A Creation Meditation on MLK Day

Picture1The song of creation in Genesis encompasses the sheer delight of God creating a world out of a primordial soup. In the language of the Bible, “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (1: 2). I find that immensely reassuring. Even when we do our worst in demeaning and destroying our world, it can be recreated and brought to life again.

This creation song can serve as a source of hope for our time. It’s so easy to become obsessed by our president’s latest outrageous tweet or vulgar, racist comment. Should we just ignore them like we ignore a child who seeks our attention through throwing a tantrum? We certainly should not allow such behavior to distract us from doing what we can to oppose the real harm of public policies that injure the most vulnerable among us. New life continually emerges even in situations of despair. Rather than getting too focused on the chaos and ugliness, we will want to recognize, welcome, and celebrate the new light that continually shines forth in creation.

We tend to read the Genesis creation story as an abstract statement about the creation of the world. Even worse, we read it literally and then insist that the earth was created in six days or, conversely, that it’s unscientific superstition. The fight between literalists and rationalists is most unfortunate because each side destroys the text in their effort to control it. Both misunderstand the meaning or purpose of the story.

When we immerse ourselves in the world of the text it, it gradually opens itself to us. I like to use the analogy of reading the Bible like a love letter. During the first year of our courtship, my wife Ruth and I lived in different states and wrote weekly letters to each other. I relished and read her letters several times over, carefully parsing each sentence as I got to know her better. It was the joy of discovery. When we read the Bible like that, pouring over the meaning of the text and delving into the historical background in which it was formed, a whole new world opens to us.

According to biblical scholars, the Genesis creation story was written to counter the oppressive creation stories of Israel’s neighbors. For example, the Babylonian story claimed that the powerful male warrior god Marduk slew Tiamat, the goddess of primordial chaos, and created the world out of her carcass. Babylonian kings claimed to be human embodiments of Marduk who likewise conquered, destroyed, and subjugated neighboring nations.

In contrast, in the Genesis creation story, God creates nonviolently by simple proclamation, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” After every act of creation there’s the exclamation, “And God saw that it was good.” Notice the sheer delight in the created world. It’s a theological and pastoral response to real human problems. It undergirded the hope and confidence of the Jewish people during their harrowing experience of living as exiles in Babylon.

The forces of war, abuse, and oppression are not all-powerful and will not have the last word even in the darkest periods of our lives when everything appears to indicate otherwise. We instead trust in God as our loving and nonviolent creator.  Martin Luther King Jr. King had this uncanny faith that justice and self-giving nonviolence will ultimately triumph because they are woven into the fabric of creation. During the long and often discouraging Civil Rights struggle he made the bold claim, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

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The Upside-Down-Kingdom

I’ve struggled with “king” and “kingdom” language for a long time and assume others of us do as well. Perhaps it’s because I’m an American and our country was founded in a war of independence against the tyranny of King George III of England. Democratic opposition to the tyranny of kings is part of our national political DNA.

I was a boy when Queen Elizabeth visited our country and the news media followed her entourage, breathlessly reporting everything she did. My crusty uncle Abe was not impressed. He informed me and my brothers that the queen goes to the bathroom like everyone else. His language was a tad more colorful, but I won’t repeat it verbatim.

The problem goes beyond kings and kingdoms belonging to the dustbin of history. Ancient kings and queens, who claimed to rule by divine fiat, were abusive as they accumulated power and possessions to themselves. There was lots of palace intrigue and infighting in the game of thrones. It’s not only that we today have a problem with kings and kingdoms. It was always a problem.

Yet the Gospels use “king” and “kingdom” language in reference to Jesus and his mission. In what way is Jesus king and how do we understand his announcement of the kingdom of God? If it were only a problem of updating ancient language, we might substitute the words “king” and “kingdom” for more contemporary language. Substituting “President Jesus” for “King Jesus” certainly doesn’t work.

People have been more creative in finding more contemporary language for the “kingdom of God.” A simple fix is to substitute the “reign of God.” It makes the language a bit more palatable, but it doesn’t resolve the problem.  I like and sometimes use Martin Luther King’s phrase “the beloved community” in place of “the kingdom of God.”

Another substitute that I use a lot is “God’s new world coming,” emphasizing that we see signs of it in our midst but that there’s still much more to come. Another substitution that some pastors make is the made-up word “kin-dom” in place of “kingdom.” It emphasizes that relationships among God’s people are not hierarchical—we are all kin to each other.

All such substitutions lose something in translation. To confess that Jesus is king has the added meaning of giving our allegiance to him above all other authorities. Matthew’s story of the magi following a star to give gifts to the Christ child (2: 1-12) fit for a king contains a subversive element of rejecting the claims of earthly kings and political authorities who demand our allegiance. It also opens the scope of God’s activity beyond the limits of our own nation or religious community.

“By confessing Jesus as King, Matthew reminds us what God’s divine rule looks like—and it scarcely resembles militarized police, intimidated press, or nuclear threats.”[1]  The kingdom Jesus proclaimed is an upside-down-kingdom. It’s a fellowship that lives love, grows justice, serves the least, and welcomes everyone.

[1] Greg Carey, The Christian Century newsletter@christiancentury.org via mail229.sea81.mcsv.net

Revolutionary Patience

I have a quote on the bulletin board in my church office that says, “Above all, trust is the slow work of God.” It’s a good reminder when I get anxious or impatient about events in our world. The same is true for my personal spiritual journey. I remind myself of that when I mess up, which can be depressingly consistent.

The Christian calendar is a tool that I use to help balance my spiritual life and my pastoral ministry. The weekly lectionary scripture passages related to it provide a rhythm and a challenge that keeps me grounded and on my toes.  Through this discipline, I learn to trust in the slow work of God within the turmoil of our world. These are troubled time because of the political dysfunction in our county and in our world.

During Advent we lament with the prophet Isaiah, “The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut; its transgression lies heavy upon it” (24:20). Things are not well and we long for God to come and shake us up for the better. We long for a political savior and are tempted to take matters into our own hands. Mark’s Gospel tells us to, instead, school ourselves in the revolutionary patience of God (13: 1-37).

To better understand, we need to know the historical background of Mark’s Gospel. The long-suffering Jews had finally revolted in 66 C.E. and drove the Roman armies out of Palestine but the different Jewish rebel forces were not able to consolidate power. The Roman army then regrouped and began to reconquer Palestine, eventually conquering and destroying the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 70 C.E.

Biblical scholar Ched Myers says that Mark’s Gospel provides a radical criticism of all parties in the conflict because an ideology of domination infects all of them. He’s therefore committed to nothing less than a complete unraveling the present order based on domination, resisting it with the practice of revolutionary patience rooted in God’s coming new order.[1]

We practice revolutionary patience because God’s reign (the new world coming) that Jesus announced and inaugurated is both “here” and “not yet.” We see signs of this new world in various places, but the tired old world of dominion and violence is still very much in place in our present world order of nation states, each fighting for territorial, military, and economic dominance.

As followers of Jesus, we stay alert, looking for incidents of God’s new world breaking in. During the season of Advent, we ritualize this by singing songs, lighting candles, and waiting in expectation. Mature faith accepts the enduring struggle of our historical existence. We cannot be presumptuous because faith and spiritual growth is a continuous journey. We never arrive—at least not on this side of the eschaton. We’re prone to making lots of mistakes and even falling into egregious sin.

Chet Myers writes, [Mark’s Gospel] advocates neither fatalism nor escapism, but a revolutionary commitment to the transformation of history, which always demands political vigilance and discernment.”[2] It involves experimenting with a political practice that will break, not perpetuate the reign of domination in our world.

[1] Chet Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis Press, Maryknoll, NY: 1988), 339.

[2] Ibid., 341.

I Was Hungry and a Stranger

Jesus’ account of the final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-45 challenges us on several levels. I love the message about seeing him in the faces of those who are suffering and in need. He makes it personal and up close, I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison.

The apocalyptic scene and the language about dividing the sheep from the goats is especially hard to grasp. Who are all these nations gathered around the throne of the Human One when he returns with his angels? The Greek phrase is pantes ethnê (translated “all the nations”). It’s a term indicating non-Jews or Gentiles.  Jesus certainly pushes the buttons of those who think they alone are God’s chosen people. He claims that there are many who are welcoming and caring for him even though they don’t realize it. This is mind boggling.

All the needy and powerless people in the world are representatives of Jesus. Today, we see Jesus in the faces of the many refugee children from Syria. We see Jesus when we believe the women who say they were sexually groped and molested by powerful men. Jesus’ solidarity with vulnerable people means that the nations or peoples who recognize and care for them have a relationship with Jesus.

That relationship has nothing to do with technique: believe these things about Jesus and repeat this prayer and you will be saved. Instead, it’s about encountering Jesus in real, caring relationships with those who are insignificant, vulnerable, and hurting. Could it be that many people from other faiths or no faith actually know Jesus better than those of us who easily name his name and claim to be his followers? That’s what he’s telling us.

Jesus’ pronouncement about eternal life and eternal punishment indicates far-reaching consequences, but we should not kick the can down the road to some far-off eternity. How we treat the least of these, our sisters and brothers has pivotal consequences for us and our country right now. For instance, consider the bitter legacy of slavery and how native Americans have been treated in our country. It created a hell that keeps following us. It’s judgment day in America based on how we treat the hungry, recent immigrants, people without adequate healthcare, and those in our overfilled prisons.

What does inheriting the kingdom—God’s new world coming—look like for us. Bringing these vivid images down to where we are, we can say that it looks an awful lot like, “living love, growing justice, and welcoming everyone.” And the opposite is—well just that—the opposite.

Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart

planting seeds

 

Thanksgiving days here and around the world are a celebration of the bounty of the earth. The foundation of the world rests on the giving nature of God. Our creator God has blessed us with good things—fertile soil, sun, rain, and loving relationships. In the words of the creation hymn, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.”

Furthermore, the Bible tells us that God gives us wisdom and hope; God gives peace; God gives strength; and God comforts those who mourn. Paul’s letters have a pattern of beginning with a greeting followed by thanksgiving. He encourages the Thessalonian Christians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (5: 16-18).

Ungratefulness is at the root of so many of our social evils while gratefulness opens our hearts and imaginations. Our capitalist market system makes virtues out of selfishness and consumption and this the source so many of our social problems. Learned dissatisfaction is a socially engineered engine that drives our economy.

During World War II American corporations has scaled up production and grown rich producing war materials. The increased production had helped the American economy get out of the Great Depression. To keep the factories running after the war we needed increased consumption at home and expanded markets abroad. Secretary of State Dean Acheson insisted, “We need markets—big markets—around the world in which to buy and sell.”[1] That meant shifting our America economy from providing needs to filling desires. We must be trained to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, in their book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, write:

It is a culture driven by a perpetual dissatisfaction machine that inundates us with the message that our lives won’t be complete unless we have the shiniest toy, the latest gadget, the most exclusive memberships, a younger wife, smoother skin, bouncier hair, the right brands, a nicer car and a bigger house. We’re surrounded by advertising and other media that tells us from an early age that it is possible to buy happiness . . . at least until the next must-have item comes around. [2]

Such dissatisfaction leads to distrust, broken relationships, ruthless competition, and war. It amplifies our stark social and political divides. It’s connected to subtle social forces like hypermobility that undermine our neighborhoods and churches. It contributes to the kind of church shopping where we’re continually looking for the latest worship experience or hip church that meets our desires.

Being grateful breaks this vicious cycle of dissatisfaction. Canadian theologian Mary Jo Leddy says that the “choice to affirm that there is enough for all is the beginning of social community, peace, and justice.” It frees our imaginations to think of new possibilities. We can start over “in the recognition of what we have rather than in the awareness of who we aren’t.”[3]

[1] William Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 71.

[2] Smith and Pattison, Slow Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 180.

[3] Ibid., 182.

 

Jesus and Empire: Victory Over the Powers

Following World War II, European church leaders struggled with how their churches had been swept along in the war fever that engulfed the world. German Christians were especially mortified by the way their churches had enthusiastically supported the Nazis. A few German church leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer had resisted but most had bought into Nazi propaganda. This was shaped by a long history of combining church and state. Furthermore, their fierce opposition to communism had blinded them to the evils of Nazism.

Now they were being asked to take sides in the emerging Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers that had emerged from the devastation of World War II. Both adversaries quickly developed nuclear weapons with the potential of destroying the whole world. At a church gathering in divided Germany, Dutch theologian Hendrik Berkhof, gave a talk where he related the New Testament language of “principalities and powers” to the ideologies and power structures in our world. He made the claim that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, had broken the stranglehold that these powers have on our lives.

The common way of understanding these Powers had been as ethereal, other-worldly entities such as demons. What this fails to recognize is the relationship between the Powers and this-worldly tangible manifestations of them. The Powers become visible as the Roman Empire and people like Caiaphas and Pilate who had Jesus executed for blasphemy and treason.

As followers of Jesus, we need to connect the dots between these Powers and how they impact our lives. Biblical scholar Walter Wink has done extensive work on this. Drawing on the Apostle Paul’s claim that our struggle “is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12), Wink translates it into our time and situation,

as contending against the spirituality of institutions, against the ideologies and metaphors and legitimations that prop them up, against the greed and covetousness that give them life, against the individual egocentricities that the Powers so easily hook, against the ideology that pits short-term gain against the long-term good of the whole.1

It’s not that the Powers are intrinsically evil. Rather, they are at once both good and evil, though to varying degrees. They’re part of God’s good creation with a mandate to serve humanity and all creation. A Power becomes a force for evil when it usurps that God-given role and instead becomes a self-serving system of Domination. People crave the certainty and security that such Powers promise. Berkhof describes what happened in Germany:

When Hitler took the helm of Germany in 1933, the Powers of Volk, race, and state took a new grip on [people]. Thousands were grateful, after the confusion of the preceding years, to find their lives again protected from chaos, order and security restored. No one could withhold himself [or herself] without utmost effort, from the grasp these Powers had on [their] inner and outer lives.2

We now see a resurgence of these same Powers of Domination through various forms of nationalism and xenophobia. The Christian message is that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, exposed the Powers as imposters and thereby triumphed over them. The good news is that through the cross we are reconciled to God. This is more than redemption from our personal sin and guilt; it includes our liberation from slavery to the Powers.

1 Walter Wink, Naming the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 140.

2 Hendrick Berkhof, Christ and the Powers (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 32.

Jesus’ Third Way (continued)

We generally think Jesus is telling us to passively accept violence and insult when he tells us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5: 38-41). He’s instead giving us some imaginative examples of how to stand up for ourselves. The Greek word translated “resist” in Jesus’ teaching is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti). This is a technical term for warfare, describing two armies marching toward each other and, when they meet, standing against each other in hand-to-hand combat. According to New Testament scholar Walter Wink:

Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way. One that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.1

A better translation is, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil but, instead, turn the other cheek.” This requires explanation. We imagine someone making a fist and punching me in the face but that’s incorrect. In the ancient world, the left hand was used for unclean tasks. Therefore, the hitter would be striking with his or her right hand. Right hand, right cheek—the only possible way is with a backhand. By turning the other cheek, you make it impossible for that person to backhand you again. He could make a fist and punch you but that would make you his equal. Walter Wink explains:

The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.2

Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence takes place in a court setting where a creditor sues a poor man, demanding everything including his cloak or outer garment. This is sheer humiliation. Jesus is telling the poor debtor to show how unjust the system is by stripping of his undergarment as well and standing naked before his creditor. The shame of nakedness in Judaism fell less on the naked person than on the person seeing or causing nakedness.

The third example is of a Roman soldier compelling a Palestinian to carry his pack for one mile, a common, hated occurrence that created lots of resentment. Wouldn’t agreeing to go a second mile simply be aiding and abetting your oppressor? Not necessarily. A soldier who forced a civilian to carry his pack for more than one mile was breaking military code. We can imagine our civilian carrying the soldier’s pack, chatting with him, and then when they arrive at the mile marker, cheerfully keep on walking and say, “Hey, you look tired; let me carry it another mile.” What’s going on here? Is he insulting the soldier’s strength? Will he report the soldier to his commanding officer and get him in disciplined for violating the military code? From a situation of being forced into labor, he has now taken back the initiative.

In all three examples, Jesus is demonstrating how to stand up for ourselves without resorting to counter-violence, which would play into the hand of our oppressor. A third way between passively submitting or violently fighting back is taking a creative, nonviolent transforming initiative. Instead of responding on our oppressor’s terms, we’re making him or her respond to us on different terms.

[i] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Galilee, 1998), 100-101.

[ii] Ibid., 101.