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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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.

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.

Jesus and Empire: The Third Way

The United States is our world’s dominant political, military, and economic power. In many ways, America is the new Roman Empire, only bigger and more powerful. What would Jesus do? It’s complicated. America is both like and unlike the ancient Roman Empire. Still, the way we use our military and economic clout to put “America first” is similar enough to ancient Rome to give us pause.

We need to maintain a healthy tension between our Christian faith and our American citizenship. Drew Hart, the author of the book Trouble I’ve Seen, is blunt. He says that too many Christians don’t think it’s necessary to immerse ourselves in the gospel stories as long as we call on the name of Jesus. That’s why we’re not concerned that the Jesus we follow sometimes bears more similarity to Uncle Sam or ourselves than to our crucified Messiah.1

New testament scholars identify two broad aspects to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. One is God’s judgment on oppressive rulers who exploit vulnerable people. The other is announcing the beginning of a grassroots renewal movement in Palestine. This is what Jesus was doing when he called his disciples and traveled from town to town in his healing and teaching ministry. The gospel story is that God identifies with the dispossessed. Drew Hart writes:

This is the precise way God chose to reveal God’s self to the world, demonstrating a deep identification with the majority of the world who struggle with dehumanizing poverty and oppression under dominating forces. Jesus’ birth in the manger was a visible protest against the powers of this world that denigrate the dispossessed.2

This is hard stuff because, like Jesus’ first disciples, our penchant is to identify with the rich and powerful. When the disciples argued about who would be greatest, Jesus turned the tables on them. The kind of servant leadership he insists on is in juxtaposition to the top-down, authoritarian leadership of rulers in the pyramidical, patronage system of the Roman Empire:

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (Luke 22:25-26).

Likewise, the community of disciples should not become caught up in the violence of the empire or the counter-violence of the Zealot resistance fighters. Jesus counsels a “third way” with his often-misunderstood teaching on turning the other cheek. We often take it to mean being passive or cowardly in response to violence. That’s wrong! It does not mean allowing powerful people, especially powerful men, to take advantage of us. Instead, Jesus is teaching us how to stand up for ourselves. It’s learning how to resist, but without violence. We can think of it as engaging in transforming initiatives. (I’ll explain that in my next blog post.)

1 Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016), 59.

2 Ibid., 62.

Jesus and Empire: Proclaiming Good News

Jesus’ lifetime was one of the lowest points in Jewish history. Palestine had suffered centuries of foreign occupation and was now a colony of Imperial Rome. While the Roman Empire maintained garrisons of troops in resistive territories, their preferred system of rule was through local client rulers like King Herod or Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest.

Any resistance to Roman rule was met with terror and vengeance. They annihilated towns and villages that dared resist, believing that failure to do so would be a sign of weakness. Anyone who fought against them was labeled a common bandit or thief and their favorite form of execution was crucifixion, which combined cruel terror and humiliation.

Roman rule in Palestine was economically devastating for the common people. They had to pay taxes to the Romans (for example, Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to pay their taxes). They also had to pay taxes to King Herod and to the Temple in Jerusalem.  As a result, many small landholders were pushed off their lands, which were taken over by absentee landlords. Consider all the stories in the gospels about paying taxes, absentee landlords, day laborers, poor widows, and beggars.

The politics of different Jewish groups during Jesus’ lifetime was centered on their response to the Roman occupation of their land. Jewish elites, especially the Sadducees and the High Priests who were in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem, preferred to collaborate with the Romans with the provision that they could continue their own religious practices.

The opposite political response was to actively resist Roman occupation. It could take more passive forms such as tax resistance but included open rebellion. There were active resistance groups during Jesus’ lifetime known as the Zealots (those zealous for God). Biblical scholars debate how close Jesus was to the Zealots. Several of his disciples were known to be Zealots (Luke 6:16). Furthermore, Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God” echoes Zealot claims that God (not Caesar) is their king.

Yet another response was more separatist. The Pharisees focused on following Jewish purity laws on eating, tithing, keeping the Sabbath, and not associating with known sinners or Gentiles. Jesus argued with them about such things. A group known as the Essenes withdrew into the desert and started separatist religious communes there.

The politics of Jesus thoroughly scrambled these political choices. He certainly didn’t collaborate with the Romans. While he may have been sympatric to some of the agenda of the Zealots, unlike them, he did not espouse violence and he even associated with people like tax-collectors who they considered to be their enemies.  He, instead, initiated a grassroots social revolution or upside-down-kingdom. According to biblical scholar N. T. Wright, this social revolution had wider political ramifications:

Anyone announcing the kingdom of [God] was engaging in serious political action. Anyone announcing the kingdom but explicitly opposing armed resistance was engaged in doubly serious political action: not only the occupying [Roman] forces, but all those who gave allegiance to the [Zealot] resistance movement, would be enraged.1

Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist in the desert preaching repentance. What drew him out there? Because, for a first century Jew, this is where you would expect a new start to take place. John was reenacting the story of how God rescued the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, led them through the Red Sea and formed them into a new people in the desert. John’s baptism was a sign was a sign of being part of the renewed people of God.

Jesus’ baptism by John was his initiation into this renewal movement. At his baptism, Jesus’ receives an epiphany of being God’s beloved Son and then is immediately after driven into the wilderness (Mark 1: 9-13).  What’s that all about? Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness symbolizes Israel’s forty years of being tested in the desert or wilderness. More than that, “the new creation begins with a renunciation of the old order.” Satan is identified as the ruler of our present world order and the wild beasts, in biblical language, symbolize the different empires in the ancient world (Daniel 7: 3,7).

The story line in Mark’s Gospel moves fast. After Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation to launch his ministry through the power of “empire,” John is arrested, foreshadowing the opposition that Jesus will also face from worldly powers. He then returns to Galilee proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”

Fulfilled time is Kairos time—God’s time. Jesus announces that the reign of God, the beloved community, the new world coming, has come near and is already in our midst. The Roman Empire and her client rulers like King Herod are rightly alarmed. The message is that we can take the baptism plunge, be liberated, and become a renewed people.

Let’s back up to the very first verse in Mark’s Gospel, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The words “in the beginning” echo the first words of Genesis where God creates the world—this is indeed a new beginning. The word euangelion (good news) is the announcement of the enthronement of a new emperor or of a victory by the emperor’s armies. Biblical scholar Ched Myers writes, “Mark is taking dead aim at Caesar and his legitimating myths . . . The “good news” of Mark does not herald yet another victory by Rome’s armies; it is a declaration of war upon the political culture of the empire.”2

What does this mean for us as followers of Jesus in America? How is Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God good news in our time? What does the liberating reign of God look like in our world? How is this resisted by the powers of our day and how do they tempt us cave in and do things their way. Finally, how do we proclaim this “euangelion,” “gospel,” good news” to our neighbors? We’ll explore these questions further in following blog posts.

1 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 296.

2 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 124

Remembering a Committed Peacemaker

I was dismayed when I read a New York Times news report last week that the bodies of two UN researchers were found in a shallow grave in the eastern Congo. I remember one of them, Michael Sharp, as a passionate, fun-loving, and gifted student in a class on Global Peace and Justice that I had taught at Eastern Mennonite University. He loved studying and debating various peace and justice topics.

Michael first worked in eastern Congo with Mennonite Central Committee and then began to serve with the UN peacekeeping mission there. Those who worked with him said that “he was a very hard-nosed truth seeker and would go the extra mile to nail down the evidence.” They also said that “he had tremendous empathy, even for some of the nastiest people he worked with.”

Colleagues described Michael as a professional with extensive experience in tough places. He had worked in the Congo for five years and had developed an extensive relational network with rebel commanders and local leaders, most of whom he had met in church. One colleague said that he had told her: “Rebels go to church. You build a relationship with them there.”

His father John says that Michael’s work had been rooted in his faith. “From early on he caught a passion for peacemaking and peace-building in the world.” He believed that peacebuilders should be willing to take the same risks as military people take.  Now we mourn the deaths of Michael, his UN colleague, and their translator, three gifted peacemakers. Three other Congolese nationals who were traveling with them are still missing. We remember and pray for the friends and family of all these people.

This is incredibly sad. The lives of two young peacebuilders were cruelly snuffed out. Even sadder is the sheer magnitude of the pain and suffering in eastern Congo. The UN estimates that currently there are at least 2.7 million internally displaced people in the Congo and approximately 450,000 refugees in other nations. Estimates vary widely but the death toll may have reached more than four million people since the conflict began following the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994.

The hopeful part is remembering Michael Sharp, such a remarkable young man with a passion for creating a more peaceful world in a region that has known so much death and suffering. He knew the risks he was taking and recently told his mother that he wasn’t afraid to die. His life was so full of purpose, joy, and compassion. He lived more in his thirty-four years than most of us do in a much longer lifetime. That’s why I placed the picture of him having fun with children in the Congo on our communion table last Sunday.