Jesus First

Posted: September 7, 2017 in Culture and Faith, Things of Faith

daca-rt-jpo-170901_12x5_992As I was perusing my Facebook feed this morning, I came across the following quote from a former colleague and friend:

 “In this time of DACA and immigration, a personal testimony: in a previous appointment I came to know a few illegal male Mexican immigrants who had come to the area seeking work to send money back to their families. They had come to the U.S. seeking to provide for their families. As a husband and a father I understood that. Did I turn them in? Nope. Why?
Because… I am not an American first. I am a Christian first, and from my study of the Gospels over the years, I could not imagine Jesus turning in anyone for the high crime of trying whatever they could to send money back to their families so they can eat. I will not suggest how following Jesus should be an instrument of foreign policy, since the American empire is essentially pagan; but as a follower of Jesus, I will follow Jesus. If I wore a ball cap it would say, “Jesus First.”… and that would mean Jesus is first and foremost for everyone.” (Alan R. Bevere)

To say that this past week has been troubling would be a severe understatement. When I returned to pastoral ministry 15 months ago I published a blog post that talked about the personal nature of this topic. In this country we too often politicize social issues to such an extent that the human factor is removed. Moreover, topics such as “immigration” is framed within a rhetoric of fear in such a way that the subjects concerned are marginalized to the “extreme other.”

What struck me about Alan’s post was that it consisted of the most basic common sense perspective of one claiming a Christian faith. The unfortunate reality for most self-proclaimed Christians in the US is that their faith has been so syncretized with the national religion that it is nearly impossible to separate faith and nationalism. What Alan is getting at is the necessary re-contextualization of North American Christianity in contrast to “powers and principalities,” and in this case the empire.

Any institution that propagates violence and coercion for the benefit of an institutional state can be considered a power or principality. One that has overwhelming power and influence over and against other such states through the framing of a metanarrative which exceptionalizes said state can be considered an empire. It is when we come to the understanding that Christians have always lived within this type of context that they can begin seeing themselves in contrast to it. Regrettably many Christians in the US perceive themselves in such a way that merges their faith identity with their geo-political identity.

This, I believe, is why so many self-proclaimed Christians so easily support a national policy that treats undocumented people in a way that contradicts God’s mandate. Nationalism is so strong that one’s identity is primarily articulated as national identity. Thus, a person’s faith identity is secondary and subordinate to one’s national identity often being tainted in such a way as to cease resembling any connection to Jesus’ teachings.

My Christian faith requires that I identify primarily as a “Jesus follower.” The implications of this is that I am ever bound by his life, teachings, death and resurrection. What this means is that I will always identify with the “other” as I am required to lovingly serve them. Faith in Jesus ultimately means standing in contrast to any such “power or principality” that sets out to exclude, marginalize, evict, or unjustly treat any human being. Like Alan, if I were to wear a hat it would say, “Jesus First,” not out of a desire to push a national policy, but as a reminder and proclamation of my allegiance. This requires one response and that is to love the other regardless of what the law of the land is.

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lightning_hits_treeIt was a sunny day with fluffy white clouds and a small warm breeze. Not long before I had gotten out of the pool, dried off and sat down to catch up on some news. Years ago I would have had a newspaper sitting beside my chair. Today I simply pick up my iPhone and open a news source app. Well yesterday was one of those days. I had been trying to keep up with the news in Palestine and Virginia. I had heard of violent clashes in Ramallah and had been praying for the people there. I had also heard about the protests and counter-protests in Virginia. I was looking for updates.

Sometimes when you have an agenda things don’t go the way you’d hope. No sooner had I started looking at the news and scrolling through the twitter lines a thunderstorm blew in and with a loud crack we lost our internet and satellite television. It was about that time twitter lit up with reports of a car driven into a crowd in Virginia. Images started to come online of the violent scene. Images of an angry crowd. Armed militia dressed in military fatigues and carrying riot shields marching down the street. It was deeply saddening.

With the ever increasing political divide in this country, last Fall I had decided to enter a season of prayer and silence (attempting to use less words). I did not want to contribute to a culture that was so deeply divided that hate was imminent. I have been determined to step away from the sphere of national politics and intentionally work at being a Jesus follower. I am convinced that when my life is most fully rooted in the narrative of the one who laid down his life as an indiscriminate outpouring of love that my responses tend to be more reflective of that.

As I was trying to hear and read what was going on, one lightning strike cut me off fromhttps3a2f2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com2fuploads2fcard2fimage2f5623942f3d0a6db5-d0e6-4bff-a60d-3c9aa5693517 the streams of news that was already shaping my opinions. The most immediate response was to pray, “God have mercy!” With the little information I was able to read and the twitter responses I caught and heard reported about politicians, it was clear that this was more than another reflection of political divide. These are the symptoms of a disease that goes much deeper. What we are witnessing is the underbelly of a system that has taken centuries to build and vast fortunes to defend. It is a metastasized cancer on this continent. It is a demonic movement of hate and violence. It sets out to destroy discriminately dividing God’s creation (quite the opposite of Christ’s love).

There is undoubtedly racism that veins through this cancerous culture. Yet the insanity of the violence and hatred that it births transcends racism. In the midst of reading about the events unfolding, I found myself caught up with feelings of anger so deep it was moving me toward hate. This is a cancer that threatens to kill all that is good. It is darkness that sets out to extinguish the light. It is in this context that the followers of Jesus must be present. timthumb-php_

I am well beyond my limits for tolerating voices either denying racism or minimizing its effects. It is especially conspicuous for descendants of northern European peoples who have never experienced the ongoing traumatic effects of chattel slavery (nor the traumatic effects of the holocaust) and systemic white supremacism to make such claims. What has become most disturbing for me is to see people I care about making these comments on social media exposing their lack of self and social reflection. Many of those same folks claim to be Jesus followers, all the while side stepping the truth of complicity. I am convinced that the North American Christian community is incapable of speaking any word regarding racism so long as it refuses to repent (i.e. admit its complicity and inability to fix it). As a middle-aged white man who has been raised with all the privileges afforded that standing, I am thoroughly ashamed of my own voluntary and involuntary complicity to this mess. I am keenly aware that the color of my skin and my gender have afforded me certain privileges. By accepting those privileges I quotevoluntarily participated in the cultural system designed to keep certain people groups in their place. I am also involuntarily complicit as I have no control over my gender or family lineage and yet regardless of the circumstances I have been nonetheless complicit. I suppose the anger I feel finds its roots in this shame. My first instinctual response is to deny or downplay my complicity. My second instinctual response is to point my finger at everyone else. In this way it takes the attention off my own complicity. The one response that is not instinctual is to simply admit it and then turn away from it. This is where I have found peace. Not a passive peace but one that calls me to those places where Jesus would go outside the camp to stand with those who are suffering. The only path that the white church in North America can take is that of repentance. There will be no peace among Christians without it.

My earnest prayer is that the Holy Spirit will open our eyes to our corporate sin and bring us to our knees in repentance. May it be so in the name of Jesus.

 

 

513jbdwgepl-_ac_us218_In part one of my reflection I highlighted the core of Boyd’s argument being grounded in his notion of divine revelation being supremely accomplished in the life and particularly the death of Jesus of Nazareth. However, while this might serve as one side of the triangle of his argument, the other two sides are equally as significant. In addition to articulating the crucified Christ as the ultimate revelation of God to human beings, Boyd argues that the key to reading the scriptural passages which portray Yahweh as not only condoning violence but carrying it out, is to read it in light of divine accommodation and redemptive withdrawal.

I remember sitting in a missiology class when I was in seminary (more years ago than I’d like to admit). The professor, who had served on the mission field for many years previous to teaching, told stories of how missionaries addressed particularly difficult situations with indigenous tribal peoples and how they often had to accommodate specific lifestyles (such as polygamy) to effectively introduce the gospel to the community without destroying families and creating a tragic social reality. When Boyd argues for divine accommodation he is clearly arguing that God accommodates the Israelites by allowing his reputation to be sullied by violent characterizations. God essentially bears the sins of this people with whom God has chosen to be in covenant relationship. It is God’s determination to remain faithful to the covenant in spite of Israel’s violence. Boyd makes his argument by demonstrating the how scripture contains dual narratives: one of which characterizes God according to ancient near east depictions of divine beings and the other contrastingly depicting Yahweh in opposition to violence. It is in the non-violent narrative that Boyd finds glimmers of the God who is revealed on the cross. To get there Boyd addresses numerous theological issues that arise if the reader holds to a classical theological understanding of God. Contrary to this view Boyd argues for an understanding of God developed from scripture. To do this he offers critiques of Augustinian and Thomistic theology. It is at this point in his argument that the open theism which has been formative to his own theology begins to come through. Regardless of where one stands in regards to open theism, the argument is well made and sufficiently supported.

rubens_onschuldigen_grtThe third branch of his argument is fundamentally a nuanced re-articulation of divine judgment in the nonviolent response of divine withdrawal. Building off theological/biblical scholars such as N.T. Wright, etc., Boyd argues that God withdraws his protective presence in response to sin. Boyd characterizes this creatively as “divine Aikido.” This is the notion of allowing the power of sin to move destructively upon itself. What this means is that by means of withdrawing God allows for the consequences of such actions to happen upon the subject or state. Boyd points out the many times where scripture refers to God’s judgment being accomplished through a foreign state conquering Israel because of their failure to maintain the covenant relationship. It is in God’s non-action that Israel suffers the consequences of their failure to trust in God’s protective presence.

This is obviously a brief and inadequate explanation of his extensive and multi-nuanced argument. Admittedly, I am quite naturally drawn to Boyd’s arguments. In spite of his seemingly comprehensive argument and an uncanny anticipation for counter arguments, but what surprised me was his engagement with extra-canonical material to develop and support his thesis. I found his use of these texts refreshing. Too often the Anabaptist tradition ignores these texts. While they are not unanimously counted as canon, these texts played key roles in the formative development of apostolic theology beginning with the apostle Paul.

If I were to guess, while Boyd’s argument is clearly targeted toward the North American Evangelical movement (specifically the more conservative sectors of this movement), those who most appreciate his argument are the ones who have been waiting to be convinced or have been waiting for something like this to be written. The point to this is that Boyd has not been alone in his endless defense of the nonviolent/non-coercive image of God. Many sharing his theological tradition have been making similar arguments for centuries. It just happens that Greg Boyd formulated a cohesive and near comprehensive argument in an intelligible way. While I’m certain that there are gaps, as I am convinced that Origen has much more to contribute toward this, I am equally convinced that Boyd’s work has been long awaited (even though no one knew who would be crazy enough to take on such a monumental task).

About two-thirds (469) through the first volume Boyd quotes Hays regarding the gospel call for us to a “conversion of the imagination.” In my mind this was a huge topic that needed to be further explored. Having recently read through Kreider’s work, The Patient Ferment, I couldn’t help but think that if a person is being formed through the practice of loving service as an entrance into theological formation the formative effects would result with the conversion of the disciple’s imagination. What I find to be the single greatest weakness of this thesis is the absence of how practice contributes to the formation of the disciple, particularly the hermeneutical perspective (people like Alasdair McIntyre have much to say on this). 1588_3121_belmontfootwashingw-461x388Particularly in light of such work as Kreider’s, the church must take seriously the affective power practice plays in the conversion process. Modern Western theology often assumes conversion is a one-time event consisting of a changed mind. In fact Reformed theologians such as Stanley Grenz separate soteriology into different works of the Spirit, conversion being but one among several. More recent works, particularly with the influence of Pietism, have emphasized the process of salvation often times merging the categories of conversion & sanctification together. This is referred to as spiritual formation. In his little work, Shaped by the Word, M. Robert Mulholland argues that spiritual formation is “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others” (25). You might ask, “How is this relevant to the conversation?” I am convinced that the “cruciform hermeneutic” Boyd argues for has less to do with intellectual reasoning than it does to do with formative processes. If, as James K.A. Smith has argued (Desiring the Kingdom, and Imagining the Kingdom), that we are what we love and that our hearts are shaped by practices (not just liturgies as Smith argues), then how we perceive and interpret our surrounding reality (let alone scripture) is fundamentally affected by our practices. In other words if we spend considerable time feeding the hungry and tending the sick, our hearts (desires, aka Love) will begin being shaped and directed toward those people with whom Jesus identifies. I suppose that I could argue that the cruciform hermeneutic is something that must be lived into before our minds ever really get it. It is here that I think Boyd’s argument could have been strengthened. Who knows maybe this two-volume work will develop into such a conversation.

As a qualifier, let me say that I have only read two of Boyd’s works. One I used as a reader text in a theology class (Across the Spectrum) I taught at Ashland Theological Seminary and the513jbdwgepl-_ac_us218_ other was for personal interest (Myth of a Christian Nation). While I have heard him lecture (at Messiah College), I have never personally met him. With this being said, over the next several weeks I will be reviewing and interacting with his newest two volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God. This work is primarily billed as an argument for a particular way of reading those Old Testament passages which attribute violence (sometimes horrifically) to God. Having nearly completed this work, I think it is far more than merely a hermeneutic. Don’t get me wrong, in it Boyd forms a strong (if not convincing) argument for a particular way of reading those passages. However, it should be more accurately labeled a theological work in that it presents a “cruciform theology.”

 

Recently I was perusing facebook when I noticed that a colleague’s page had blown up with passionate conversation (I say euphemistically) surrounding this work. What I find remarkable is the heightened emotional responses this text has instigated. Frankly, I found it not all that controversial. In fact I found it to express many of the same convictions other theologians have already pointed to. Before I get into the meat of my reflection, let me say that what Boyd offers in this book is a theological argument posed in a way that only a pastor/theologian could make. His argument is clear, well documented, and containing pertinent arguments regarding questions pastors find themselves facing in the real world. In this sense it was a refreshing read.

Anyone who knows me or has read anything on my blog knows that I am solidly grounded within the Anabaptist/Pietist tradition. So I will not pretend to present an unbiased review. I will try to be fair and critical of this work not simply for the sake of745a927ccea3b3eb8b1221d65f9a913c being critical but because I am convinced that this subject is of essential value for the Christian faith. I have had many a conversation about my belief in the nonviolent God. On too many occasions I have had to face the anecdotal question of what I would do if someone broke into my house and threatened my family (if they knew me they would also know that Laura, my wife, and I actually lived through that hell). Any Anabaptist person who has engaged in conversation regarding her/his convictions regarding nonviolence and peace have had to wrestle with the question about what the Old Testament says about God and violence. Boyd sets out to not merely present a hermeneutical strategy for reading, but a theological basis to form such a strategy.

At the heart of the first volume is his fundamental argument, upon which everything else rests, that Jesus the Christ and him crucified is the quintessential revelation of God. While on the surface every Christian theologian would concur. Where the paths divide is how this simple statement is understood and what it implies. For Boyd this means that nowhere recorded in scripture or time is God more fully revealed than in the event of Jesus crucified. The implications are especially significant when following the early fathers’ practice of reading backward. What this means is that every interpretation of divine revelation antecedent of the incarnation and crucifixion event must be interpreted in light of the divine revelation which occurred at the cross. What opponents to this argument will say is that it places a hierarchy within the canon and in a sense creating a canon within a canon. And along their line of argumentation they are completely correct. In that sense there is some sense of canonical hierarchy. However, Boyd does not conform to that line of argumentation. Essentially he holds firm to the conviction of all scripture being “God breathed” and that it all points to God revealed on the cross. It is the task of the interpreter to discover how those texts point to God revealed on the cross.

What is essential to understand here is that for Boyd, the writers of scripture, while inspired by the Spirit of God, they reflect the same sinfulness and brokenness that all humanity shares. It is curious how over time we have so mythologized scripture that we have sought to sanitize it from reflecting the sinfulness of the authors as characterized in scripture. This perspective of the writers, which is skewed by sinfulness, serves as the veil through which the divine revelation of the nonviolent God is spoken.

I found Boyd’s argument lucid and persuasive particularly as he built his argument with the support of early church fathers from within the first four centuries of Christianity. However, I also wish he would have more fully engaged Origen’s argument for allegorical readings. It felt like Boyd too easily brushed aside Origen’s argument because they don’t align with the modern sensibilities of readers. While I have only scraped the surface of this work, his argument regarding revelation will certainly instigate conversations surrounding this topic with renewed vigor.