Monday, January 31, 2011

Karl Barth, False Peace & Church Decisions

I was struck by these words from Karl Barth on the dilemmas that face congregations and their opportunities to either avoid the issue or discuss it under the peace of Christ which passes understanding and enable courageous dialogue. He speaks about the importance of making a thoughtful but "concrete decision of faith and obedience ... which entails a distinction of word and act at a specific time and in a specific situation," and then presents the tempting alternative (with a bit of sarcasm, you'll notice).

In spite of all its profundity and eloquence, at the point where it ought to do this [i.e., make a "concrete decision"], it will come to a halt and become an inarticulate mumbling of pious words. There will be talk of inward regeneration by faith, of the struggle for a new awakening by the Spirit of God, of the solemn prospect of a distant "world of Christ," but there will be no demand to grasp the nettle and to make a small beginning of this regeneration and awakening in a specific act of will here and now.

There will be prayer for peace, but prayer committing no one. When the time comes for steps to peace which commit anyone, there will be quick withdrawal into neutrality, into a safe avoidance of the fatal problems and the even more fatal freedom from problems of the existing present, followed by a new and powerful and sincerely meant but blunted and generalised and therefore impotent assurance that Jesus Christ is risen, that He will come again at the last day and put everything right, and that faith in Him is the victory which overcomes the world.

The community which wants to adopt this attitude will never be at a loss for practical reasons in its favour. The questions in relation to which it has to pronounce a clear Yes and No as it follows Jesus Christ and attests His living Word are always questions which humanly speaking are not at all simple or easy. They are very difficult and complicated questions which must be answered in terms of reason, though of a bold and enterprising reason in the case of the Christians. The more urgent the questions are, the more true this is.

The arguments may often seem to be confusingly even, so that in answering them the bold reason of the community which listens to the living Word of its Lord may often seem to be very isolated and even foolish. It thus has many apparently convincing reasons for either remaining neutral or keeping to generalities. In this or that specific matter, no unequivocal word is given to it, and therefore it must humbly wait instead of speaking. Again, in the burning topics of the hour, even in the community there may be different and sincerely represented views whose champions are summoned to mutual respect and forbearance in love and cannot therefore force or constrain one another by appeal to the common faith.

In such a situation, serious though it may be, regard must be had above all else to the preservation of the unity and peace of the community. [A]ccount must be taken of the purity of the Gospel. Its universally valid declaration is not to be contaminated by admixture with all kinds of attitudes which do not readily commend themselves to all believers as Christian. What is required to maintain this purity is a wise and safe restriction to the sphere of a general, abstract and neutral Christianity which never compromises itself and is therefore always right.

How solid and even illuminating these reasons seem!

But would it not be better if, when at what is perhaps a critical moment for the world and therefore for itself the community finds itself in the disturbing position of not knowing what to say or what not to say, or of being divided on the point, it should at least refrain from regarding itself as excused or even justified for these reasons? Dare it ever make Him responsible for the fact that it obviously does not hear Him, as though to-day He had unfortunately broken off His prophetic work, as though to-day He were either not present at all or only silently within it, as though He had become a dumb Lord in relation to the present time and situation, as though obedience to Him demanded either a respectful silence or the accompaniment of the Yes by an interwoven No?

Assuming that it does not dare to blame its necessity on Him, ought not such an attitude to give it a very definitely disturbed or bad conscience which will not allow it to persist in its neutrality but will impel it rather to become a new and perhaps more attentive hearer of the voice of the Good Shepherd? It is this disturbed conscience, however, which it does not seem to have so long as it can find such good reasons for its neutrality, its empty generality, and the consequent blunting of its word, of its supposed attestation of the Word of Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.2

"'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace."
Jeremiah 6:14

"The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation"

2 Corinthians 5:18

Do we ever miss peace by contriving it? What holds us back from real community? I can think of a lot of things, none of them really unique to church people, per se -- fear of losing people, distaste for instability, lack of commitment, unbuilt trust, misplace notion of "unity", and so on -- but as far as the church is concerned I think a lot of it comes back to a poor ecclesiology. In other words, maybe sometimes we gather (or don't gather) for some wrong reasons.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sobering Statistics

At The Guardian I saw this really interesting info-graphic showing the number and the ways that people died in England and Wales in 2009. I wondered about things not listed, dug some up and added them--to surprising and disconcerting results.

Once you click the arrow give it a second, then you can click back and forth through the display. To see it full screen click "More" on the bottom right. (Original info-graphic here)

How long?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chrysostom on Submission in Marriage

There can be little doubt that in his letters to the churches of Ephesus and Collossae Paul exhorted wives to submit to their husbands and did not explicitly exhort in the other direction. This of course sat quite comfortably within the household norms, cultural codes of honour, and practical economic structures of his time (although there is a subversive element to his instructions).

One of the important questions to ask, however, is whether this exhortation to wifely submission was indeed to be universally unidirectional, or whether it held within it the trajectory to be mutual not only in attitude but in visible manifestation where context allowed. In other words, is there within Paul's teaching a trajectory toward mutual submission that could manifest itself in an increasingly visible manner both (1) as the couple in question lived by the love of Christ for one another and (2) as political, economic, and educational structures enabled such manifestations more and more.

I think we have good reason to believe that Ephesians 5 contains this trajectory within it (which is to say that it is not simply thrust upon it by contemporary moods). Even on a complimentarian's so-called "natural reading" the passage calls for the woman's submission only within the larger context of the mutual submission that comes out of reverence to Christ. (Please note that this is not merely a theological assertion, but is also the case grammatically. The verb "submit" does not appear in verse 22, but is imported by its connection with verse 21. The cutting off of verse 21 from what follows is perhaps the most unfortunate section-break in all English translation. See for yourself by clicking around here.)

But what about Colossians 3? Immediately following a beautiful passage in which Paul teaches the Christians at Collossae to "put on love" and "let the peace of Christ rule", he writes: "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord," and "husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them."

Again: (1) Is the wife's submission universally and naturally "fitting" (as in an abiding principle related to her gender) or is it "fitting in the Lord" (in the sense that a woman "in the Lord" is to continue to submit rather than to usurp or seek precedence over her husband). Also, (2) what is entailed in the love being called for by the husband?

We are nearly twenty centuries removed from that context, but that doesn't count for much. No doubt in modern Western society it is a little less immediately palpable to speak of the husband/wife relationship in terms of one-way submission based on gender alone. But this contemporary condition does not decide the case for us, since it is precisely this which causes some to balk and some to dig in their heels. Indeed, the passing of time doesn't necessarily equal progress any more than it necessarily equals regress.

Now, rather than do a complete textual or cultural analysis here, I want to share an excerpt from a sermon I ran across the other day which was preached chronologically and culturally nearer Paul's time than our own. I think it insightful no matter where one's prior convictions lie. On the face of it this sermon continues to offend some of our contemporary sensibilities, and yet in its grappling with the biblical text it gives fodder for a reading which sees a trajectory of mutual submission in the household codes here as well.

Consider with me for a moment the 4th century homily of Chrysostom, on Colossians 3:18-25.

Chrysostom begins by posing a question: Why do these household commands appear only in the epistles of Colossians, Ephesians, Timothy and Titus? Answer: In these city churches there had probably arisen dissension on these issues, which needed to be addressed. Chrysostom then tackles the verses as follows:

Ver. 18. "Wives, be in subjection to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord."

That is, be subject for God's sake, because this adorneth you, he saith, not them. For I mean not that subjection which is due to a master, nor yet that alone which is of nature, but that for God's sake.

Three things to note: (1) Here we see Chrysostom differentiating submission that is for the sake of the persons submitting or being submitted to from the submission that is called for by Paul. Thus he finds within the exhortation something subversive of the cultural norm which places the woman under the service of the man for his benefit and, in those cultures, to her residual benefit as well. (2) Also, we see Chrysostom differentiating between submission as servitude and submission as it is enfolded within the purposes of God. (3) Finally, we see Chrysostom differentiating Paul's appeal from an appeal that is based on the nature of things. In other words, the wife submits not because it is in her created nature as a woman to do so, but because it is "fitting in the Lord". This will become an important point as we reflect on what Chrysostom is about to say.

Ver. 19. "Husbands love your wives, and be not bitter against them."

See how again he has exhorted to reciprocity.... For it is possible for one who loves even to be bitter. What he saith is ... [that] the fightings which happen between beloved persons, these are bitter; and he shows that it ariseth from great bitterness, when, saith he, any one is at variance with his own number.

Okay, so far so good. A pretty obvious point. Although we do pause to note that Chrysostom is recognizing this as both a call to reciprocity and also to love that also transcends servitude (to God's command perhaps). It goes to the heart. Rather than have a false peace with his wife where he accepts her submission and gives her everything necessary to keep her happy, the husband is called to root out any seed of bitterness (or discord) that may present itself. The implication is that the exhortations to mutual forgiveness, encouragement, peace and reconciliation which fill the verses preceding are to carry over into the husband's relationship to his wife. This is after all not a relationship defined by the power structures of the world; the Chrisitan wife is of "his own number."

Of course, Chrysostom does go on to speak of this in terms of the societal structures and then-common understandings of gender. But notice in what follows how even in this Chrysostom charts a trajectory that has the persons reciprocating rather than staying fixed in roles:

To love therefore is the husband's part, to yield pertains to the other side. If then each one contributes his own part, all stands firm. From being loved, the wife too becomes loving; and from her being submissive, the husband becomes yielding. And see how in nature also it hath been so ordered, that the one should love, the other obey. For when the party governing loves the governed, everything stands fast. Love from the governed is not so requisite, as from the governing toward the governed; for from the other obedience is due.

Okay, that got a bit confusing. On the one hand he is illustrating from the observed nature of things that the man loves and the woman obeys; the one governs and the other is governed. Both give of self to the other, but just in different ways--quite naturally he says. But is this observation a principle of nature or is it an illustration that serves to underline Paul's exhortation? With the italicized ringing in my ears, I hear him saying that by coming together from either side of the cultural social arrangement the man and woman end up reciprocating love and submission to one another. Notice his argument: Even in the natural course of things is that when a woman submits and a man loves they end up giving themselves to each other. The implication of the biblical teaching then, for Chrysostom, is that this is actually the telos (or goal) of their unity. (Read the rest of Colossians 3 and see the kind of relationships are being recommended generally before these marital specifications are made). Chyrsostom continues:

For that the woman hath beauty, and the man desire, shows nothing else than that for the sake of love it hath been made so.

This is more illustration based on Chrysostom's observation of the nature of things, but I separate it out so that, reading it sympathetically, even the most ardent feminist among us might see in it the point that he is making. Even in desire this trajectory toward reciprocity often holds true in human experience. Though it is a generalization, sociologists note that generally speaking females tend to desire belonging and males beauty. In the worst case scenarios gets females into situations where they are used and males into situations where they are using. But by making this observation about beauty and desire Chrysostom takes an accepted generality and uses it to show that even this can bring people together if they have any interest at all in finding love that goes deeper than the simple attractions that first caused sparks to fly.

Do not therefore, because thy wife is subject to thee, act the despot; nor because thy husband loveth thee, be thou puffed up. Let neither the husband's love elate the wife, nor the wife's subjection puff up the husband. For this cause hath He subjected her to thee, that she may be loved the more. For this cause He hath made thee to be loved, O wife, that thou mayest easily bear thy subjection. Fear not in being a subject; for subjection to one that loveth thee hath no hardship. Fear not in loving, for thou hast her yielding. In no other way then could a bond have been. Thou hast then thine authority of necessity, proceeding from nature; maintain also the bond that proceedeth from love, for this alloweth the weaker to be endurable.

Having illustrated his point from the observation of the nature of things, Chrysostom is happy to build on these observations and say that this nature of things is the design of God. We might quibble over whether this is indeed the nature of things. Psychology, physiology, sociology, and biology have cause these illustrations from "nature" to weaken over the centuries, especially in recent decades. Intellectually, women who are afforded the opportunities of education are in every way a match for men, and so on. Even physically, where we would still say that generally men are stronger than women, I doubt anyone would say that all men are stronger than all women. No, of course not! There is overlap between the spectrums of physical strength within the genders (which means there are bound to be marriages where the man is not as physically strong as the woman). These are obvious points, but I make them in order for us to see both that Chrysostom's argument from the "nature of things" is less compelling to the contemporary mind than it once would have been, and yet that such a realization should not cause us to miss his point:

Even when it was thought that by nature the woman was subject to the man in a relation of governance, it was Chrysostom's thought that the one governing would be brought by Christ to love (i.e., give himself to) the governed willingly, and the one governed would be brought by Christ to submit (i.e., give herself to) the governing one willingly as well. In other words, even where societal structures and patriarchal notions of gender held sway, when it came to the Christian marriage especially, position or esteem would fall away in the face of mutual self-giving love.

She would have no fear of submitting to him because he was loving her fully. He would have no fear of loving her because she was not out to get him. In no other way could such a bond really work: It is brought to fruition where bitterness is done away with and submission is not done out of hierarchy or natural weakness but out of fittingness to the Lord. Such mutually trusting relationships were observably occurring even with those patriarchal societies, and we see them all over the place today as well. How much more should they be a matter of course in marriages that take place in the context of the kind of community which is fitting to the Lord!

What is fitting to the Lord? Colossians 3:9-17 has already described it (and it doesn't seem to have much to keep teaching and admonishment flowing only one way according to gender):

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Discovering Chrysostom

Having done a sweep through the Bible for passages where my dissertation topic surfaces most prominently, I recently transitioned to a closer analysis of about a half-dozen important passages. In this I have tried, at my supervisor's prodding, to depend less on contemporary commentaries and to delve more intentionally into ancient material. This search has taken me into some of the sermons of the Patristic era -- an eventuality which has brought some significant benefit since mine is a topic with considerable pastoral impulses and ramifications. In retrospect it occurs to me that this is not a bad move. To find what the Tradition has to say about interpersonal forgiveness in the church it may may not be a good idea to let debates about the atonement have the monopoly when I could be reading the things those theologians said to their congregations.

I have to admit my choice of sources has been fairly random (limited as it is to the available texts in our library), but I have had the pleasure in the last couple days of reading homilies by Cyprian, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine (in addition to Calvin and some more recent exegetical commentaries). As it turns out, in regard to three of my selected passages (the Lord's Prayer, Matthew 18 and 2 Corinthians 2) I have found Chrysostom's homilies to be the most theologically and practically insightful, interesting, and even inspiring -- not only in comparison to the other sermons but also to many contemporary texts.

According to the preface of volume XII of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, this accidental discovery of mine may actually have some pedigree to it. In other words, I may have stumbled on to something here. Something which has been discovered before, but which nonetheless feels to me like a bit of a "find". Note the introduction to Chrysostom's homilies:
The history and remains of St. Chrysostom are in one respect more interesting perhaps to the modern reader than most of the monuments of those who are technically called the Fathers. At the time when he was raised up, and in those parts of the Christian world to which he was sent (the Patriarchates, namely, of Antioch and Constantinople), the Church was neither agitated by persecution from without, nor by any particular doctrinal controversy within, sufficient to attract his main attention and connect his name with its history [as was Athanasius with the Arian and Augustine with the Pelagian controversy].... The Church seemed for the time free to try the force of her morals and discipline against the ordinary vices and errors of all ages and all nations. This is why [Chrysostom's homilies have been] useful as models for preaching, and as constraining hints for the application of Scripture to common life and the consciences of persons around us.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Willie Jennings' Social Imagination

Trying to decide what seminars to attend in the upcoming term, I have to say that despite the Systematics seminar on Luther's Galatians commentary and the Hermeneutics seminar on Barth's Romans commentary I think I am most excited about the Practical Theology Seminar on Willie Jennings' 2010 book entitled The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. The book jacket gives an overview of the book as follows:
A probing study of the cultural fragmentation - social, spatial, and racial - that took root in the Western mind, this book shows how Christianity has consistently forged Christian nations rather than encouraging genuine communion between disparate groups and individuals. Weaving together the stories of [medievals such as] Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry, the Jesuit theologian Jose de Acosta, the famed Anglican Bishop John William Colenso, and the former slave writer Olaudah Equiano, Jennings narrates a tale of loss, forgetfulness, and missed opportunities for the transformation of Christian communities. Touching on issues of slavery, geography, Native American history, Jewish-Christian relations, literacy and translation, he brilliantly exposes how the loss of land and the supersessionist ideas behind the Christian missionary movement are both deeply implicated in the invention of race. Using his bold, creative, and courageous critique to imagine a truly cosmopolitan citizenship that transcends geopolitical, nationalist, ethnic, and racial boundaries, Jennings charts, with great vision, new ways of imagining ourselves, our communities, and the landscapes we inhabit.

This excites me because I think it incredibly apropos in our increasingly globalized world and the supposed multiculturalism of our societies. Are our churches bringing the Christian imagination to bear on what these mixed societies can look like or are they breeding niches and cementing us in cliques (and spiritualizing it)? This book ought to have much to say and I for one am ready to consider it. I am also really looking forward to reading something that sheds light on society and Christianity in the middle ages. I feel pretty ignorant of that era; more well versed in caricatures than complex and accurate characterizations.

Here are some excerpts from the introduction, which kept me up late last night precisely when I had hoped to be put to sleep quickly:
This book attempts to narrate exactly what is missing, what thwarts the deepest reality of the Christian social imagination. Indeed, I argue here that Christianity in the Western world lives and moves within a diseased social imagination.

What I observed in the theological academy was [not the theory/practice or church/academy split but] fundamentally the resistance of theologians to think theologically about their identities.

Christianity, wherever it went in the modern colonies, inverted its sense of hospitality. It claimed to be the host, the owner of the spaces it entered, and demanded native people enter its cultural logics, its ways of being in the world, and its conceptualities. Thus [today's] persistent preoccupation with ... obsessive labeling and positioning of theological trends ... [which reflects] the deep pedagogical sensory deprivation of this horrific imbalance. Western Christian intellectuals still imagine the world from the commanding heights.

[These commanding heights] are ways of being in the world that resist the realities of submission, desire, and transformation. A Christianity born of such realities but historically formed to resist them has yielded a form of religious life that thwarts its deepest instincts of intimacy... [and fails] to witness to a God who surprises us by love of difference and draws us to new capacities to imagine their reconciliation. Instead, the intimacy that marks Christian history is a painful one, one in which the joining often meant oppression, violence, and death, if not of bodies then most certainly of ways of life, forms of language, and visions of the world. What happened to the original trajectory of intimacy?

Of course, I think I will have plenty of questions when I read this book as well, such as: What about the tower of Babel? Are Christians responsible for racism, or complicit (at times) in its instigation and spread? And what is imagined alternative to the current forms of society exactly? Is it not the case the Christians had a gospel-inspired social imagination but were tethered to some biblical texts more tightly than others, causing them to spiral rather than fly true? What will tether the imagination to reality, and to a holistic sense of the Christian gospel? I'm glad to have the opportunity to read this in a group rather than on my own. The discussion should be good.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


This is a lame laptop attempt at a video panorama of Edinburgh from atop Calton Hill. It was windy up there so bear in mind an increase in volume nearing the two minute mark. Also, the thing I call Holyrood Mountain is actually called "Arthur's Seat", located in Holyrood Park.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Today's Sermon: Matthew 5:21-26

In our worship for the last couple months we’ve been hearing God’s Word in Matthew 5, the famous ‘sermon on the mount’; Jesus’ inaugural address for the Kingdom of heaven on earth. We’ve seen that this is a Kingdom born not of strength and power and wealth but built of people poor in spirit, meek, merciful; the mourners, the persecuted, the peacemakers, the pure in heart, and those hungry for the right-life. Through these people Jesus’ light will shine into the darkest corners and His salt will season the bitter, flavourless places.

As David shared last week, in Matthew 5:17 we see that while Jesus’ sermon on the mount is an inauguration of this kingdom, it is not a cancellation of what has gone before:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

Jesus is God continuing to make a People for Himself on earth, as Israel’s Messiah; God with us; the God who saves. The old covenant with Israel is not done away with, but blossoms in this new covenant. The plan has not changed, but is now accomplished by Christ the King of the Jews; the Son of God and thus the King over all creation; people adopted by His grace.

Of course, as Jesus’ inaugural address continues, He paints a radical picture of this Kingdom:
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pharisees are intense. They add rules to the commandments to keep as far from breaking them as possible. But Jesus says that more is needed to enter this Kingdom; and holds out an unheard of kind of righteousness; a righteousness unachievable.

He’s just saying this to drive us to our knees, right?!

Well, yes, Jesus does call us to repent, to confess a righteousness from God; not of ourselves. To confess we live in the kingdom on Jesus’ merit, not our own. But we can’t read the rest of this sermon and go away thinking Jesus is anything less than serious. What follows in this chapter are six demanding ethical exhortations, which end with the conclusion:
48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In the weeks to come we’ll hear from these six exhortations in Jesus’ inauguration sermon; these six examples of how Jesus intends his fulfilment of the Law and Prophets to work out in our lives. Together they describe not only of the purpose for which we were created, but the way that the Kingdom comes to a creation now spoiled and steeped in evil.

Our focus today is the first exhortation, in Matthew 5:21-26. And inside it we’ll also get a highly suggestive seventh exhortation that appears to be a key to the others. We begin at 21:
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Jesus quotes from the 10 Commandments, simply enough: Thou shalt not murder. But then he gets right to the heart of the issue. Does this sound a bit extreme? Fool? That’s all it takes? Surely we could think of other four letter f-words we’d prefer to condemn, but this isn't about taboo words, it is about a danger in all our hearts and on all our lips. We all have our part in the deadly iceberg that has murder at its tip.

I don’t know if you pay attention to news from across the Atlantic, but last weekend an American congresswoman from Arizona, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head by a 22 year old gunman who then turned and killed six other people at a political event outside a grocery store. No one can be sure what motivated this murderer specifically, but the incident has sparked much debate on the way attitudes and speech set a climate for violence.

County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik started the discussion when he responded to the incident in a press conference saying: “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital .... We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry, .... The fiery rhetoric that has taken hold in politics may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences. To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with.” A columnist in the Tucson Citizen said “Dupnik is hitting on something with a long history to back up the need to call out the flamethrowers of hate and pour cold water on them. The issue is not whether [the shooter] was directly inspired [by heated political rhetoric] to take his Glock 19 and massacre a bunch of people .... The real issue is that if we do not stop the growing climate of hate and demonization of others…the path is into the pit of darkness.” Of course the whole discussion is tinged with political interest, but it is hard to deny the basic point. As comedian Jon Stewart put it: "Wouldn't it be great if our talk did not match the actions of crazy people?"

Was Jesus exaggerating when he connected murder with anger and the cursing of others, or did He put His finger on the pulse of fallen humanity? How often do bitterness and anger fester like turbulent undercurrents beneath the calm appearance of the surface of the sea? Where does murder come from? Is it the stuff of crazy people? Is it denying the responsibility that gunmen have for their crimes to suggest that murder is also the stuff of crazy societies? Aren't we all a bit crazy; or susceptible to this craziness? Its easy to contrast ourselves morally with a gunman who kills a pleasant enough seeming woman in cold blood, but who are the unpleasant thorns in our side that we murder in our hearts and with our words on a regular basis?

Aren’t our families and societies steeped in undealt-with anger and cursing? Doesn’t it heap up generationally on the outside and build up emotionally on the inside, just waiting for something to spark it, exploding externally in physical, verbal or manipulative violence or combusting internally in frustrated, paralyzing depression, addiction, and the isolation of distrust and suspicion? Has Jesus exaggerated at all in calling this the danger of hell? This “do not murder” command is not as distant from everyday life as we like to think.

Certainly, murderers should be held to justice. But Jesus is talking to everyone. Even to the murderers before they become murderers.

John was in Jesus’ audience, and he would later write in his first letter to the churches:
3:15 “Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderers have eternal life in them.”

James was in Jesus’ audience, and he expanded on this later in his letter to Jesus’ disciples:
3:4 “Although ships are large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a very small part of the body ... 6 that corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God’s likeness.... 10 My brothers and sisters, this should not be so.”

Paul received Jesus’ words too, and taught us in our anger not to sin, thereby giving the devil a foothold. From Jesus we learn that where anger wells up, everlasting life does not.

When the papers tell us of a senseless killing, well, in many cases it is a monstrous act by a disturbed individual created by a dire circumstance, but it is also a symptom of our societal discord, an indication of the enmity that eeks its way into the nooks and crannies of each and every heart and threatens even the strongest of relationships. With this first exhortation Jesus has not simply amped up the expectations of holiness beyond even a Pharisaical strictness – he has diagnosed the illness and called for his followers to stop taking painkillers and face up to the disease and live within His gracious cure.

In the Tucson Citizen article I quoted earlier, the columnist concluded: “Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said it like it is. And if you doubt for a second the warning he is giving us….take a trip through Germany in the 1930’s and notice how [the holocaust began with a slow build of hate speech]. The difference, I hope, is that we can do what [people then] did not do…stop this nonsense before it gets totally out of control.” But how?

What makes us think that today will be any different than centuries before? What hope is there for any of us? Jesus implied we all face similar dangers; we are all “subject to judgment.” Listen to Jesus’ alternative to the cycle of recycled revenge; the downward spiral of anger, hatred, discord and murder; an alternative as radical and challenging as it is simple and seemingly mundane:
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.”

When the Israelites brought their sacrifices to the altar and accepted forgiveness, we know that they had inklings of how useless were these bulls and goats and rams, really, unless true and ultimate justice were trusted to the hands of God. In Psalm 51 we see David break down after committing murder to cover up his adultery and cries this very thing: “You do not delight in my sacrifices, O God!” What good; what hope; do they bring? But David foreshadowed our future hope in a crucified and risen Saviour when he prayed: “The sacrifice God wants is a broken and contrite heart.” God will work with that.

But the Kingdom of God does not end with about a bunch of contrite, privately pious, remorseful individuals either. It is a Kingdom not a Closet. The Kingdom doesn’t end in brokenness and isolation. This Kingdom is about new life; healing; reconciliation. How does the Kingdom come in a world where people hurt each other? Where Anger becomes bitterness becomes hatred becomes fear becomes contempt becomes murder? Jesus’ disciples, these practicing Jews, are told to continue to bring their gifts to the altar, but only once they have been reconciled one to another – because that is how this Kingdom comes on earth.

But how can we reconcile unless there is justice? Jesus himself said we are subject to judgment, and the gifts brought to the altar he’s referring to recognize this. The Jews brought sacrifices at God’s command because only God could atone for their wrongs. Those sacrifices may not have fixed everything, but they acknowledged this dependence on God for both justice and for mercy. Now Jesus, just a couple years before dying as an innocent sacrifice for the sins of the world, tells these people if someone has something against you, go be reconciled before bringing your gift to the altar. This is how you acknowledge your need of both justice and forgiveness in a way that pleases God – you make your confession to God and you make it to one another as well. In fact, you make a mockery of worship of this reconciling God if you pretend you can do one without the other.

Come as you are to worship, yes, but as you are, not hiding like Adam in the garden. Not hiding a clenched fist and begrudging bitterness. Not without a care in the world for the people around you. Go be reconciled, then come worship (and realize you already started).

Jesus’ exhortation here is reminiscent of Isaiah 58 and Amos 5, where the prophets exposed the worship practices of God’s people as hollow and offensive:
Isaiah 58:4 “Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.... 5 Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
Amos 5:21 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies... 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”

This is the righteousness Jesus inaugurates with the Sermon on the Mount and clinches with his cross and resurrection. He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. And following Him follows the motions of the God who has always loved -- even humanity when it turned from him and against each other in sin. Think about it: If creation is the overflow of God’s everlasting communion of self-giving love to creation, and salvation is reconciliation for a broken selfish world, then how can we ever conceive of a Kingdom or a church that is about merely individual holiness and private worship? Gifts brought with one hand while behind the back the other is a clenched fist?

Churches die over this stuff. Worship becomes all about a personal experience and expression, so we come and close our eyes and avoid conflicts and avoid one another and go our merry way. Like any other community, even if we do admit to a problem we do so by grumbling to everyone but the person with whom a problem has arisen. Like any other community, we find it easier to settle for false peace. But Jesus did not come to set up just any community.

Earlier in the sermon he said to be peacemakers. Clearly here Jesus shows that that does not mean passive-aggressive conflict-avoiders any more than it means warmongers and rabbel-rousers. Peacemakers talk about differences, hurts, miscommunications and misunderstandings (which most of them are) – not because they are themselves righteous or even because they are convincing enough to effect an agreement, but because of the courage and love and mercy given them under the shed blood of Christ! In this communion that comes from outside of them they can speak truth in love to one another; committed to reconciliation; to the love breaking into the world in Christ.

This starts in our worship, and it proceeds into our witness. If we settle for false peace here, what are we spreading in the world? Jesus goes on to say:
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with your adversary on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown in prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”

On one level, this is kind of common sense. If you can settle it between yourselves you won’t be at the mercy of an unknown judge. But Jesus’ point is not simply to subvert the justice system or give weight to today’s face-saving out-of-court monetary settlements. The point is, don’t leave your messes for other people to clean up. Doing so perpetuates the cycles of violence and anger by shoving them under the rug for another day, when they come back with a vengeance. We lock ourselves in the prison of un-reconciliation.

So what hope is there?

Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, for they will be called the children of God. They exhibit Christ’s presence on earth. Peacemakers can’t guarantee everyone will be peaceable, but they do whatever is in their power to make things right, prudently recognizing that reconciliation comes ultimately from God. Here in verse 24 Jesus says “be reconciled,” not “reconcile” but “be reconciled”. Sometimes it is a slow-miracle, and in the process of healing, even where we were the victims of wrongdoing the Spirit shows us our sin too. So before we give our gifts of corporate worship, we let Him search and examine our hearts and lives and compel us to seek amongst ourselves his gift of the ministry of reconciliation. It is a gift we accept by sharing.

It is like when the inventor of basketball took the bottom out of the bucket and invented the hoop. Used to be the thing just caught the ball every time and someone had to climb up and retrieve the ball. Then they took the bottom out so that the basket received and delivered the ball all in one act. Then the basket became what it was created for and the game found its flow. Same here. You are a basket not a bucket. Sure you receive God’s love personally. But hold it to yourself and you reach the brim and that’s the end of it. Over time you receive a lot less living water than the one who lets it flow through, constantly poured out from above.

We Christians will not solve everything overnight, but we do chart a trajectory and walk a path together in Jesus’ name by the churches we gather and the worship and witness we proclaim with our words and our deeds. Jesus essentially says I am the sacrifice for sin. End the cycle. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Perfect love drives away fear. This is how you are ambassadors of reconciliation. It begins in this room and it happens in the same motion as the acceptance of reconciliation with God. You don’t get one without the other. Jesus is quite clear. Later Jesus says “Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors,” “Love the Lord your God and ... Love your neighbour as yourself.” God’s love is a river, not a pond.

This is not just about having a clear conscience for worship in the church. Go back to that anger passage and read that again in the context of your closest relationships. What hope do they have without humble confession, willingness to forgive, desire to be forgiven, and hope in the justice and reconciling power of God?! Think about this in the weeks to come. What Jesus is introducing as an exhortation with this first of six exhortations will crop up again and be central to the ones that follow: faithfulness in marriage, the keeping of promises, the ways one treats one’s enemies – all will come back to and be supported by this insistence on being reconciled. Otherwise what hope is there? Jesus is God with us, despite our sin. Paul wrote that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them,” thus giving us our message and our mission.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Words with Life in Them

Spending this week literally pouring through the pages of Scripture for 8 hours a day was really refreshing and revitalizing. It is so rich. It was hard to hold back the written reflections. The posts on Genesis and Exodus just kept coming. If you are so inclined, see parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 in order and get a feel for the journey. I had intended to get through the whole Bible.

Also, I was booked to preach on Matthew 5:21-26 at my church this Sunday -- the passage where Jesus connects murder to anger and rhetoric and gives a call prioritizing reconciliation to ceremonies of worship. I had written the sermon before the tragedy in Arizona and the ensuing discussion about just such a connection, but did feel compelled to touch on current events in order to draw out the point. I don't usually like to post my sermons (because I tend to think of preaching as a homiletic event meant for a certain place and time and people rather than a static document), but will post the manuscript to this one right here on Sunday morning for all the shut ins out there.

All that to say: Here's to the Bible. I have found these words to be alive.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Genesis of Forgiveness III: Joseph's Saga

A continuing exploration of the Bible for themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. See part one (and comment thread) for goals and rationale as well as for mention of the Hebrew words cited here.

Old Chapters and New [Gen 35-37:2]:

When we last caught up with Jacob's family, they were moving to Bethel after the ugly episode with Dinah's rapists. We do not get to hear much about this growing entourage, but with the addition of all the new widows and orphans of the Shechemites we can imagine this must be an odd restart to say the least. That it happens on the very spot where Jacob had wrestled with God seems appropriate [35-1-7]. When they do move away from Bethel, Rachel dies giving birth to Jacob's last son, Benjamin, and Isaac also dies "old and full of years" [35:16-29]. If we had more written about it, the family dynamics of Isaac's final years would have put food on the tables of psychologist and sociologists for centuries. As it is, the Bible lets us read between the lines and leaves us with the parting image of Jacob and Esau together at the graveside of their father, "laughter", the son of Abraham [35:29]. Something is keeping this family going.

At this point we get an account of Esau's descendants, and a transition to the story of Joseph which will consume the final 1/3 of the book of Genesis. Interestingly, Joseph's story is introduced to us as "the account of Jacob" [37:2]. Clearly we are to understand that what happens to Joseph happens for the sake of Israel.

Jacob's Sons and Joseph's Troubles [Gen 37-41]:

Knowing what we know now, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that those who will eventually be rescued from deathly famine by Joseph have actually bitterly hated him from early on for having found favour with Jacob. (Joseph was born to him in his old age, presumably when he could actually have relaxed and spent more time with him [37:2-11]). Given the history of violence in this family and the fact that Jacob's recent history does not exactly involve a lot of retribution, we should probably not be too surprised when Joseph's brothers aim to kill him [12-20]. Although it will end up that the younger brother rather than the firstborn ends up with the bulk of Jacob's blessing, it is interesting to note that here it is the eldest brother, Reuben, who is in some sense a deliverer of Israel's eventual deliverer [21-22]. Joseph is thrown into a well and when opportunity knocks is later sold to merchants heading to Egypt [23-28].

Anyway, for our purposes we need to fast-forward in this story, and even though the word is being used to means something other than forgiveness, we will do so utilizing occurrences of the Hebrew root nasa', which means basically to lift, carry, or bear up:
  • Having cast Joseph into the well, Jacob's sons nasa' and see the Ishmaelite traders (who nasa' spices, balm and myrrh) coming from Gilead [37:25]. Tempted as I am by echoes of future events and metaphors, I will merely press the interesting fact that the people of their estranged Great Uncle Ishmael also have a hand in Israel's deliverance via Joseph in Egypt. God works in mysterious ways.
  • Potiphar's wife nasa' her eyes and lusts after Joseph, such that when he refuses her advances it ends up costing him some prison time [39]. (By the way, Joseph ends up getting her daughter as his wife [41:50]. Now that must have been an awkward son- and mother-in-law relationship!)
  • After interpreting the dreams of his inmates, Joseph's prediction about them comes true. The king nasa' the heads of both his cupbearer and his baker -- the cupbearer to his former position and the baker to death on a tree. The whole thing seems pretty random, and it doesn't seem likely that Joseph could have just predicted it without some divine assistance [40:1-22]. Whatever the case, the prison guard's knowledge of this ends up buying Joseph the chance to interpret Pharoah's troublesome nightmares about the impending famine; and with Pharoah's recognition that Joseph has "the spirit of the gods" it means Joseph is put in charge of Egypt's preparation for the natural disaster [41:1-49]. Joseph's Egypt ends up being the vehicle not only for Israel's deliverence, but for "all the world" [57].

Joseph Messes with his Brothers [Gen 42-45]

When Joseph's brothers finally come to Egypt to ask for food for Jacob's family back in famine-riddled Canaan, Joseph recognizes them, but not they him [42:1-8]. Along with his recollection of what they did to him, he recalls his dreams about them, and this instigates what for him seems to be a mission to not only provide for them but to bring them to their knees [42:9]. Whether the way that he messes with them is entirely called for or not, it surely does just that, and by the end his insistent conflict with them does result in reconciliation as truth-filled as it is emotional [45]. What follows are my reflections on the back and forth that takes place along the way.

Joseph is no doubt justified in wanting justice for what his brothers did to him, but is bound by the fact that he would have to reveal himself in order to pass that judgment. He does not seem to want to do this, for reasons we will speculate on momentarily. Suffice it to say for the moment that he comes up with a way to exact punishment on them without playing his whole hand; without exposing himself to the same vulnerability as their's. Pretty cunning, pretty self-protective stuff, and perhaps not a model for truth and reconciliation, but interestingly enough it has the desired effect.

Not only do the brothers conclude that "we are being punished because of our brother" but they confess in Joseph's hearing that they dismissed the opportunity to listen to his desperate pleadings [42:21]. Joseph also gets to hear how Reuben tried to stick up for him and from Reuben's lips we hear echoes of God to Noah, that they are indeed "accountable for his blood" [9:5-6; 42:22]. All this understandably sends Joseph to tears, but he regains his composure and throws Simeon in prison (rather than Reuben, whom we might expect) [42:22-24].

Back in Canaan, Jacob refuses to send Benjamin to Egypt with the brothers as Joseph requested, even to free Simeon. He is done trusting his children to others in this way, and considers Simeon "no more", just like Joseph [42:36]. However, over time the famine takes its toll, and Jacob reconsiders, assisted by Judah's pledge to take full responsibility for Benjamin's life [43:1-10]. Jacob of course resorts to some old strategies (perhaps wisely) and sends along plenty of gifts in order to appease this prince of Egypt. But the mature Jacob here confesses that even in this prudent gesture he is at the mercy not simply of this man, but of God Almighty [43:14].

On return to Egypt the brothers are at the end of their rope, and are actually the better for it. They offer their gifts as well as their restitution for the missing silverware, and in doing so they also pull no punches and 'fess up to the extra silver in their sacks (which they didn't steal, but which Joseph had put their to test them) [43:18-21]. In this they appear to pass the test, and they are given not only the silver but Simeon as well [23]. Truth is coming out more and more.

Crazily enough, however, Joseph is interested in blessing them way sooner than he is interested in reconciling with them. Despite the tears shed in private and the willingness to bless his brothers publicly, he is content to let those tears end in personal catharsis and to let the blessing be given from a safe distance. The brothers are sent home with all the food they can carry and more [43:26-44:1].

This might strike readers as odd, but on further consideration isn't it exactly how we tend to operate? In the aftermath of wrongdoing and broken relationships, we will sooner forgive someone in our heart and even begin to pray blessing for them than we will actively seek to sort out our differences with them face to face and aim for what seems an unimaginable reconciliation. In fact we easily spiritualize this version of forgiveness, preaching it as a kind of therapeutic freedom rather than seeking the goal within which forgiveness actually makes sense.

But deep in his heart, Joseph isn't done with them. He tests them again. He puts his silver cup in Benjamin's sack, pauses, and then sends a servant on the road to catch the brothers red-handed [44:2-13]. When they are brought back and are beside themselves with contrition, Joseph messes with them again, demanding to hold Benjamin (the brother with whom he has no conflict) in custody and let the rest be on their way [14-17]. When Judah for the sake of Jacob offers his life in exchange for Benjamin's, it finally pulls Joseph over the edge [44:18-45:2]. He reveals himself to them, interprets the entire debacle in light of God's plan of deliverance for them, and in light of this invites them to bring the entire family to Egypt.

The saga ends with Joseph kissing his brothers amidst mutual tears of profound relief [45:3-15]. Quite awesomely, Joseph sends them back to get Jacob with a knowing word that hints toward a fresh start for this family, saying "Don't quarrel on the way!" [45:24].

Further Ever After [Gen 46-50]:

Now I ask you, can Genesis -- this book which beautifully sets humanity's origins and its purposes in the context of the Creator's overflow of love and shalom and yet so aptly depicts the outcome of creaturely disobedience in terms of brokenness and discord -- can Genesis end more fittingly than that?

Actually, it can.

Jacob's family moves to Egypt and is finally reunited in fellowship and security [46-47]. Jacob blesses each of his sons, oassing the blessing of Abraham and Isaac particularly to the sons of Joseph [48-49], before dying as one "gathered to his people" in peace [49:33]. And after a road trip to Canaan together to bury Jacob back with his forefathers, the children of Israel have one more confrontation. Josephs's brothers would not blame him if he held a grudge against them and wished to exact revenge on them now that Jacob was gone. So they tell him (truthfully or not we don't know) that Jacob instructed them to ask forgiveness, and do so. (Breaking all today's rules, they do so via a messenger rather than in person, but being afraid for their lives perhaps we can forgive them that!)

The message begins by quoting Jacob, and then goes out on its own: "'I ask you to forgive (nasa') your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive (nasa') the sins of the servants of the God of your father." Reunited, Joseph says to his brothers, now bowing in his presence as he'd dreamed so long ago: "'Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish ... the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.' And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them."

In some sense I think Joseph does stand in the place of God here. We will hear these merciful words from the lips of Jesus to those rightfully bowing at his feet later on. And the people who take those words to heart will in turn become a people who are defined by what becomes known as the ministry of reconciliation -- even called to be ambassadors of that reconciliation. For the sake of God and because of God's Sovereign grace they will be called to resist the false peace of conflict avoidance and the downward spiral of perpetual revenge, instead sharing a communion from beyond themselves, meeting together in the peace that passes understanding for such things as forbearance, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and the difficult road to restoration and shalom.

Epilogue: Ephraim Ahead of Manasseh [Gen 41, 48-49]:

Oh, and one more thing: When Joseph had his sons in Egypt he named the firstborn Manasseh, which sounded like "forget", and the second son Ephraim, which sounded like "twice fruitful" -- doing so in order to signify first that "God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father's household" and second that "God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering" [41:51-52].

With "Manasseh" we have evidence that Joseph was at first content to "forgive and forget" from a safe distance and not take forgiveness to its divine telos in reconciliation. As already mentioned, this tends to be a pious form of "settling" pretty common in Christian circles where private salvation has eclipsed the kingdom of God in importance and the spiritual disciplines have fallen in line accordingly. With "Ephraim" we have foreshadowings of something that Christianity will eventually draw out and emphasize even more: The fact that it is not only survival that God seeks to bring out of suffering but double fruitfulness. God does not just deal with sin in Christ, God overcomes it and intends to achieve his original purposes to overflowing.

Curiously enough, when Jacob comes to bless these children of Joseph he switches them around so that, while both are blessed, it is Ephraim who gets the blessing of the firstborn [48:8-20]. We don't want to read too much into this (after all, Jacob may simply be passing on his historical precedence for the second child!), but Jacob is no doubt aware of the meaning of their names when he declares that the "younger will be greater" and "puts Ephraim ahead of Manasseh" [19-20]. Later we learn that Jacob considered each son's blessing appropriate to each, and we hear him add that "Joseph is a fruitful vine near a spring ... attacked ... but steady ... because of your father's God" [49:22-25]. This is the vine into which we have been grafted by Jacob's offspring, Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

Whatever we take from Genesis about forgiveness, it is probably best that we recognize it as more than forgetfulness for the sake of a private feeling of contentment. We should probably understand that forgiveness is a part of God's gracious plan to bring not just survival but fruitfulness in the land of our suffering and our enmity. May we as Christians recognize that we are not set apart because we are righteous, but because of Christ's overflow of grace and love to the least of us -- and go forward in bold humility like salt in the earth and trust in Him for just that.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Genesis of Forgiveness II: Abraham to Jacob

The exploration of the Bible for themes of forgiveness and reconciliation continues. See part one (and comment thread) for goals and rationale as well as for mention of the Hebrew words cited here...

Messing with Abimelech [Gen 20 & 26]:

When Abraham moved into King Abimelech's territory, he pretended his wife was his sister so one of the godless locals wouldn't kill him to get her [20:2, 11-12]. As a result he may have saved his life but he lost his "sister" Sarah to Abimelech anyway. Only because God warned Abimelech in a dream not to sleep with her did he abstain. In fact, in the same dream God told Abimelech that he had been punk'd [20:3, my paraphrase], and to the news this pagan king reacts by defending his clear conscience and (after God's further instruction and a confrontation with the parties involved) returning Sarah to Abraham along with a gift of livestock, servants, land, and 25 pounds of silver [4, 14-16]. In the course of all this God tells Abimelech "I have kept you from sinning" and warns him nonetheless that he must return Sarah or die [7]. Innocent as he might be, Abimelech is at least potentially complicit in the wrong that has arisen and is accountable for what he does once he learns the truth. Amazingly, he seems to go above and beyond the call of duty, not only in restitution for the offense but in establishing a relationship of newfound trust between the parties involved where before there had been nothing but deep suspicion on the side of the newcomers. In this episode it is Abimelech who hears from God, it is Abimelech who confronts and rebukes Abraham, and it is Abimelech who welcomes these newcomers into his kingdom and seeks to "cover the offense" (not kaphar) and "vindicate" Abraham at cost to himself [16, see also the treaty at 21:22-23]. At the same time, it is Abraham who must pray to God for Abimelech's life and for the healing of the barrenness that God had already inflicted upon his family in the midst of the mess [7, 17].

God's order of redemption and covenantal promise have not changed, but that does not preclude him from working from the outside-in from time to time along the way.

Crazily enough, this all happens again when Abraham's son Isaac stays in the area at God's direction [Gen 26:1-6]. This time Abimelech's officials actually ask straight up about Isaac's wife and Isaac more blatantly lies to them [6-7]. Abimelech does not appear to take Rebekah as a wife this time, but still finds out he's been punk'd again when he sees Isaac making out with her out his window one day [8]. Confronting this family yet again, Abimelech's extra caution is vindicated and Isaac's suspicion is seen to be more unwarranted than was Abraham's. There is no mention of God's intervention or revelation this time, but Abimelech again confronts the situation head-on and gives Isaac protection and room to thrive in his land [9-11]. Some jostling for position takes place in the land when Isaac outgrows his elbow room, and some envy and quarrelling crops up among these early Philistines, but by and large these things are resolved and Isaac finds room (lit. Rehoboth) to flourish [12-22]. After God blesses Isaac and their covenant is mutually renewed [24-25], Abimelech comes to him to make a treaty out of respect for Isaac's Lord [26-29]. Meeting Abimelech at first with accusations of hostility, Isaac ends up throwing a feast for them and swearing an oath to live in peace alongside (but separate from) each other [27, 30-31]. In this exchange Abimelech claims to have always treated him well and honours him as one blessed by God [28-29].

Clearly this amicable resolution and this profound respect for Abraham and Isaac's God allows Abimelech the Philistine something of an indirect share in the peace (shalom) of God - a share he is in some respects more deserving of than Abraham and Isaac themselves.

The stickiness of these situations makes for a great parable, showing the mess of iniquity that one can get into even when one is, individualistically speaking, innocent. There is no explicit mention of interpersonal forgiveness in this episode, but reconciliation is laced throughout, and in this instance though God initiates it the primary human catalyst is not the one that we might expect. I take this as an evocative insight when I ponder the degree to which church folk ought to work with societal reconciliation efforts that are not explicitly pinned to Christian motivations.

Isaac the Living Sacrifice [Gen 22]:

When Abraham is told to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah it is not completely unheard of in ancient culture, but it is no doubt a staggering command, not just emotionally and morally but also "religiously" in light of God's prior revelations and promises to Abraham. That he comes within an inch of doing so is taken by the Bible as an indication of his faith, but that he is stopped and given a ram to sacrifice instead is taken as a weighty indication of the different kind of God that this one reveals Himself to be. As a precursor not only of the sacrificial system to come but also of the eventual crucifixion of Jesus Christ we have the loaded words of God to Abraham: "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided" [14]. And because of Abraham's willingness to entrust all into God's hands (including God's promises themselves) and to obey we are told that "through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed" [15-18]. Isaac inherits this blessing in 26:4, and is for us perhaps the first example of a living sacrifice [Rom 12]. What this has to do with forgiveness is all fairly ambiguous except for the centrality that an atoning sacrifice will have in the just forgiveness of God as it is revealed further on in Scripture.

Esau's Blessing [Gen 27]:

For all that has been said thus far about the order of redemption (i.e. God plans to bless all the earth through a certain people), with Jacob we get our first explicit indication that this order is not systematizable according to human presumptions. By our calculations based on the Ishmael/Isaac episode and the cultural norms, Esau the firstborn ought to be the one to inherit the covenant blessing of God passed on through Abraham and Isaac. However, through no moral merit of his own (but quite the opposite), Jacob inherits that blessing [27:1-35]. Esau seems to get a raw deal here, but in a foreshadowing of some of Jesus' teachings and parables of the kingdom he must simply learn that the hierarchy doesn't matter so much as the sharing of the blessing, if indeed the parties concerned will share it.

By giving the blessing to Jacob rather than Esau God does not forsake Esau, but orders it so that he is now blessed by serving his brother rather than vice versa [27:36-40].

Thanks in no small part to Esau's own begrudging (which we no doubt have some empathy for), and of course to Jacob's conniving, this is no smooth affair - thus enmity does prevail for quite some time [41-44]. But for the moment we are left to ponder the fact that what Esau takes from Isaac as the withholding of blessing and pronouncement of a curse is said in Genesis 27:41 to have been a certain kind of blessing itself. We see how this can be so when in his magnanimous generosity to Jacob years later, Esau does indeed fulfill Isaac's prophecy by serving his brother, and does it in such a way that his gracious face appears to Jacob as if the very face of God [33:10].

What is interesting in the question of forgiveness and reconciliation here is that Jacob is told by Rebekah to flee to her brother Laban's place to "stay for awhile until [Esau's] fury subsides" and Esau "forgets what [Jacob] did to him" [27:44-45]. This exile ends up being providential in God's hands, and though Esau's forgiveness would to a retrospective idealist no doubt be preferrable to his forgetfulness, one can not deny the practical wisdom of Rebekah's advice to get some distance and buy some time for the sake of future amicability if not peace between discordant brothers.
Also, where we can't conceive of someone forgiving us, we might look to the common reality of forgetfulness as kindling for the imagination instead of succumbing to total despair.

Jacob and Laban: A Messy Peace [Gen 29-31]:

After years of conniving on both sides, with God's blessing and the achievement of enough confidence and prosperity to do so, Jacob considers moving away from his father in law Laban's place and going out his own [31:3ff]. Theirs is hardly a trusting relationship, but they do find a way to live together amicably on the face of things. Curiously, God gives Jacob advice in how to shrewdly get out from under Laban's opportunistic meddling with an advantage befitting the years of patient service he had rendered and the blessing that his presence had brought the land [30:29-30; 31:10-16].

When the false peace between them comes to its end it is with Jacob fleeing and Laban pursuing him with charges of deception [31:19-30]. God warns Laban to withold judgment on Jacob, but Laban pretends that he would have celebrated his departure and blames Jacob for his secrecy. All this to say that when they finally strike a treaty they have been pushed to the point of having to clear the air about their relationship and are yet then able to make a covenant because of the "God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac" [36-42, 53]. One would be hard pressed to call the resulting relationship a full-fledged reconciliation, but they do arrive at a measure of such reconciliation by parting ways with a blessing and a ritual in which God is remembered as the "judge" and "witness between" them not only to keep them from harming each other but to keep them in one accord under the same God [48-55].

It is hardly a picture of glorious shalom, but it is no longer a false peace either. Such a messy story will rarely get preached on, but this relationship of in-laws seems to me a perfect parable for the ways that this peace which passes understanding can guide on the road to reconciliation in a world of enmity and mistrust and abuse.

Jacob and Esau Reconciled [Gen 32]:

When Jacob's time with Laban is over he takes it as time to reengage with Esau. For good reason this causes him "great fear and distress" and so he approaches Esau cautiously if not contritely [32:1-21]. In the first place Jacob expresses his contrite heart to God, declaring himself "unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness" shown him through the years in exile. Here he prays God "save" him "from the hand of" Esau and appeals to God's promises to preserve him and cause him to flourish [9-12]. (At this point Jacob may still be trying to manipulate God like he does everyone else, but the ensuing wrestling match in the night appears to put him in his place [22-32].) In the second place, Jacob thinks to himself that he can "pacify" Esau with gifts and perhaps even be accepted (nasa', forgiven?) by him [16, 20].

After Jacob's struggle with God he appears genuinely contrite before Esau and even declares himself Esau's servant [33:1-8]. But by blessing Esau with plenty, God has freed him to refuse Jacob's offer and to merely accept a gift from him without necessarily taking him into his service. Offering instead to accompany him on the way, Esau shows grace and hospitality becoming God himself [33:10]. When Jacob refuses to join companies, Esau even offers to leave some servants with him. Happy enough with Esau's favourable attitude toward him, Jacob insists on parting ways and settles in Succoth, a place of gracious shelter (succoth) outstripping what he might ever have expected in return for his dastardly deeds.

Given what happens next, we wonder if he should have gone with Esau instead, and so by not taking the offered reconciliation all the way perhaps opted out of the better reality that Esau's forgiveness (or at least forgetfulness) may have afforded.

Jacob and Shechem: More Mess [Gen 34-35]:

When Shechem rapes Jacob's daughter Dinah and then arranges to appease the family with an offer of land-sharing and a respectable marriage (you name the price), it is an ugly start to a relationship to say the least [34:1-12]. When Jacob's sons include circumcision as part of the treaty and then turn around and slaughter and plunder the still-healing men of Shechem's family, things get even uglier [13-29]. Jacob is not impressed with their deception and vengeance, but they turn back at him the question of justice [30-31). This dilemma between peace and justice is not answered in this passage, but is certainly raised for our reflection with gusto.

God instructs Jacob to leave that land along with all the plundered persons and property save the foreign gods and to take a fresh start with God in the heritage site of Bethel. On leaving the area, we are told, "the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them" [5]. Not sure what to make of all this except that it illustrates quite well how one grievous act can infect not just current situations but groups of people with enmity for generations. It is interesting to wonder what Jacob would have or should have done in response to Dinah's rape and the resultant negotiations. What could forgiveness and reconciliation here possibly have looked like? And what about justice, if what Jacob's sons did is reprehensible?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Forgiveness in the Exodus

This is a continuation of note-taking and curiousities emerging from my study of forgiveness playing of the pages off the Bible. See part one (and the comment thread there) for a bit more rationale before taking what follows dogmatically rather than exploratory. In the book of Exodus, there is less about people forgiving each other and more about God forgiving His people even while they fail to cooperate with his larger work of deliverence. Here again we see the words כָּפַר kaphar (to cover) and נָשָׂא nasa' (to lift or bear up), but we also have the introduction of another word that is translated in terms of forgiveness: סָלַח calach, which meant to forgive or to pardon.

The Exodus:
Genesis ended with God's deliverance of Jacob's family from famine by way of Joseph's integral governance in Egypt. Here, time has gone by and God's people have multiplied fruitfully according to God's design but have also tragically become enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians. So we see that God plans to "rescue them" and to "bring them up" into their own land [3:8]. From early on, of course, God's people (with Moses as no exception) will repeatedly mistake a temporary set back for God's betrayal and complain that "you have not rescued your people at all" [5:23]. But in the face of this the Lord initially and then repeatedly promises to free them, redeem them, take them as His own people, be their God, and give them a land [6:6-8]. God delivers.

Moses' Reluctance [Exod 4]:
When Moses asks that someone else be sent to rescue Israel in his place, the Lord is angry and gives him Aaron, but only as a spokesperson. One might look at this as the Lord forgiving Moses' reluctance and granting him some help, or perhaps as the Lord simply giving Moses what he deserves. Aaron will no doubt be of service to Moses, but will also eventually cause incredible problems by speaking out of turn in Moses' absence and leading the people to worship the golden calf [Ex 32]. As a mixed blessing, can this be called forgiveness if dire consequences are still in play? Better to call it a form of forbearance perhaps. This text doesn't prescribe definitions for us, but it does lend credibility to a complex picture of things rather than a simple one.

Pharoah's Back and Forth [Exod 7-14]:
One of the complexities of talking about forgiveness is our concern with both the sincerity of repentance and the question of what the forgiven person does with their pardon. Although there has been much talk about God hardening Pharoah's heart a few times during the plagues prior to Israel's release, it is curious to also look at these episodes as occasions of divine forgiveness spurned. As you are no doubt aware, most of the plagues are followed by some kind of relenting or repentance by Pharoah that is later retracted. It is after the plague of locusts in particular that Pharoah brings forgiveness into the picture, saying to Moses and Aaron: "I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you. Now forgive (nasa') my sin once more and pray to the Lord your God to take this deadly plague away." On this occasion a west wind carries (nasa') the locusts into the Red Sea with emphatically more might than the east wind had carried (nasa') them in [10:13, 19]. But no sooner is Pharoah granted relief than his heart is again hardened. This is the pattern also after the plagues of frogs, flies, hail, and darkness [8:15, 32; 9:34; 10:23-24], although only in the plague of hail do we have another explicit mention of confession of sin.

We wouldn't want to make more of this unique occasion than we ought to, but we note here that God keeps forgiving Pharoah until Pharoah has hardened to death. Certainly God seems to have a hand in driving him further into his hardness of heart at various points, but it is true that here we see Pharoah asking for forgiveness, seeming to get it, and then spurning it repeatedly. The consequences worsen over time, but each time there is new rebellion to occasion it.

Manna and Quail [Exod 16 & Num 11]:
The people in the desert grumble about their lack of food stores, and God sends daily bread to both provide for them and to test their willingness to follow him in reliance one day at a time [Exod 14:4]. This is how God feeds them for 40 years in the desert, and for good reason a jar of manna is kept right along with the 10 Commandments as a testimony to God's faithfulness to this people despite their repeated self-reliance and grumbling. In Exodus it appears that manna and quail go together from the start, but in Numbers we see that the quail was a response to their grumbling over the manna's blandness and the lack of meat. And there the quail is hardly a blessing. They gorge themselves on it and a bunch of people get a disease and die. During all this God asking why he bothers to carry (nasa') this infantile people like a nursing mother and Moses responding that he can't carry (nasa') this burden alone. At this point God shares his Spirit with 70 elders, although we are under no illusions that this solves everything forever after. I don't know how much this all has to do with forgiveness, other than the fact that this daily-bread faithfulness ends up being held quite close to divine and interpersonal forgiveness in the teachings of Jesus and the ensuing patterns of Christian community.

The Crisis of the Calf [Exod 32-34]:
With Moses taking his time up the mountain with the Lord, Aaron and the people offer and eat burnt offerings and fellowship offerings (but no sin offering, a bull don't get to eat) to a golden statue of a cow. God aims to destroy them, but Moses intercedes, asking God to remember His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob [32:9, 11]. God relents, but then proceeds to have Moses kill over 3000 people and still later to send a plague upon them [27-28, 35]. During all this, Moses confesses the sin of the people and asks God to nonetheless bear it up (nasa') or else just blot him out of whatever plans He might have [32]. God insists on blotting out those who have sinnned rather than Moses [32:33] and refuses to go with the people or He might destroy them [33:1-6]. However, Moses pleads again for God to remember them as His people, and the Lord in turn promises His presence and the gift of rest [14].

When Moses persists in pleading the Lord affirms this again and reveals His goodness to him, saying "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" and "you can not see my face and live" [15-20]. After all this, new tablets are given for the commandments to be re-inscribed [34:1-4], and God passes "in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving (nasa') wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.'" At this Moses "bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. 'Lord,' he said, 'if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive (calach) our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance'”[34:5-8].

Five things might be said about the way God's forgiveness manifests itself in this crisis. First of all, it is pretty implicitly (and wrongly) taken for granted by the people worshiping at the golden calf. Secondly, it seems that on this occasion Moses, like Abraham before him, is the one first pleading for it, and not the people themselves. Thirdly, it seems that God refuses to forgive the individuals involved, but bears with them for a time for the sake of a larger, corporate forgiveness of the people in general. Fourthly, forgiveness is continuous with but distinguished from the original grace of the covenant because, while God was always being gracious by calling a people unto Himself, here he is continuing to do it even though they are stiff-necked and rebellious against him. Finally, it seems that God's forgiveness here ultimately takes the form of commands to be obeyed and the implicit/explicit promise to be with them as they obey [34:10ff]. Happily, the rest of Exodus has God going with the people and the people with God, obeying his commands for the set up of the tabernacle and the priesthood [Exod 35-40].

[to be continued]

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Genesis of Forgiveness

This month I will be scanning the Bible to see how the theme of forgiveness manifests itself in the declarations of God and the stories of the people. Hoping to identify key passages and study them in detail appropriate to the level of importance, I will then utilize this in my analysis of Karl Barth's theology of forgiveness. In February and March my church in Aberdeen has also graciously leant me the pulpit to preach from three of the key passages. Having spent my first day in the book of Genesis I thought it might be helpful (to me) and interesting (to you) to post some of the things I noted as I perused the incredible first fifty chapters of the Bible. What follows is a cursory look at ways I see forgiveness cropping up either explicitly or implicitly in those pages.

Although I am hardly doing a word study here, it will be interesting to note when the two main Hebrew words that can be rendered in terms of forgiveness are used in Genesis. They are: כָּפַר kaphar, which commonly meant to cover, and נָשָׂא nasa', which meant to lift or bear up. From here on I will use their transliterations (the italics).

Fall-out from the Fall [Gen 3]:
Distinguishing forgiveness from the general grace of the Creator to do good for creatures as the offer of goodness despite badness, we first see something like it when the first humans have disobeyed God and in shame turned against each other. Though God has told them that disobeying him will mean their certain death, and follows up their disobedience with the information that "to dust you will return", the very next verse sees Adam naming his wife Eve, which designates her "the mother of all the living" [19-20]. God also provides clothes to cover their shame [21]. Despite the curse of creaturely fallenness and the promise of justice, life goes on. Though the conditions of earth have changed, God seems willing to work with them, and the discordant note struck against discord is a promising sign.

Cain's Protection [Gen 4]:
Cain is the child born from God despite creaturely disobedience [1]. After killing Abel, he is told his enmity with the ground will be worse, and because of the difficulty he will have farming he will be a "restless wanderer". When Cain calls this punishment too much for him to bear (nasa'), lamenting the danger of a fugitive nomad particularly [13-14], God marks him out (somehow) so that people know that vengeance will come 7 times over to anyone who kills Cain. Despite being a murderer, Cain goes "out from the presence of the Lord" protected, has a wife and kids, and even founds a city. Curiously, his triple-great grandson Lamech takes it upon himself to declare that vengeance will come 77 times over to anyone who so much as hurts him [24]. These numbers will be picked up by Jesus and flipped on their head in Matthew 18's teaching about forgiveness.

Noah's Rescue [Gen 6-9]:
Though God has allowed life to go on, things have gotten out of hand and God has declared: "My Spirit will not contend with humanity forever" [6:3]. Among the people of his time, Noah is found relatively blameless [6:8-9; 7:1], and so is told (in this order) to build a wooden boat and cover (kaphar) it with pitch inside and out [6:14] so that floodwaters will not destroy him [17]. Having done so, when the waters do come they lift up (nasa') and elevate the boat above the wicked earth, thus rescuing a remnant of persons and creatures for their continuation. Curiously, the boat's protective cover [kaphar] is different from the destructive cover [kacah] of the earth with floodwaters (and also in Exodus 15:5&10 the Egyptians), and also from the cover-up schemes that take place later in Genesis [see 9:23; 24:65; 37:26; 38:14f]. In conclusion, God reserves his wrath against people, "even though the inclination of their hearts is evil from childhood" [8:21]. The mark protecting Cain is replaced with a declaration that "each person" will be held accountable for the lives of each other person [9:5]. Life, as we know it, goes on.

Noah's Rescue, part 2 [Gen 9:18-27]:
Noah gets drunk and somehow ends up naked in his living room. Ham sees him and runs and tells his brothers. Shem and Japheth come and cover (kacah not kaphar) up his nakedness (as God had done in Eden, and later does for the priests in Ex 28:42) with their faces turned away. Noah saves some face, proceeding to curse Ham for his reaction to Noah's foolishness and to bless Shem and Japheth for theirs.

From Abram to Abraham [Gen 15-17]:
Abram is promised land and offspring despite his wife's barrenness. Believing this, Abram is credited as righteous [15]. However, he and Sarah act in disbelief by trying to conceive via their servant Hagar, and this results in nothing but trouble [16]. The child, Ishmael, is blessed, but is also promised a life of resultant hostility (which has only born true in history). It isn't until 13 years later that God's promise is fulfilled through Sarah, and here the promise is extended to make Abram into Abraham and call him the "father of many nations" [17:18]. In the process, when Abraham asks "what about Ishmael?", God implies that he will be a great nation himself but will still be blessed through this promised son, Isaac, and not vice versa [17:18-23; 21:18]. The blessing is not removed from other nations for the sake of one, but despite all this discord and disobedience, is ordered toward all nations in a certain way through this one.

Abraham Pleads for Sodom [Gen 18-19]:
A telling and important moment in all the above is when Abraham lifts up (nasa') his eyes and sees God in three persons on the road, and appeals to their good favour not to "pass your servant by" [18:3]. That they are gracious to him seems to be infectious in his own life, since before the chapter is out he will be pleading also for these divine visitors to have mercy on others as well. The three visitors decide not to cover (kacah not kaphar) up their plans with Sodom and tell Abram that the "outcry" of wickedness has reached them and they have come to check whether indeed the "outcry is so great" [18:20; 19:13]. (I think it interesting that in this infamous case of God's wrath against sin it is a response to victimization and not some supposed "self-righteousness" that motivates God's judgment here). Without being privy to the same outcry, but no doubt aware of the possibilities of evil, Abraham pleads for Sodom and asks that the whole city be spared on account of first 50, then 45, 40, 30, 20 and finally 10 righteous people who might be found there. What Abraham asks is whether God might nasa' the place if 50 righteous are found, and God promises that if 50 are found the city He will indeed nasa' (spare) them.

Thereafter the narrative takes an increasingly abbreviated form and the nasa' is implicit in the "not destroying" and "not doing it" that Abraham asks for. (Why Abraham stops at 10 we are not told and we can only assume that in God's eyes Lot's family did not exceed the requested 10). When the mob at Lot's door wishes to rape his houseguests (two of the divine persons!) and Lot offers them his daughters instead, we see that the divine visitors are quick to their conclusion: This city has not passed inspection.

Curiously, in flight from Sodom, Lot makes it clear that his version of being spared (chayah not nasa') is residence in a nearby village, and at this the divine visitors flex with his request and declare it nasa' (granted). Lot is hardly cooperative with these rescuers in this episode, showing a great slowness despite their urgings to safety, and one can only imagine him barely escaping the same fate as his wife, who is turned to salt for looking back. Whatever we might say about this whole ugly scene, we can say that the nasa' offered Lot manifests itself in a less-than legalistic and rigid but nonetheless urgent and demanding call for cooperation on the part of the divine visitors. And (as Kampen's comment on an early edition of this post made me notice), Lot is forgiven his part in Sodom's atrocities not at his own request, but Abraham's.

[to be continued]