A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (20)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: As a Christian pacifist myself, I really resonated with what you say on pp. 172-73, affirming my fellow Methodist Stan Hauerwas’s repeated teachings on such things.

I agree that this is the clear thrust of much of the Sermon on the Mount, and the clear witness of the life of Paul who was converted from violence against the church, to the Gospel of non-violence for the sake of Christ. When Jesus said love your enemies he didn’t mean love them to death by killing them!

Interestingly, Martin Luther King Jr. was finally convinced of this Gospel by reading E. Stanley Jones’ biography of Gandhi when he was in seminary. Jones was a Methodist missionary to India, and a graduate of Asbury college. Recently there was an excellent movie entitled Hacksaw Ridge, which told the story of a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist who served as a medic in the Pacific WWII, who was the first soldier to be allowed to serve in the U.S. Army without carrying or firing a gun. And he rescued many people in battle at Hacksaw Ridge, both friend and foe.

I used to think when I was younger that there’s no way I could serve in the military… but perhaps I could do that, and still serve my country without violating my conscience or the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Would you see this as plausible, or as an unhelpful compromise? After all, you could be said to be patching up soldiers so they can go back out and kill some more.

PATRICK: I really wanted to get over how enemy love is not confined to interpreting a line or two from the Sermon on the Mount. What tends to happen then is Jesus’ teaching is reinterpreted as hyperbolic or idealistic. Richard Hays has an excellent discussion in his classic book The Moral Vision of the New Testament of all the attempts made to soften Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. None of them are convincing.

Jesus’ teaching shapes that of the first Christians – Paul, Peter and the early church. The overwhelming historical evidence is how the pre-Constantinian early Christian movement repudiated killing in all forms – abortion, war and capital punishment. The shift after Constantine (Augustine especially) to legitimize ‘just’ violence in order to suppress heresy or expand Christendom was, in my opinion, a disaster to the witness of the church. Similarly in the 20th century for Reinhold Niebuhr’s theory of ‘just war’.

It isn’t a question of whether Christians are to be violent in certain situations, Jesus calls disciples to be non-violent full stop. Of course this seems crazy, but that’s the point – enemy love is the good itself. It’s the window to life in the upside-down kingdom. I saw Hacksaw Ridge in Dublin a couple of years ago and read up on the story of Desmond Doss on which it was based. While I don’t think I could sign up for the military, his was an inspiring example of how Christian non-violence requires considerable bravery.

Down With This Sort of Thing: How is the Gospel Good News in Contemporary Ireland?

Now we are pretty well all confined to quarters, maybe it is time to catch up with some reading.

Praxis Press is a new Irish Christian publishing venture. They published their first book last year – Down With This Sort of Thing by Fraser Hosford. Other ones are in the pipeline.

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This is what I said in endorsing the book

It is so good to see an Irish pastor writing about theology, culture and mission for our contemporary Irish context! Fraser Hosford asks an important question – how is the gospel good news in Ireland today? What is so fresh about this book is that he answers this question by engaging thoughtfully and graciously with what real people in Ireland today actually think, believe and hope for. It is from this foundation of careful listening that Hosford unpacks how the gospel is good news for all of life. Peppered with stories and illustrations, the result is a very readable account of how the gospel leads to a flourishing life. Anyone writing about such a great theme has my attention, I suggest that he should have yours as well.

Highly recommended. Not only an excellent read but by buying a copy you will be supporting a new Irish Christian publisher committed to helping the church think about and practice mission in 21st Century Ireland.

Sir Ken Robinson on industrialised education

My job title is the rather grand ‘Director of Learning’ at IBI. It’s a good title actually I think (how I do at it is a whole other question). Better than ‘Director of Education’ or ‘Director of Teaching’. Why? Because for the education or teaching experience to be worth anything learning must be taking place. If there is no learning, then really it’s all just talk.

So I try to keep informed and engaged with education and learning as much as I can. A few of our teaching team are doing a course on creative teaching at the moment, and one of the inputs is a famous 2006 TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’ (his answer is ‘Yes’!) that’s been viewed over 60 millions times now.

Which reminded me to rewatch this brilliantly animated 2010 RSA video of Robinson’s excorciating analysis of contemporary education and the need for diversity and creativity in education as opposed to a deadening industrialised model that prizes conformity and compliance.

Here in Ireland words like these have, it seems to me, fallen on deaf ears. Despite numerous critical reviews and reports over decades the secondary school system and the industrialised rote learning required to navigate the Leaving Certificate’s points race remains all about stifling creativity and diversity. Students are forced into a mad competition measured by narrow criteria that suit the few and marginalise the many.

The whole system is predicated on the outdated myth of ‘Work hard + pass your Leaving Cert + go to College = secure job and successful future guaranteed”. As Robinson says, children know this is a lie. What’s required is a revolution in education that facilitates student learning across subjects and the diversity of the student population,

If you haven’t seen this it’s well worth a watch. From purely a communication perspective, Robinson’s TED talks are models of how to convey weighty ideas lightly, yet with real intellectual and emotional force.

Would be interested in your comments – and any implications you see for theological education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (4) towards a kingdom-centred approach to politics

If you have been reading these posts on an Anabaptist view of Brexit and might be thinking – cut to the chase, you’ve spent time pointing to shortcomings of other views, what is an Anabaptist kingdom-centred view?

So, in brief, here goes. And I am going to use John Nugent’s nuanced and well-made argument but not nearly do it justice …. I’d warmly recommend reading his book in full.

  • Christians are given no mandate in Scripture to make this world a better place
  • There is no ‘cultural commission’ for the church to reform fallen cultures and create new ones.
  • Within the biblical narrative, God’s people are never commissioned or given power and authority to manage or rule the world.
  • Within the OT and NT, human powers are given delegated authority by God to govern in a way that facilitates human flourishing. The great temptation and trap for the people of God is to become like the powers – to seek political power for themselves.
  • It is God alone who will, one day, step in and make this world a better place.
  • He does this in and through the incarnation, ministry and mission of his Son. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of God, which is the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes, “the reign of God over his people on behalf of all creation.” (p.67)
  • The kingdom is God’s new world order. It is not entirely future, it has begun now. It is not ‘other-worldly’, it is this-worldly.
  • The kingdom has come, it is God’s gift. Citizens of the kingdom are followers of the King and Lord Jesus Christ. Members of kingdom have:
    • Entered in a new era in world history
    • Entered a new world / new creation within the old world
    • Entered new life
    • Entered a new social reality, a new community / new set of relationships
    • Entered a new way of life
    • Entered a new status / identity
    • Entered God’s abundant blessings
  • The people of God have a unique missional task – to be God’s better place in the world.
  • And a core way they are to do this is through LOVE.

Nugent is spot on the money here. As was highlighted for me in writing The Message of Love, there is just not very much at all in the Bible about love for the world or love for others outside the community of the people of God. We may find this surprising or awkward, but it is a fact. Nugent quotes Gerhard Lohfink

“In view of contemporary Christian consciousness it comes as something of a shock to realize as an exegete that in the New Testament – it we abstract from Jesus’ saying about love of enemy – interpersonal love almost without exception means love for one’s brother in the faith, love of Christians for one another. There seems to be hardly anything else about the New Testament which is as intensively suppressed as this fact.” (90)

In similar vein, after a survey of biblical material on poor and oppressed, widows and orphans etc, Nugent concludes this

“The disturbing bottom line is that, in the New Testament, love and service are reserved especially for fellow believers. This is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s not what I want my Bible to say. If God cares so much about this world, why doesn’t he give his people an important role in fixing it? Why teach us how to live properly in this world if God doesn’t want us to infiltrate its structures and wield our superior knowledge to get them on the right track? Why not help all people everywhere? Isn’t it selfish to dedicate our time, energy, and resources primarily to the church family?” (101)

The twist here, is that the mission and calling of the church is to be the church – to be a light to the nations, to be a community of love and justice for the world’s sake.

It is a calling to reflect the love and beauty of God

“Since loving one another is God’s plan, it must become our highest priority. No more embarrassment. No more second guessing. No more imitating worldly strategies for making this world a better place.” (102).

And this embodying of God’s kingdom – the better place – is to be accompanied by proclamation of the gospel. Words and deeds. Not via political power. Not by political lobbying. Not by imagining that we can change the world through access to the levers of power.

[An aside – a lot of American evangelical Christianity today desperately needs to hear and respond to this message. The word ‘evangelical’ has become debased because of its links to political power.]

The mission of the church is not to partner with the powers in order to make this world a better place. Lessons of church history (and Irish experience is a sobering reminder) show that the church not only loses focus on its God-given mission, but also becomes corrupted by power when it achieves it.    

Nugent wisely comments that all this likely is making readers feel uncomfortable and uneasy. What does all this mean in practice?

Should Christians have nothing to do with organisations which seek to help those in need?

Is it back to the old caricature of saving ‘souls’ and having little or no concern for people’s physical and social needs?

Is this retreat from society into a sectarian holy huddle? [I know some friends who have lived in Christian communities cut-off from the outside world and they have not tended to end well].

You may have guessed that the answer to these questions is ‘No’.

Since we started these reflections talking about Brexit, what then does a kingdom-centred view of political engagement look like? Since this post is long enough already, you’re welcome back to the next post for more discussion on this.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (1)

The B word. It didn’t even exist a short while ago and now apparently it’s one of the most spoken words in the English language. It’s pretty well impossible to get through a day without it intruding. And as we approach 31 October that cacophony will rise to a crescendo.

I haven’t said much on this blog about Brexit (in fact I haven’t had time to say much on this blog full stop). It’s not because I’ve got my head stuck in the sand and don’t follow the news (I do – rather too much probably, it is an addictive soap-opera-horror-show on both sides of the Atlantic).

The reality is that it is not obvious how to articulate a ‘Christian’ response to Brexit.

If you were to preach or teach about Brexit, what would you say?

Those that confidently pronounce judgement that leaving is a disaster or mock the stupidity of the entire Brexit fiasco sure have plenty of ammunition, but such responses don’t take us very far apart from maybe feeling better about ourselves. I freely confess that much of my response to the unfolding ‘debate’ in London and the catastrophic ‘leadership’ from the Conservative Party from Cameron, to May to Johnston is a gut reaction to an entitled, arrogant, destructive, narrow sort of English nationalism that, as an Irish observer, presses every one of my red buttons. But that isn’t a very good basis for a mature theological reflection! It is no good misusing the pulpit as a platform for one’s own political opinions and prejudices.

An alternative approach is to step back from partisan politics and issue general appeals for tolerance and civility in public life and particularly against whipping up fears for populist political ends. While important in our increasingly fragile political environment, there is nothing particularly Christian in this. Indeed, there is little distinctively Christian in most arguments I’ve heard from Christians and church leaders either for or against Brexit. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The debate revolves around complex issues of economics, national sovereignty, trade, immigration and law, untangling those is proving to be well-on-nigh-impossible practically, let alone theologically. Reasoned Christian responses to Brexit tend to revolve around analysis of such issues and therefore largely mirror reactions in the media and wider society.

A digression – I’m reminded here of this exchange in between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s, Through the Looking Glass (p. 364.) A key reason behind the fiasco is that over three years after the Referendum, no-one is still sure what the word ‘Brexit’ actually means. Different factions fill the word with whatever meaning that best suits their interests.

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‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

A third response is to say nothing. Now I have some sympathy with church leaders who have not preached about Brexit (and I have not heard a sermon addressing Brexit – have you?). What do you say, for example, if your congregation in England or Northern Ireland is split down the middle just as the Conservative and Labour parties are?

But saying nothing is inadequate. Like it or not, Brexit has become a defining moment that will shape politics and society in the UK, Ireland and Europe for the foreseeable future. It requires theological engagement, so what follows is some ‘thinking out loud’ towards that goal.

The title of this post asks what is an Anabaptist view of Brexit. As I have often said on this blog over the years, I am an Anabaptist at heart. Researching, writing about and teaching the New Testament only continues to confirm those sympathies. So the next post will try to sketch some principles for thinking about Brexit through an Anabaptist lens.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A day out in county Clare

Took a day trip to the county of Clare over the bank holiday weekend. Hadn’t been in ages. The weather was beautiful, as was the scenery … and the company good as well.

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Dunguire Castle

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The Burren

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Poulnabrone Dolmen

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Ennistymon

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Lehinch beach

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Cliffs of Moher

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Cliffs of Moher

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (40) Substitution the greatest act of love

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 finish chapter (11) on The Substitution.

For Rutledge, the theme of substitution is an “underlying motif” which supports other themes.

It is best understood, not as a rationalistic scheme (like Hodge’s we discussed earlier), but within the overall biblical narrative.

[My Comments] This very much ties in with issues discussed much on this blog over the years – the scope of the gospel (euangelion) as the great good news about God’s fulfilled promise in Jesus the Messiah and King of Israel, come to bring liberation, forgiveness of sin, the kingdom of God and the gift of the Spirit.

This Jesus-centric gospel narrative is not to be equated with a formula of atonement-for-sin like Hodge’s.  It abstracts substitution into something close to a transactional formula that is all too easily detached from the biblical narrative.

It also risks making substitution narrowly individualistic. While atonement for sin through Jesus paying the price and taking our place IS profoundly personal for every believer, penal substitution happens within the wider story of God’s victory over Sin, Death and the Powers (Christus Victor).

But, having said this, penal substitution is a vital aspect of the atonement. Rutledge argues that it

is more closely linked with the virtually ubiquitous biblical teaching about God’s judgement upon Sin than any other motif, however much our culture may wish to avoid this unpleasant truth about itself. (534)

The powerful emotive image of the Son of God willingly dying ‘in our place’ and ‘for our sins’ tells us at least two things – and please feel welcome to add comments of your own …

First, that there is something profoundly and desperately broken about each one of us. I have never watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. But, I am told, there is a scene where the director filmed his own hands hammering in the nails into those of Jesus. Rutledge calls this “the inclusive nature of human depravity”.

Not a popular doctrine today for sure.

Second, substitution must be understood from the perspective of the Trinity, as God in three-persons

“acting together, with one will, for one purpose – to deliver all of humanity from the curse of Sin and its not-so-secret weapon, the Law. Jesus, the representative substitute, not only shows us how human will can align itself with the will of God, but also makes it happen, in his own incarnate person; and then, in the greatest act of love that has ever taken place, he gives his own person back to us, crucified and raised from the dead, the firstfruits of all who belong to him.” (534)

Beautiful.