their only real recourse, having done what they could to protest, was to go to prayers and continue wrestling with God.

3.    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, surprisingly, claimed that in the face of the kinds of struggle we scripture we are dealing with we should practice a “sacrifice of our intellect” in matters that remain opaque, perplexing, questionable. “And who would not in fact bring his or her own sacrifice of intellect into such a situation, that is, with the acknowledgment one does not yet understand this or that place of the Scripture, in the awareness that even this will one day be revealed as God’s own Word? I would rather do this than only to say, following some suitable opinion: ‘This is divine, that is human.’” (Testament of Freedom, 426)

Obviously much more than this needs to be said. I don’t claim that these three items prove the case one way or the other. But I think they are important to reflect on, especially in a time when many are inclined to make the decision between what is divine and human in the Bible.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Church as God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement

(A rough draft of a chapter from my forthcoming book on Bonhoeffer)

I have argued that Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement captures the DNA of God’s people in scripture and that the Submerging Church captures the form and ethos the church needs today. This image, I argue, provides a compelling icon for the church’s identity and vocation today and setting for scripture to function authoritatively as God’s Word.

I want to offer here a further description of such a community, particularly in light of the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  This is not a model and certainly not a formula for doing church today. It is rather a set of characteristics we might expect to find in all sorts of different forms and configurations where the church embraces and attempts to live out this “general campaign of sabotage” (as C. S. Lewis wonderfully put it) against the disorder of the world.

1.    A prayer movement (DB’s arcane discipline)

a.    “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”[1] Karl Barth 

b.    “Prayer is subversive activity. It involves a more or less act of defiance against any claim by the current regime . . . [As we pray,] slowly but surely, not culture, not family, not government, not job, not even the tyrannous self can stand against the quiet power and creative influence of God’s sovereignty. Every natural tie of family and race, every willed commitment to person and nation is finally subordinated to the rule of God.”[2] Eugene Peterson 

c.    Prayer engenders “common Christian acts . . . sacrificial love, justice, and hope . . . If we develop a sense that sacrificial love, justice, and hope are at the core of our identities—they go to our jobs with us each day, to our families each night—then we are in fact subversive. You have to understand that Christian subversion is nothing flashy. Subversives don’t win battles. All they do is prepare the ground and change the mood just a little bit toward belief and hope, so that when Christ appears, there are people waiting for him.”[3] 

d.    Prayer begets a community of confession of sins one to another. According to DB in Life Together such confession is what makes a church a church.[4] 

2.    A community of cruciform witness (DB’s Church for others; seeing things from below)

a.    “God plants communities amidst the despair and violence of the world that, by their sheer life in Christ, witness to another reality. In the process they disrupt the Symbolic Order (reigning ideologies), birth hope and prepare the way for something new. This is what is made possible in Christ by the Holy Spirit.”[5] 

b.    “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. 'The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared' (Luther).”[6] ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

c.    "Covenantal existence eventuates in a community of uncommon generosity and mercy, a community of fidelity and freedom, a community that is not seduced by [the] absolutism [of fundamentalism] and that is not left unrestrained by [the] autonomy [of liberalism]. It is a congregation of conservative covenanters and liberal covenanters, all of whom are covenanters before they receive other labels. 

"So imagine a community of covenant, set down in a society of usurpatious absolutism and self-indulgent autonomy come to give self away, ready and able to receive more life from those who are unlike us, ready for fidelity that takes the form of freedom that is disciplined, ready for signs and acts and gestures of forgiveness and hospitality and generosity, more ready to support than to judge..."[7] Walter Brueggemann 

d.    "Let not men’s sin dishearten thee: love a man even in his sin, for that love is a likeness of the divine love, and is the summit of love on earth. Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If thou love each thing thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it: until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal."[8]  Fyodor Dostoevsky 

e.    This witness is resistant, transgressive, and utopian.[9] (DB’s Seeing from Below) It resists false and alienating ideologies, transgresses unjust laws, boundaries, and taboos, and opens temporary spaces of freedom and celebration (see Pirates’ Temporary Autonomous Zones).

3.    Aim: to infiltrate every community and living space with outposts of God’s SCRM which serve as sign, sacrament, and servant of God’s cruciform rule.

a.    Sign – points beyond itself to God’s coming kingdom and new creation 

b.    Sacrament – provisional experience of that kingdom pointed to 

c.    Servant – enacting further planting of SCRM’s

4.    Multidimensional, local, and tactical (DB’s immersion in all of life)

a.    Focused on neighborhoods and local living situations of the poor and helpless.

b.    Occurs in the closed circle of a committed church fellowship, a dotted circle of extended fellowship (friends, relatives), and a semi-circle of third places in the world where Christians may be guests.[10] David Fitch

c.    This community shares life with its neighbors as a parallel community, embodies a different way of life within that shared life as an alternative community, and sometimes as a critique of their shared life as a counter community. These three aspects, parallel, alternative, and counter, are all features of the community simultaneously with different aspects foregrounded under different circumstances and pressures.

d.    Being subversive means working within the givens of the culture we live in. We have no grand strategy to seize the reins of power and impose “God’s way” on everyone. Rather, in concert with the powerless we do what we can, when we can, as often as we can to “help and serve” (not dominate) them (Bonhoeffer) in finding ways to better themselves. We learn from them the serpentine wisdom (Matt.10:16) the powerless have about finding cracks and loopholes, gaming the system, underground resistance, and similar tactics (de Certeau). It celebrates these typically small but real acts of resistance as signs of the freedom from death granted us in Christ (Stringfellow and the church as circus).

5.    The Violence of Love

a.    “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.” [11]

b.    Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know that we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything upside down to proclaim blessed the poor, blessed the thirsting for justice, blessed the suffering. (May 11, 1978)[12]

6.    Realism.

a.    Cued by Jesus Christ, who won by losing (in the world’s terms), we to go forth to live, love, serve, and lose (in the world’s terms). It can hardly be other for a people who live by a theology of the cross. Yet, this losing is, in the counter-intuitive reality of God’s kingdom, winning, even if through suffering and death.

b.    Living by the reality of Christ is well exemplified by no less than J. R. R. Tolkien: “Actually I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”[13] A long defeat in the right direction!

That’s at least the core of what I envision as God’s SCRM. Frederick William Schmidt provides an excellent summary:

“Diminutive, small-minded, and timid visions of it will not suffice. We are not called to strawberry festivals and handwringing. We are not called to communities cut off from the world and closed to those around us. We are not called to be the party of the left or the right. We are not the “United Nations-lite” with stained glass language.

“We are called to be the courageous, truthful, risk-taking, loving, forgiving, extravagant expression of the work that was begun, that will be brought to completion, and that is now expressed in the body of Jesus the Christ.”[14]

[1] Attributed to Barth in Kenneth Leech, True Prayer: In Invitation to Christian Spirituality (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1980), 68.
[2] Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is:  Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community (Downer Grove IL: InterVarsity Press
[3] Rodney Clapp, foreward to Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction
[4] DBWE 5:2423-2578.
[5] David Fitch, Facebook, 11.29.16.
[6] DBWE 5: 674.
[7] Brueggemann, 2011, 33.
[8] The Brother Karamazov, ch.41.
[9] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
[10] David Fitch, Faithful Presence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Carpenter, Humphrey; Tolkien, Christopher. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Kindle Location 5443). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
[14] Frederick William Schmidt, “Let Us Be the Church,” FB 6.28.17

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Herma and Herman Neutics on the Interpretive Filter


“As human beings are biologically oriented towards homeostasis… we are creatures of habit. Adaptation and co-evolution is a slow process of acclimatisation to new sets of circumstances, but dissonance is interruptive… on a day-to-day basis, most of us cope with such dissonance through repression and denial, refusing to see the world in any way that departs from the customary. Hence most of us see very little. The seeing as has become a seeing as we want to see it. Graham Ward, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice
We think that an important implication of Ward’s statement is that if our interpretation of the Bible squares in most important ways with what we already believe, it is probably wrong in important ways.
How do we combat this interpretive myopia? Question ourselves relentlessly. Read widely, especially views that are not your own. Discuss the Bible with those different (ethic, class, politics, experience, gender, etc.)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (34)

New Creation (21:1-22:5)

Gen.1-2 and Rev.21-22

This last scene of the vision of Revelation, the conclusion to Jesus’ sermon, takes us beyond the realm of sin and struggle to the fulfilment of God’s eternal purpose. Here we find the counterpart to Gen.1-2 as bookends of the entire biblical story which reveal the “point” of purpose of the whole story.

The creation stories reveal the Creator’s work in constructing a temple for he and his creatures to live together in intimacy and harmony.[1] That is his purpose and that for which God works throughout the biblical story. When this purpose is derailed by our sin, resolving that becomes the major focus of the story from Gen.3 – Rev.20. But that story serves to demonstrate not only the reclamation of God’s wayward creatures but most importantly their restoration to God’s original design. That’s what we find in Gen.1-2 and Rev.21-22, the only four chapters in the Bible in which sin plays no role. Here we find God’s purpose in embryo (Gen.1-2) and fulfilled (Rev.21-22).

And the temple God built in Eden at the beginning we find in Rev.21-22 at the end.

-The New Jerusalem, the holy city, is cubic-shaped. The only other structure so shaped in the Bible is the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple (1 Ki.6:20), where God dwelled. God’s fulfilled plan, his bride, his people, his new creation, is the site where God lives and shares fellowship with his creatures.

-This city becomes co-extensive with the new creation, matching the rivers flowing out of Eden to irrigate the then uninhabited lands outside, indicating they were to be settled, thus extending the boundaries of the nascent temple in Eden to include these outer lands as well. The embryonic Holy of Holies has become the worldwide Holy of Holies God intended.

-This new creation to be God’s “home” where he will “dwell” (21:3) which is temple language.

-we also find the river and tree of life of the garden, indeed the garden itself, enclosed within the new city (22:1ff.).

-Humanity will “reign” forever in the new creation fulfilling the mandate given our first parents to have “dominion” over the creation.

Numerous other lines of evidence confirm this identification (see Walton and Beale noted earlier). In Rev.21-22 we see what God had intended for his creatures and creation in full bloom!

We could say much more about this last scene of the vision but I think it is sufficient to note that ends Jesus’ sermon following the model of reading Revelation as a worship service I proposed in the beginning of this series. He closes it off, appropriately, with a Beatitude:  “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:7).

Summarizing the Sermon

Chs.12-13 are Jesus’ sermon in a nutshell:

1.       Everything centers on Jesus himself, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension (12:1-6).

2.       The decisive battle between God and the anti-god powers has been fought and the powers have been defeated by Jesus and cast out of heaven (12:7-12).

3.       The defeated enemies of God (Dragon and two Beasts) nevertheless continue their futile resistance as they await their destruction, especially by persecuting God’s people (ch.13).

This is, as you can see, the basic gospel of the early church. Everything in Revelation emerges out of this center and flows back into it.

As an “apocalypse” (1:1) Revelation unveils or reveals the truth of this state of affairs for the church. First, and directly, the churches of Asia Minor to whom it was directed (chs.2-3) and by analogy to the church throughout the ages (chs.7,14).

As a letter (greeting and conclusion), Revelation intends to be a pastoral resource for the faithful living of this gospel by the church living under the “death throes” of the powers.

As a “prophecy” (1:3; 22:7) it declares God’s word into the immediate situation of the seven churches and echoes through the journey of the church as an ever-pertinent reminder of our situation and God’s action and provision.

Revelation, according to Jesus’ sermon, is finally about “living as of the first commandment matters.” Or if Jesus is Lord, the Emperor/King/President/Queen, Prince(ss)/ Prime Minister, etc. is NOT, though they fancy they are. What does it mean to be faithful to the true Lord, Jesus Christ, while living in “the belly of the beast” of false lords pressing them claims on us at every turn? Whether in the 1st or 21st century this is always what is at stake in being the church. Revelation’s imperious and sometimes strident vision of the gospel is necessary for the church to:

1.       re-present Jesus Christ to us in his full stature as Lord of Lords and King of Kings

2.       remember who we are and what we are here for

3.       realize that every day and every action are fraught with “apocalyptic” significance in the ongoing struggle of the church to endure the death throes of the powers and bear witness to the gospel.

Jesus baptizes our imaginations in this sermon to more truly “see” or world and our lives in it faithfully. Similar to John’s hearing about the Lion of the tribe of Judah but on turning to see a slaughtered lamb, we need a similar jolt to our imagination that redefines reality for us. To wit, we really do live in a world where a dragon plots our downfall and recruits beasts to do its dirty work and attack us to hinder and derail our following the lamb. Our world is, as Luther put in his great hymn, filled with devils, this host of evil powers has been beaten by a man hanging on a cross and raised from the dead in 33 a.d.  The unfathomably counter-intutitiveness of this to our “normal” way of thinking requires the strong jolt of the bizarre and the fantastic this sermon offers for us to begin to get a grip on what follow Jesus in our world is all about. Quite a sermon, huh?

[1] See the work of John Walton and Gregory Beale for this reading of the creation stories.

The lab or the factory

Seth Godin's pithy insight. Is your church a lab or a factory?

You work at one, or the other.

At the lab, the pressure is to keep searching for a breakthrough, a new way to do things. And it's accepted that the cost of this insight is failure, finding out what doesn't work on your way to figuring out what does. The lab doesn't worry so much about exploiting all the value of what it produces--they're too busy working on the next thing.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Mantra of Grace

They do not deserve your sympathy in any way!” So Ares screams at Diana Prince, Wonder Woman, pushing her to drop the tank she holds threateningly over the evil Dr. Maru, her alter ego in the film, and then unleash her righteous anger on all humanity. He is desperate for her to give them what they deserve. Diana, however, somehow experiences an “aha” moment, a revelation, that “It’s not about deserve.” It’s about love.

I think about this scene often in our world, oh so desperate for someone else, some other group, to get what they deserve.

-Most of us want ISIS to get what we think they deserve.
-Others want Donald Trump to get what they think he deserves.
-Some want the poor and sick to get what they believe these people deserve, as in “Diabetics don’t deserve heath care”.
-Many still think homosexuals deserve to hear that “God hates fags!”
-Others believe the 1% deserve the judgment they will receive from God for their injustices.
-And on it goes . . .

Yet, “It’s not about deserve,” as Wonder Woman realizes. Jesus said it even more clearly as his executioners pinned him to the cross with nails: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

A world based on desert and judgment will finally destroy itself just as it tried to destroy Jesus. It wanted to give him what it believed he deserved. Thank God, he demurred from responding in kind, he who alone knew we truly deserved. Perhaps Wonder Woman’s “It’s not about deserve” is the mantra of grace for our age. God knows we need it!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Seven FAQ's about Christian Faith (and Seven More for Good Luck) 03

Ch.3: Is God in Control? Why Predestination Does Not Have to be Depress-tination

What Do You Mean By “Control”?

Is God in control of the direction and actions of history? Yes? No? Maybe? It all depends on what you mean by control.
-if you mean total control via a pre-scripted invariant plan drawn up by God before history began, No.
-if you mean that God is directing history to a preordained end through the real and responsible actions of creatures he has enabled to make their own actions and decisions, Yes.
The first is not love. Love creates new possibilities, growth, and futures. God’s love is both the expansive power of our growth toward new futures and that new future itself which brings each of us individually and as a whole to the fulness that is in Christ. Thus, the second option seems preferable. God establishes a good end for his creation and creatures and journeys with them in real relationships (in all their ups and downs) trusting his love to bring all things to that good end.
Because it’s love no causal or mechanical models will help us understand it. Love means relationship and relationship works on a different logic (if that is the right word) altogether.
“Here is God’s covenant with Abraham that is unconditional and unilateral. Here is God’s covenant with Moses and Israel that is bilateral and conditional. They are there together, and that interface of contradiction may offer us the most work to do but also the most honest disclosure of the truth of our life. The full tradition asserts that all of our relationships, including that with the Holy One, are an unsettled mix of unilateral and bilateral, of conditional and unconditional.”[1]
Just the brew we find pictured in the Bible’s portrayal between God and humanity. God’s full unilateral control and power over all his creation is everywhere asserted. Yet human beings must respond and act properly for God’s creation to be what God wants it to be. Somehow, these two realities, both ordained by God, interact in sometimes surprising and volatile ways, all the time working out and leading us to God’s settled end for us. Nothing is prescribed for us in a way that renders us automatons or puppets.
The story of the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” in Exodus is instructive here. If we read the story carefully we learn that both God and Pharaoh are agents who harden Pharaoh’s heart, neither alone. God acts sovereignly, Pharaoh acts freely. God’s declared intention to harden Pharaoh’s heart is achieved yet without bypassing the responsibility and response-ability of Pharaoh. An incalculable quality attends relationships. And it’s that quality that keeps us from “smoothing out” it’s logic in intellectual terms. That is, neither determinism nor free will is appropriate to the reality it seeks to explain. Intellectually, there’s “white space” between the two realities scripture requires us to hold together. Instead of filling it in with explanations which distort, we best leave it blank and persist in affirming both parts of what scripture affirms. And allow the mystery of how that happens to remain the prerogative of God.
Predestination/Election/Providence (PEP) are not synonymous terms but do converge in that each of them deal with the relation of divine action and human action.  Election is the primary term biblically but predestination is what most people usually call this issue.  I call it PEP here.
And I claim there is no reason why we should consider it depress-tination or be frightened at it.
Three observations about the relation of divine and human action.  First, PEP is not fatalism (a pagan Greek doctrine often confused with it).  PEP has nothing to do with a pre-scripted history that unfolds as foretold and cannot be changed.  Rid your minds of this notion if you hope to understand PEP. 
Second, God’s thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways:  Just because we cannot imagine how God’s sovereignty and human freedom can both be real without one canceling out or overriding the other does not mean God cannot manage it!
Third, the relation of divine and human action in PEP is asymmetrical.  Divine action is prior and primary, human action responsive to divine action.

My five rules for understanding PEP are these:

1.    PEP is the most radical way we have to say “grace.”
From creation to consummation and at every step in between the Bible affirms and proclaims that God acts first in gracious, creative and generative ways towards us.

2.    PEP is the most radical way we have to say “love.”

God is for us.  From all eternity God has determined to be for us, not against us.  What God is himself – an eternal communion of love given and returned between the Father and the Son in the Spirit – he is toward us.

3.    PEP means “victory/justice.”
God will prevail.  Somehow and in some way God will take this tale which so often seems “told by idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth) and bring it a fitting and flourishing end.  All things will be set right, judgment (however we envision it) will be executed, and shalom will reign throughout the ages of ages.

4.    PEP means “gratitude.”

Our lives are gifts, received with gratitude and lived with thanksgiving and generosity.  The primal human response to God is to say “thanks” (instead of the “You’re not the boss of me” our first parents offered their creator). 
5.    PEP means the “courage to live by the cross.”
All of this means that when the rubber hits the road we can and will “take up our cross” and follow Jesus wherever he goes and whatever he asks us to do.
Karl Barth calls the doctrine of election “the sum of the gospel,” the best of all words that can be said or heard!  As such it ought to inform and undergird all we are and do.  I hope some of my observations and rules help us recover the substance and vitality of this often wrongly maligned central truth of the Bible.   

[1] Brueggemann, 2011, 21.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (33)

The Great Judgment (20:11-15)

The Great Judgment

Images of power introduce this scene. A “great white throne,” an undescribed but imperious “one” sits on it. Creation felling in terror but finding no place to hide. Even more terrifying, the dead are all over the place. Famous infamous, unknown, uncared about, they’re all there. From the sea and Death and Hades the dead come. Before the throne they watch as “books” are opened, full of the deeds of the deed (20:13). Death and Hades join the two beasts in the lake of fire. The sea too, after disgorging its dead disappears and has no place in the new creation. The dragon is already caged in the abyss. The powers that oppose God are defeated.

Human beings still face a reckoning before God based on what they have done (20:13). And those who have not done enough to get their name written in the “book of life” join the evil powers in the lake of fire, “the second death 20:14). The first death, of course, is our physical death. The faithful who have experienced the first resurrection (20:5) have nothing to fear from the second death. Their names are written in the book of life.

Faith and Works

Protestants get all queasy when we read God will judge us based on what we have done. That smacks of salvation by works which is just what the Reformation of the 16th century fought to reject. Instead, “justification by faith alone was counterpointed to salvation by works as the evangelical truth. Salvation was either due to God’s work in Christ or due to our own efforts and accomplishments. This was an unfortunate binary as the scripture never places faith and works over against each other in this fashion.

When the New Testament does oppose faith to works, or works of the law, the issue is how we can identify the people of God. Is it those works that most set Jews apart from all other peoples: circumcision, sabbath, and food laws? Or is it faith in Jesus Messiah that marks out God’s people? There was never any question, whatever choice one made about this, whether works appropriate to the people of God were to be expected and performed. They were!

Faith and works should never have been opposed. Instead, we should have embraced an understanding something like this: we are saved by faith without works but faith which saves is never without works. Faith indicates who we believe in; works demonstrates and verifies that faith. To be judged by our works before God is but another way of determining the genuineness of our faith. Those who fail this examination of our faith are those who have failed to believe in the true and living God. And those who pass are those who have works which validate that faith.

And the latter need never fear that such faith is in vain! They will not be disappointed but rather validated and vindicated, no matter the suffering or even death that may have befallen them. For in the economy of the Lamb suffering and death are chief marks of faith and the primary ways God’s kingdom makes its way in our world.

Now the great drama is over. The struggle is resolved. Everything is back on track, restored to the role and purpose God ordained for it. All that’s left is to explore the pictures of this fulfilled state of affairs given us in chs.21-22.  

Some Reflections of God and Violence

Old Testament scholar Stephen Chapman from Duke writes in the book Holy War and the Bible:

“Warfare in the Old Testament, as indeed all killing in the Old Testament needs to be recognized within Christian theology as a strictly circumscribed divine concession to the brutal reality of human sin (Gen.9:3-6). However, someone still might ask, ‘Couldn’t God design a world in which war wasn’t necessary?’' The appropriate theological response is that God in fact did so (Gen.1-2), but human sinfulness spoiled it precisely by generating violence (Gen. 6:11-13). Someone might push further and say 'Even with the advent of human violence, couldn’t God have devised a strictly nonviolent method for dealing with it?" Here again the theological response is that God did just that in Jesus Christ, but in order for Christ to appear in the fullness of time (Gal.4:4) it was necessary for God to elect and preserve the people of Israel. And apparently - this is the hard part - God was not able, given the violence of the world, to preserve Israel purely nonviolently although, even so, Israel's history witnesses to and moves toward nonviolence as it moves toward Christ.” (63-64)

Yes, that “hard part” is where many stumble today. They prefer to believe the authors of these kinds of texts got God wrong erroneously painting him after the style of the deities of the surrounding cultures. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, they painted their “genocidal”[1] wars of aggression into Canaan as carried out at God’s behest and with his support. But God, whatever he was doing in and with the people at this point (which is not clear), was not involved in these wars and did not approve of them. Others take the same tack but actually accuse God of perpetrating these “atrocities” and is thus himself morally in the wrong.

Yes, this is a “hard part.” Simple answers here usually play us false. One such answer, we might call “justifying” says “The stories are true. God did what they say he did. And if he did it, it is alright because God after all can do whatever God wants.” I hope none of you readers want to take that line! Another too simple answer, the “suspicious” one faults God or the narrators for doing wrong or falsifying the story to justify the nation’s nefarious, self-serving acts.

I don’t believe either answer suffices. It seems inadequate to me justify God by appealing to a dubious “God can do whatever he wants” principle or because these stories are in the Bible they’re true. Equally, the “suspicious” answer seems inadequate too. Vindicating God by removing him from the stories is too easy in my judgment. As is blaming him for involvement in these wars. How else could God show himself a faithful king able to guide and direct his people in that time but by so acting. If God incurs guilt thereby, so be it. That seems part and parcel of the incarnational movement from God to humanity. Jesus incurred guilt through his baptism into full solidarity with his people and the world and so too we as his people incarnating him in our world are to bear sin and incur the guilt of responsible action in the world (Bonhoeffer). If that’s the price incarnation costs, that’s a price God is willing to play. And it seems to me a cost we as readers must pay to keep God ever-increasingly involved in the life of the church and the world.

This we might call an “incarnational” approach. Miroslav Volf offers another in which human pacifism is based on God’s non-pacifism.
“One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword.  Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love?  A counter-question could go something like this:  Is it not a bit too arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God’s love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity?  . . . one could . . . argue that in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at the injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship . . . in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God’s violence or human violence.  Most people who insist on God’s ‘nonviolence’ cannot resist using violent themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others).  They deem talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges!  That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52) seems responsible; that God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary virgin explicitly states, seems crude. 

“My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West.  To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered).  Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and levelled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit.  The topic of the lecture:  a Christian attitude toward violence.  The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love.  Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge.  In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die.  And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.”  (Exclusion and Embrace, 303-04) 


.        -Has God has forfeited his role as the Ruler of human history in a world rebelling against him (Psa.2) and using nations as agents of his judgments against one another (Isa.10)? Must God, then, not be continuing to employ violence or violent agents to achieve his will? Though God “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (Lam.3:33), will he not do what is necessary for justice to prevail?

-God as Creator and Ruler of the world has certain responsibilities that he alone executes.  Humans are not to imitate everything God does, only what he instructs us to do.  And that is what we see Jesus of Nazareth doing and hear Jesus of Nazareth teaching us (become non-violent peacemakers, Mt.5:9). 

-Divine wrath is an expression of God’s love, just not a nonviolent love.  Like the discipline a parent gives to a child who has cheated and bullied his or her friends, God’s wrath stops or restrains evil from proceeding and offers relief and justice to evil’s victims. Indifference to such evil is the opposite of love. 

-As followers of Jesus, living between the time of his resurrection and return when sin and evil, though defeated lash out violently in their death throes against God and his people, we are called to live the life of the future now in the risk and vulnerability of loving others, even our enemies.  The hope that energizes such radical openness to others is grounded in the certainty that God is in control, ruling and guiding history to his eschaton when love will be received and returned by all.

I realize these brief comments require much further discussion to establish them as full arguments. But I want to register them here as a warning against a too easy acceptance of what I deem inadequate answers. Especially the “suspicious” answer because it is widely trumpeted on the internet. More and better thinking on the matter from all of us can only be a good thing!

[1]I wonder about the appropriateness of using the term “genocide” to describe God’s action in and through Israel here. Can the Creator and Lord of all be guilty of genocide? Can he not do with his creation what he wills (Rom.9:19ff.) without being regarded by those creatures as “unjust” or “unfair”?