Advent: When No One Believes

Posted: December 21, 2017 in Hermeneutics

DSC_1057 (2)About 5 years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land. I’ll never forget traveling from Nazareth down through the Jordan valley to Bethlehem. The contrasting images and landscapes were striking. Our guide explained that the route we took was most likely the same route Joseph and Mary took two millennia before. At the time I was caught up with the sights and the enormous amount of information we were given regarding the geo-political realities of this holy land and broken people. As we came out of the desert into the mountains, approaching Bethlehem that the massive separating walls came into view.

As we approached the infamous checkpoint, our guide shared stories of the oppressive realities for the indigenous people of Bethlehem, Palestine. A mere 5 miles from Jerusalem and yet Bethlehemites must receive permission from the Israeli government to cross the checkpoint to travel that short distance. Families are often separated and many times unable to see each other for extended periods because the Israeli government rejects their travel requests. This does not even take into consideration the indignities they experience at the checkpoints.

o-banksy-west-bank-facebookAs I witnessed this for the first time, I experienced feelings of anger for the treatment these people suffered. It was just a couple of weeks from Christmas and I couldn’t help but reflect upon the similarities of the story of Joseph and Mary’s journey down through the Jordan valley and up through the mountains to Bethlehem. Their journey was a required trip. It was a form of an occupying force seeking to control the movements of the indigenous people. While Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph were residents of Nazareth in the Galilee region. To say it was an inconvenience to make the trip is an understatement. If they were to make that trip today, they more than likely wouldn’t be allowed to enter Bethlehem (without divine intervention).

After five years (and two more trips) of reflection I have come to the understanding that the wall, whether physical or otherwise, that separate the people and control their movement are exactly the sorts of things that Jesus came to tear down. What is especially disturbing to me is that when I have shared some of these stories and reflections with fellow Christians in the US, people often respond with disbelief and erroneous questions of “prophesy.” I have even, on occasion, been told by well-meaning people that there are no indigenous people in Palestine.

racist_plasma-1These experiences speak to issues of identity for a people who have to fight to tell their stories to a world that often does not believe them. Yet these experiences are not isolated to Palestine/Israel. In North America, systemic racism continues to divide and oppress people going unchallenged as multitudes of privileged people reject its existence. I attended a college (in the mid 1990’s) in the south where students of color were told not to go out alone at night. These harsh realities exist whether some want to believe them or not.

old20salaam20logoWe are in the heart of the Advent season, rapidly approaching the Christmas celebration. The great irony is that the story we tell and retell during Advent is the story and life of all who find themselves in this dark struggle to live free. Much has changed over the millennia, but some basic realities remain the same. The world is still a dark place where hatred and sin seem to reign. I read the prophets and hear the hope-filled messages of light and salvation promised to a world bent on self-destruction. I see in the gospels, God fulfilling his promise freeing creation from the power of sin. Some two thousand years later and we are waiting once again for Jesus’ coming. Like those before us, we prepare our hearts and lives to meet our Lord. We hopefully wait for Jesus to establish God’s rule completely. This will mean that all walls will be torn down. The rulers will be made low and the immigrant lifted up. Those who are hungry will be filled and the rich will be sent away empty. Children will play in parks filled with trees without threat of violence. Young people will celebrate life with dancing. The old will sing songs of joy. Languages will no longer have a word for war or violence. This is the Advent hope. The power of sin being shattered means that all violence and oppression will cease. What I have come to see is that sin is all that sets out to destroy the creative processes of God. Advent is the waiting for and the dawning of a universal shalom in which the promise for life without death is realized.

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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.

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.