Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (21) Exodus today?

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post, we continue looking at The Passover and the Exodus and the cross as a dramatic act of deliverance by God.

We stay with the question of what does it look like today for God’s people to live in the power of his great Exodus deliverance at the cross of his Son, Jesus Christ?

… the passing of Jesus through death into life unfolds the eschatological significance of the passage of the Israelites from bondage into freedom. (227)

Political Implications of Exodus Today

In the final section of this chapter Rutledge looks at the universal political implications of Passover / Exodus.

Much space is given to the American Civil Rights Movement and the deep Exodus themes within the experience of the African American community in light of the great sin of slavery by white Empires.

Exodus of old becomes Exodus of the present.

Preaching, worship, church gatherings, the ideal of non-violence, leadership by ordained ministers like Martin Luther King – the Civil Rights movement was shaped profoundly by Christian theology, symbolism and history.

Rutledge quotes Paul L. Lehmann, from his book The Transfiguration of Politics;

Reading the ‘Dream Speech’ now is to relive the day of its utterance for all who heart it on the Washington Mall or through the media. And in so doing one can affirm again Mrs King’s Report that “it seemed to all of us there that his words flowed from some higher place, through Martin, to the weary people before him. Yes – heaven itself opened up and we all seemed transformed.” “Transfigured” is perhaps the truer word. And this, not only because another Exodus was in the making, but also because a moment of truth had broken in from which there could be no turning back. Moses and Elijah were in the wings, Righteousness and resurrection were on the move. And there was yet great suffering to be endured. (230, Lehmann, 182-83)

Rutledge sees this as an example of a ‘new Exodus’ – an event where God is already at work and

‘who gives his Word from a higher place to his weary people’ (230)

The power of the Exodus story, says Rutledge,

‘continues to hold out the promise of life around the world over the centuries as people who have been oppressed cling to the promise that God is acting among them.’ (231)

‘Political Transformation’ verses ‘Holy Distinctness’?

What do you think of Rutledge’s hermeneutic?

Is it legitimate to universalise the Exodus this way?

How we answer that question will, to a large degree be shaped by our prior theological assumptions.

Rutledge (in my view) seems to be coming from a ‘transformationist’ perspective – where God’s people are to be front and centre involved in the political transformation of sinful social structures. In doing so, this fallen world can be changed to reflect something of God’s heart for the oppressed and marginalised.

There is a certain Christendom ‘blurring’ of lines here between the community of God’s people (the church) and the hopes and aspirations of broader political communities.

A ‘holy distinctness’ framework is wary of concepts like ‘Exodus’ and ‘kingdom’ being universalised beyond the boundaries of the community of God’s people to apply to the world in general.

[If you are interested you can read here a journal article for Evangelical Quarterly I wrote a while back on public theology and engagement in politics using an Irish example]

The overwhelming emphasis in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is God’s Word spoken to and for his people – there is rarely a hint of a wider mandate to transform the world. In fact, quite the opposite – most of the time what the ‘world’ is doing politically is completely irrelevant to the writers of the New Testament. Their focus is firmly on the spiritual authenticity of the church- the people of God.

There are no easy answers here. I am firmly on the ‘holy distinctness’ side. I am deeply sceptical of where the church takes it upon itself to transform the world. It often ends in disaster.

We need to recognise that to take a story like the Exodus and apply it to our very different cultural and political world is not an obvious or simple thing to do.

Richard Bauckham has said on this issue that a creative and imaginative hermeneutic is needed to apply ancient texts to modern political life. [Richard Bauckham, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically (London: SPCK, 1989)]

So, my answer is … it all depends. What is the context?

Faced with a situation of a virtually apartheid 1960s America in which:

  • one ethnic group was systemically discriminated against
  • where God’s heart is clearly on the side of the poor and oppressed
  • where the church’s agenda is not to seek power of its own
  • where evil and sin is to be confronted and named
  • where there is a willingness to suffer rather than to inflict suffering

These surely were conditions for Christians to get involved in a struggle for justice. This is what love for others in need calls for.

I just wouldn’t call it a ‘new Exodus’. Christ’s work on the cross cannot be equated with an agenda of political and social change, however right and just.

Next, we begin chapter 6, ‘The Blood Sacrifice’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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