Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Contested Love (5) the deadliest opponent of love?

9780300118308Getting back, eventually, to Simon May’s fascinating book Love: A History.

We are in chapter 7 on ‘Why Christian Love is not Unconditional’

We don’t tend to link thinking about money with thinking about love. They are very distinct things are they not? What has one to do with the other? We assume that wealth, and the things that go with it, are benign, if not actively good. It does not have much to say, one way or the other, about our loves lives does it?

May writes as a philosopher looking in to Christian theology and ethics from the outside. While I don’t agree with some rather sweeping generalisations, he nails the Bible’s warnings about the spiritual danger of wealth and its connection to pride.

Pride destroys our capacity for love. Thus it is the deadliest sin of all.

Jesus’ greatest enemies, he says, are money, pride and hypocrisy. They feed into vanity, greed, selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and a vain morality that pretends to be for the good of others but is about making ourselves feel good.

Love, in contrast, is a determined focus on the good of the other.

“Jesus’ tremendous focus on money and the vices of pride – hypocrisy and self-righteousness – returns us to a central theme of this book: the precondition for love … is submission to the real presence of the other; submission to her individual lawfulness and what she calls on us to do …

And this is why money and the pride and self-sufficiency it fosters, are Jesus’ main target in his prophetic denunciations within the Gospels

… pride and the some of the conditions of wealth-accumulation can be huge impediments. Pride is about self-protection, self-sufficiency, barricading oneself against one’s neighbour, absorption in, or the business of self-esteem, a myopic dedication to one’s own prestige and power that darkness the mind to the reality of others – all attitudes that exclude submission; while the pursuit of wealth necessarily places the impersonal demand of utility at the centre of our relations with those caught up in this ambition – a far cry from the attentiveness that is at the heart of love …

This theme is so overwhelmingly pervasive in Jesus, that May asks this question.

What might your answer to it be ?

Why then has Jesus’ message been so perverted? Why has Christianised civilisation been so concerned with sex, and so much less inhibited by Jesus’ preaching against pride, possessions and power? Whether we are talking about the historical Church, the ‘civilising mission’ of Victorian Britain, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the atheistic embodiment of the deeply religious Russian nation) and its unspeakable vanity of bringing revolution to the whole world, the ‘manifest  destiny’ with which American ‘Anglo-Protestantism’ dignifies itself, or the Christian fundamentalism that gives it such strident voice today – in all these cases intense sexual prudery is combined with ruthless pursuit of power and property, flaunted with the very pride, the very self-congratulatory lording it over others, to which Jesus’ whole life and death are a standing reproach …

He concludes with this stinger.

it is remarkable how often people who seek to civilise the world by force, often in the name of Christianity and with a sense of being guided by God, themselves profess a hierarchy of values so completely at variance with those of Jesus.”

pp. 105-6.

Do you agree – is pride the greatest opponent of love? What else makes the flourishing of love all but impossible?

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (9): Medical Ethics, Disability and the Cross

I’m deliberately posting this on Easter Sunday – the content is profoundly appropriate.

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from Chapter Seven, Medical Ethics, Disability and the Cross.

How do we think of modern medicine? What questions do we need to be asking as Christians when facing life and death decisions? In whom or what do we trust and how is this revealed in what we expect or hope medicine to do for us? What should we be saying NO and YES to?

This is a long conversation ranging over a number of topics. The thread tying them together is Hauerwas’ work in critiquing liberal modernist assumptions within the practice of medicine and how ‘the disabled’ are treated.

As Brian Brock puts it at one point .. “the technical apparatus of caregiving, organized by liberal society, gets to define the field” (201). This is the tyranny of the expert; how power is ceded to the medical professionals : how we put our trust in medicine to such a point that –  as Hauerwas likes to say – we begin to believe that it will enable us to get out of life alive.

Books discussed are Suffering Presence and Naming the Silences. This post only touches on one aspect of the discussion – Brian & Stephanie Brock’s encounter of the health care system through the experience of their disabled son Adam, who also has leukemia and a degenerative eye condition. It’s a very honest and moving account.

Naming the Silences (1990) talks about the need to hear and listen to those actually suffering before talking about suffering. It also hones in on the issue of facing childhood leukemia. Brock, the interviewer, is coming at this discussion from first hand experience of both. He comments that

I feel in an especial position to revisit it and probe the whole theology of modern medicine and the role of church and family in offering a better way. (214)

These are my words and they may or may not be accurate to the discussion: the issue here is how the juggernaut of medical professionalism and high-tech treatments swamps our humanity. We treat because we can, but all sorts of ethical and moral questions do not get asked.

For example, in the children’s leukemia ward, progress of how to treat childhood leukemia is mostly made by what is, in effect, experimentation on children. There will be little benefit for the child being experimented on, but over time advances are made … and so goes the process. But this is a process that is largely hidden from parents and children. (215-16)

Brian Brock tells of he and wife fighting to have their son treated free from involvement in medical experimentation – and how incredibly difficult it was. Hauerwas adds:

SH: I was talking to one oncologist who said, “You know, we’re pretty good now at curing hard tumors.” And I said, “How did you get there?” And he said, “Oh we just used the drugs we had. We’ve had them on hand but we just got better at doing it.” I said, “How’d you do that?” And he said, “We experimented on kids.” And I said, “Did they die?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Did you tell the parents it was experimentation?” He said, “No, we told them it was therapy.”

Even if they had told them it was experimentation, many parents of course are so desperate to have their children live they’ll say, “Oh yes, do whatever you think is necessary.” I do think that what’s crucial here is a truthful medicine, in which the parents have some sense that if they want to use these experimental techniques on their kids, that their children may well suffer pain they wouldn’t otherwise have suffered and will also die. (216)

Which leads a bit further on to this exchange ..

BB: We are in an odd kind of Mobius-strip world in which medicine can then only be funded because it is experimental and going to produce more high-tech medicine.

SH: I keep saying that Americans are committed to the idea that if we just get smart enough then with our medical technologies we will be able to get out of life alive! It’s not going to happen.

BB: Taking it back down to the concrete level: even with all the improvements in success rates, leukemia is still a terrible disease to treat because what you are treating is the bone marrow. You can’t get to it without a needle or a drill. And you treat it by injecting poison that is so toxic to the body that you have to put it in an arterial vein. If you put it into a peripheral vein it will burn right through the blood vessels and into the surrounding tissue. This means that when the disease is discovered you need both to get the chemo going and to surgically implant a port, so you don’t burn up too many of the peripheral veins with the chemo. But the kid at the point of diagnosis is pretty sick, so their immune system is not working very well.

I say all that because I vividly remember sitting on the edge of the hospital bed with Adam on my lap and holding the wound on his chest from where they’d put the port in. My despair was complete as I saw the incision slowly splitting open because his skin and his blood were unable to muster the strength to bind the wound. I tell this story because leukemia is a disease that leaves no marks at all, but the treatment leaves incredible wounds. I know people would find your comment about the barbarism of those treatments offensive, and yet any truthful account would say that it’s the treatment that is so scarring. You cut and stick and poison the kid because the only alternative is their dying. (218-9)

And Brock adds this from the perspective of a parent of son who is mentally delayed and largely non-verbal.

Adam hurts but he can’t verbalize where it hurts. He thus seems incapable of being incorporated within this medical narrative. In this, he seems to be more than a canary in a coalmine— another way that you often talk about disabled people— because he reveals modern medicine for what it is. Because he is impermeable to the mutual pretenses that govern our lives, for him there seems to be no other reality than trust and communion, or its lack. Without a horizon of future or past, he demands presence. (219)

And it is this demand for presence that meant that the Brocks decided that they would not subject him to the cruelty of a bone marrow transplant and 6 weeks in a bubble to avoid infection. To be separated from physical presence would be beyond bearing.

It did not come to this –  but these are the sorts of questions that Hauerwas and Brock are probing and encouraging Christians to think hard about rather than unthinkingly go with the modernist flow of whatever the medical experts say.

It would be wrong to end here without some more theological comment. At the end of the chapter Brock raises the idea that disability is a hermeneutical key to reading Hauerwas. By this he means that as Christians we are to live by and under the cross.

The Christian faith is not a success story. It is God’s glory revealed and victory won at the cross. The church and all theology can never move past the cross. We live in a world that Hauerwas has spent his life trying to engage Christianly – a world of war, pain, mental illness, physical illness and death, slavery, patriarchy and so on. (237)

He is, I think, an ‘anti-success theologian’. He takes seriously that the foolishness of God is wiser than the bankrupt wells of human wisdom.  And that is profoundly counterintuitive in a North American culture dedicated to success, happiness and positive thinking.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (8) on Gender

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is a second excerpt from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

This is a longish post – but worth bearing with I suggest. These are important and relevant themes for Christians trying to negotiate the modern minefield of gender and sex.

In this excerpt Brock and Hauerwas discuss the contemporary fragmentation of previously accepted ideas about gender. Below, we break into a discussion about how we understand masculinity and femininity. Hauerwas treads a wise path here – he wants to resist elevation of relative cultural forms of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identity and roles (the popular equating of ‘biblical’ gender roles with mid-20th century American family values among some strands of evangelicalism for example), But he also wants to acknowledge the sheer variety of what it means to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ and the difficulty in defining what each means.

Brock links this to contemporary battles over gender and the current rejection of gender distinction in favour of a swirling kaleidoscope of gender identities where nothing is fixed. Both men agree that dismissing the essential differences between male and female (the rejection of heteronormativity) is a false step.

SH: Well I’ve always distrusted those kinds of descriptions [defined ideas of masculinity and femininity] because they so invite either biological determinism or social constructivism of one kind or the other. Men and women have bodies that are specific and also different. What forms that difference takes, I think, is open to unbelievable variation. I don’t know that there’s any one Christian way of displaying what that difference should look like. I would hope that Christians wouldn’t necessarily underwrite the modes of what counts for feminine and masculine in the various societies that they find themselves.

BB: If I am hearing you rightly, it sounds like you think that not only do they never end, but these negotiations about the force of gender should never end. But also, conceptually speaking, one way to end the discussion is to deny that there is a distinction at all.

SH: Right! There is a distinction.

BB: We just don’t know how appropriately to acknowledge and respect it. What we do know is that it is patriarchal and imperialistic to have a claim about distinction at all in the new ideology. Such claims ought to be resisted. The so called rejection of heteronormativity, in other words, you think is a misguided solution?

SH: Absolutely. (186)

Brock then develops the conversation, astutely describing the current status quo in the West – how Christians after long being cultural ‘insiders’ are finding themselves as cultural ‘outsiders’. The new sexual morality can, I think, be seen as a particularly strong form of liberation ideology – throwing off the shackles of oppressive patriarchy and its restrictive and judgemental power structures in favour of freedom of the individual to express their identity in whatever way is true to their inner self – whether male, female, transgender, queer or whatever. Such is the momentum of the new morality that Brock is surely right to observe that there will be less and less legal space for dissent from the new consensus.

In other words, a question facing the Church in a post-Christendom West is what will it mean to be faithful disciples of Jesus in a culture that increasingly sees Christian beliefs about sex and gender as morally and legally objectionable?

BB: … But Christians now are having to learn what it means to be on the wrong side of a rapidly changing moral convention. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of sexuality, which encompasses the problems related to gender violence as well as a long history of violent suppression of same-sex relationships and other formerly marginalized expressions of human sexuality. We are rapidly reaching the conclusion of the first phase of the transition that started in the 1960s with the coming out of marginal lifestyles that had been vigorously excluded for centuries and is concluding with their being near the center of the cultural mainstream. It’s a transition from one moral regime to another. It will probably for a little while longer be possible to get away with saying, “It’s not clear to me if gay relationships can be called marriage,” for instance. But pretty soon this will be seen as by definition a bigoted or an unjust belief and if Christian theologians want to explore such positions they are going to have to do so on the wrong side of the moral, legal and cultural law. (187)

In this new landscape, Brock asks Hauerwas what advice he has for Christians living in unmapped territory. Hauerwas’ response implies a willingness to speak and take the consequences – allied to his oft articulated criticism of the failure of Christian marital practices and their destructive conformity to Western culture.

SH: … My basic advice is to say what you think you can say honestly and clearly. I think also the word “courage” is probably going to be necessary, because the demand given the Supreme Court decision for recognition of gay marriage is just going to be a presumption that you just have to accept.  I can’t accept it, as much as I would like to. If you think that marriage is an institution in Christianity that has a unitary and sacramental end, I cannot also see how it doesn’t have the procreative end. It doesn’t mean that every marriage has to be procreative. But marriage as an institution does. I am more than ready to acknowledge that gay people can be as good as parents— if not better— than nongay people. The question is, finally, where do you get children from? For me, it’s not going to turn on any one biblical text. It’s really an ontological question that involves the navel. I just wish that Christian marital practices were sufficient to sustain the acknowledgment of significant gay committed relationships, but our practices are awful, because romantic conceptions of marriage have just destroyed us.  (188-9)

What Hauerwas is talking about in the that last sentence, is how, once Christians have often joined the world in how they have viewed and practiced marriage. Namely, in idolising the idea of the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation, we have made almost incomprehensible that marriage and sex are not essential to live a completely fulfilled life. In treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual happiness, we have bought in to modern ideas of romance and individualism. I have written elsewhere that “If marriage is nothing more than a union of two people ‘in love’ with each other, then the church’s reluctance to grant this status to homosexual couples seems arbitrary, hypocritical and prejudiced. It also makes a breakup more likely when this mutually enhancing relationship goes wrong.”

The exchange on gender closes with these interesting observations by Brock about Christian defence of marriage.

BB: Christianly speaking it [marriage] has to be a gift that the church, both men and women in it, are so vulnerable here. But I think that vulnerability produces an anxiety that is easily displaced into the debates in which we are so angrily embroiled, about protecting the traditional family from interlopers, namely from people with sexualities that are different. As if the disarray of the old patriarchal ordering. of domestic relations was the gays fault! I think the great demonic twist of this historical moment is the lack of exemplars that I was talking about earlier. There seems to be a kind of white- knuckle approach to marriage that came to be the norm over the last thirty or forty years. We’re going to hang on to something that doesn’t seem to be working with the collapse of that old patriarchal model. The new twist is that the white- knucklers now are being called violently bigoted, and it’s just leading to chaos. (191-2)

The conversation closes with Brock asking SH his response to the question of how Christians can live up to the strong moral claims of their faith that ‘that produce, or should produce, countercultural living.’

Hauerwas admits he does not know the answers – but he knows where to look: – in the Great Tradition of the Church and in prayer to God.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (7) on non-violence and Yoder’s sins

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

Hauerwas’ critique of Christian just war theory (eg Reinhold Niebhur) is a defining mark of his public persona – even if his work extends far beyond pacifism and just war. Brock elicits some very interesting responses in this chapter, not least on the actual details of what pacifism might look like in practice for a Christian.

But before we get there, what emerges is Hauerwas’ main concern – to attempt to get followers of a crucified Lord who rejected violence to at least have a major ethical and theological problem with going to war.

Christians belong to a different story to that of the modern nation-state. Theirs is a much older and deeper story; the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through his Son. They belong to his ‘peaceable kingdom’ which has arrived with the coming of the King. We live in the overlap of the ages as people of his kingdom and are called to humility, peacemaking, justice and love.

Hauerwas has tough words for American exceptionalism that has led to the hubris of multiple disastrous and unnecessary wars.

Well I think America hasn’t come to terms with being a genocidal nation, in relationship to Native Americans. We don’t tell that as a part of the story. I don’t think we’ve come to terms, still, with being a slave nation. Basically, we’re caught on the presumption that slavery has been defeated by the Civil War and by later developments that challenged segregation. Martin Luther King won. The radical implications of the fact that you are a slave nation and how to make that part of the story is just very difficult in America.  Often I say: if Americans had taken seriously that we were a slave nation, would we be in Iraq and Afghanistan now? The kind of humility that enables the historical acknowledgment that in turn funds a humble posture toward the contemporary world would give you a very different kind of foreign policy than we currently enact. (161)

And later on in a long and detailed discussion he explains his goal this way,

People oftentimes, as I’ve said earlier, ask “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t have you been a soldier in World War II?” I’m sure I would have been. It’s not like the position is saying, “You fought. You didn’t. The one that fought is wrong. The one that didn’t is right.” Those kinds of retrospective judgments do no one any good. The question is not, “Did someone, by being one of Caesar’s Legions become less Christian?” The question is, “What are we to do?” I’m just trying to help us recover why those that fought in Hitler’s Legions might have been better off if Christians had offered them a different life. I’m sure we could have! And what now, do we do, as Christians? I just want Christians to be able to say “no.” They probably won’t do it on just war grounds, but they should be a people who can maintain the kind of critical edge toward the nation- state that helps us keep the war- making potential of those states limited. (174)

I found this helpful. Christian pacifism is a minority pursuit historically. The predictable ‘What about Hitler?’ question is thrown out routinely as an obvious one-line defeater of the impracticability of non-violence. It blithely assumes that there are no other alternatives; it precludes critical analysis of nationalist narratives of war; it stunts the imagination of asking what does it mean to follow Jesus in a violent world; and it all too easily gives a ‘free pass’ to the inevitable unjust practices of war – since pretty well NO war ever matches up to the idealistic and impractical criteria of Christian Just War Theory.

What Hauerwas wants to see is real alternatives on the table for Christians – a bit like the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge I guess.

Brian Brock pushes Hauerwas to spell out what he means in practice it means to be a Christian committed to non-violence. It means a basic unwillingness to kill.

BB I think it will be very helpful to continue to probe a little bit more around the edges of this position. For instance, could a Christian be a law enforcement officer if they had to train on the gun range, shooting at human-shaped targets?

SH:     No.

BB:     So they couldn’t really be trained on guns?

SH:     They couldn’t really be trained on guns. They could be trained on certain kinds of physical response to people threatening violence that would look coercive. A kind of judo? I think that’s pretty interesting; that they learn to use the violence of the attacker against themselves. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

BB:   And, as you suggest in that passage, a Christian who was a prison warden or a cop and was in a police force where they were trained for choke holds should quit?

SH:     Absolutely. That’s exactly right. No question.

BB:     That’s a pretty robust hermeneutic for thinking these things through. But you haven’t really laid it out in this type of detail before.  (178)

What do you think of these practical positions?

Towards the end of the chapter the conversation switches to discussion of the revelations that have emerged over the sexual misbehaviour of Hauerwas’s friend and theological mentor John Howard Yoder.

Brock asks a fascinating and disturbing question – how is it that people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Yoder, all deeply committed to peaceful revolution and justice for the disempowered, were all implicated in blatant unjust exploitation of women? They misused their power and prestige over the powerless by ‘cashing in their fame by taking sexual liberties with women.’

Hauerwas has been criticised for too quickly ‘closing the case’ on Yoder’s misdeeds, after a church disciplinary process and failing to acknowledge just how damaging his actions had been. Here, he admits he hadn’t appreciated the ‘violence’ done by Yoder and how that process had not been complete.

But it shows that men have been socialized in ways that are destructive for us and clearly are destructive for women. I myself think that I did not appropriately appreciate the damage that John was doing to women, in terms of my own involvement in that situation, which was clearly on the side. But I don’t think that the disciplinary process was as successful as I thought it had been. (184)

Hauerwas also comments that

SH: It’s called self-deception, isn’t it? I mean, who knows what kind of stories Martin Luther King was telling himself. Yoder had this stupid theory. Gandhi was a Hindu so in terms like this, who am I to speak? I don’t know how to account for them. (185)

I think some more could be said on how to account for King and Yoder’s hypocrisy, self-deception or double-standards as Christian men, but the conversation moves on.

There is a paradox here is there not? On the one hand Christians are called, and enabled, to live a new life, pleasing to God. A life of service, care for others, love, kindness, and covenant obedience to God within an accountable community. As Paul says, we are to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’.  Sin is not to be accepted as inevitable.

Yet, on the other hand, Christians should also know better than anyone else, that the heart is deceitful and wicked. Leaders fail – rare is the leader who does not. As people of the cross we should know about the power and presence of sin. As pastors and pilgrims, we should also know people and all their frailties and contradictions.

So, we should be disappointed and surprised by the infidelities and failures of King and Yoder. But not shocked.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS there is also a long discussion on gender and sexuality, so I will do a second post on this chapter.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (5) (living gently in marriage)

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter four ECCLESIAL POLITICS, PEACEMAKING, AND THE ESCHATOLOGY OF WORSHIP.

In this chapter the conversation between Brian Brock and Hauerwas delves into familiar Hauerwasian territory of pacifism, gentleness and the church as an eschatologoical community. It’s rich reading.

One theme that gives me much pause for thought is where Brock and Hauerwas discuss how a theological commitment to pacifism needs to be part and parcel of learning to live gently in a violent world. (Echoing themes of Living Gently in a Violent World that Hauerwas wrote with Jean Vanier of L’Arche).

Brock notes at one point that

It’s at moments like these that it’s clear that you are aware of the danger that your work is easily subverted when people receive it as a challenge and a crusade to establish pacifism, rather than as a sign in the wilderness pointing to intangible practices of living gently in a violent world (106)

And Brock adds later,

In so far as people read you as pacifist and think that somehow excuses them if they are not being gentle, I’d like to insist that is not a venial sin but a complete falsification of your work. (107)

In other words, it is easy to be committed to pacifism / non-violence in an aggressive and violent way – I guess a bit like the evangelist who tells people ‘God loves you’ in a hostile or threatening tone.

Rather, Hauerwas is proposing (against his own instincts to fight and win against his enemies) that gentleness needs to be a virtue that characterises all of life.  Responding to Brock, he gives the example of marriage:

… What is one of the most frightening aspects of marriage? The person we are married to learns to know us better than we know ourselves. That’s why they are able to hurt us the most; they know our vulnerabilities. I think that there’s a certain sense in which it is very important that there be a gentleness between people who are married. It is a learned virtue. (108)

OK – so let’s go off on a Hauerwas inspired marriage tangent here ….

As someone who can seem reasonably agreeable to most people most of the time, who believes that following Jesus means a commitment to non-violence, and is researching and writing about love –  this chapter hit home. For it is possible to present that face and to believe those things – but not live or think or act gently.

What do you think it means to live gently in relationships? In marriage?

If gentleness, as Hauerwas says, is a learned virtue, then the tongue needs to be controlled to speak gently as a way of life. James does not mess about on this – see 3:1-12 and this:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. James 1:26

I have much learning and repenting to do for sure on how and what I speak.

On gentleness or kindness in marriage as a learned virtue see this important and practical article in The Atlantic on research into successful and failed marriages. Successful marriages the researchers found flourish on kindness – expressed a thousand ways. (The Atlantic article describes different examples of kind or unkind interactions).

There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters [those with happy enduring marriages] tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

That love and relationships need sustained hard work is the language of learned virtue. The disposition of kindness (or gentleness or love) needs to be practiced and reinforced every day – it unlocks and releases potential kindness and love in return.

Kindness [as opposed to contempt] glues couples together. Research … has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

A lack of kindness, in other words the presence of aggression, hostility and especially contempt are signs that the marriage is in deep trouble. The researchers could predict with 94% success whether couples would stay together from observing their interactions around kindness (or the lack of it).

This all makes perfect sense. But, as the Brock / Hauerwas interaction reminded me, it is one thing to know something in your head, it is quite another thing to practice that virtue.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Contested love (1) Diotima’s Ladder

9780300118308Simon May’s superb book Love: A History unpacks changing understandings of love through the centuries. It’s a tour de force; a scintillating journey with an expert and entertaining guide who introduces the reader to a fascinating list of characters, all of whom have a lot of (conflicting) things to say about love.

A few posts follow on key highlights of that journey.

The first stop on our journey is Diotima’s Ladder in Plato’s Symposium.

First, some questions: if asked, what would you say is the key to happiness? Would your answer include love? How do you think of love? Is it the supreme goal of life? Is it the true sign of spirituality and virtue? Is it that which makes you whole?

If you are answering yes to some of these then you are at least in part agreement with Plato.

Here’s a very clever little video (1.32) that captures Plato’s’ important idea of love as an ascent towards virtue: from physical lust to abstract morality; from this world to a higher plane; flesh to spirit.

The Symposium is the first extended philosophy of love in the Western world and has had immeasureable influence in the history of love.

This is Greek morality  – the ideal youth is male; sexual lust is not in mind here, it is beauty that is idealised and women were inferior, so male beauty is that which arouses ‘bottom rung of the ladder’ love.

What parallels do you see in the concept of love as a ladder with Christian theology? And / or with how our culture thinks about love today?