Contested Love (3) love as the supreme virtue

9780300118308I’m skipping on in Simon May’s Love: A History to an important chapter on the evolution of love within Christianity.

A question: what is Christian love? How would you define it? What is distinctive about Christian love as compared say to love in our wider culture today?

I had quite a few quibbles with May in the this chapter. Not surprising I guess, he is venturing into detailed areas of Christian theology and painting with a broad brush. There are half-truths and generalisations, but the overall thesis is intriguing.

He argues that two major shifts in the history of love happen that are intimately linked to how love comes to be understood within Christianity.

  1. Love is elevated to become the supreme virtue. There is no better thing than to love and be loved. The idea of love as eternal and supreme is everywhere in the West.
  1. Love as divine: in love we are united to the divine. And this experience of divinity is radically democratic – open to all ordinary people.

He traces this development, beginning with Jesus. (and this is one place that it is ‘Yes, but’)

Jesus is not linked to the two developments above. He is firmly located within OT categories of love as command and obedience. May says Jesus speaks little of love – I think this is overplayed with significant elements of love within the life and teaching of Jesus passed by.

May pits Jesus against John (love as divine) and Paul (love as supreme). Again, I am not convinced that there is such a wedge between Jesus, John and Paul when it comes to love.

[And there are links here back to our discussion of the New / Old Perspective on Paul – with love in the apostle’s teaching seen in some frameworks as part of Christianity’s love / grace / freedom set over against the law / legalism / slavery of Judaism.]

May argues that the claims made for love by Paul are uniquely extravagant in the history of love – love fulfils the law. [But I would argue that love is deeply rooted within the law – Deuteronomy 6]. May sees a radical disjuncture of OT to NT (Paul) in terms of love. A sort of Old / New Perspective on Love.

“one thing that is obviously happening is the creation of a new morality – based on so great an intensification of Old Testament morality that a genuine revolution in values has occurred.” 87.

What do you think? Is love within Paul a ‘new morality’ and ‘revolution’ compared to love in the OT?

Moving on, it is Augustine, May argues, where love becomes the greatest virtue and from which all actions and morality flow.  But what happens is how love not only answers questions of flourishing and ethics, but deeper questions of existence and meaning.

“love is to be the lodestar of our lives and, if blessed with the capacity to exercise it, we can aspire to imitate God. It was only a matter of time before the outrageous conclusion was drawn that through love we, ordinary men and women, can ourselves become divine.” 87

A bit of a villain in the historical exaltation and divinisation of love is Martin Luther who he quotes as saying “we are gods through love.” He acknowledges that Luther is well aware of potential heresy here – again I think this is overplayed.

But things get really interesting in how May perceptively links Christianity’s elevation of love as the supreme virtue WITH a deep awareness of the need for humility within Christian spirituality.

To fill in what I think he means here: if we are commanded to imitate the love of God, such love is only possible because of grace, the gift of forgiveness, the Spirit and God’s enabling.  Love is always first from God.

If Augustine is the theologian of love, he is also the theologian of grace: we are not self-sufficient. “The Grace of God makes a willing man out of an unwilling one.” 90

We find our fulfilment in God (Augustine’s restless heart).  May sees Augustine as very Platonic – the ladder of ascent to the divine. It is by grace that humans can ascend to caritas (divine love, selfless love, eternal love) rather than cupiditas – lower love, without reference to God.

It is this unique combination within Christianity of an ascent to divine love combined with a deep emphasis on humility, that is so powerful and enduring. Such love is hard – it requires obedience and persistence and discipline.

The implication I think is that he means love only comes slowly, it needs character, it is a virtue that is the fruit of moral integrity and dependence on God.

“This view of love expresses the reality that exaltation and abasement are related to each other in a profound dialectic – a dialectic incomparably revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. ‘Wanting to be gods’ is inseparable from wanting to go the way of the Cross. The crucifixion of the incarnate God is not a gruesome paradox, as Nietzsche was to characterise it, but rather speaks a deep truth: if you want to be ‘Gods and Saviours of the world’ you have to be (and not merely appear) humble.   (92)

How convincing do you find this?

What are the essential requirements for love to flourish?

 

Barth, Schweitzer and the weirdness of Christianity

At particular times in the history of the church, ‘disturbers’ have emerged, protesting against the cultural captivity of the church. They have rightly seen that authentic Christianity should never be domesticated and made ‘safe’.

Maybe you can think of some ‘disturbers’. A couple that come to mind are:

SchweitzerAlbert Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus brushed aside the anaemic Jesus that had resulted from 19th century liberal theology’s quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. Schweitzer was magnificently right in his rejection of the un-Jewish and un-troubling Christ of the First Quest. His portrait of Jesus of the Gospels was far closer to the truth – even if Schweitzer finally drew the wrong conclusions about Jesus as a failed apocalyptic revolutionary.

The 20th century Jesus Seminar was in many ways a replay of the First Quest – a de-historized Jesus, shorn of miracles and the eschatological urgency of the kingdom of God. One of N T Wright’s many achievements has been his compelling rejection of the methodology and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar in his Jesus and the Victory of God. What shines through Wright’s work on Jesus is how he brings the Gospels, and their main subject, to vibrant disturbing life.

Another ‘disturber’ was the Swiss pipe-smoker Karl Barth. His protest was against a culturally captive form of Christianity, unable even to identify the threat Hitler posed.  His great ‘NO’ to any form of natural theology denied that God could be reached ‘from the bottom up’. Barth’s genius was to insist on absolute otherness of God; God could only be revealed from the ‘top down’ by the triune God himself.

Karl BarthThus, God, for Barth is both the Revealer and the Revelation. It is God alone who can choose to reveal himself, and he does so in Jesus Christ. It is God’s Spirit alone who can effect God’s revelation in Christ. It is a mixture of hubris, pride and naivety that leads people to believe that they can put God in a nice neat box. Barth blew up the box.

Schweitzer and Barth, in very different ways, saw clearly that when we downplay the ‘weirdness’ or ‘Otherness’ of Christianity, God and the gospel become quickly domesticated, diluted, insipid; unable to stand against evil; to give prophetic witness; to form radical and counter-cultural communities of faith; to speak of an alternative kingdom of God that has broken into this world.

It’s no coincidence that both Barth and Schweitzer spent much time considering Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels just isn’t dull, predictable, undemanding, easily accommodated into our lives and having little to say about the broken world in which we live.

Once we lose touch with the weirdness of Christian faith, it is inevitable that we end up with a form of Christianity that is virtually indistinguishable from the wider culture.

So what are some signs that we have lost touch with the strange Otherness of Christianity?

Here are some suggestions in no particular order – feel welcome to add your own:

1. When the content of much Christianity tends to be primarily therapeutic.

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. The church is a community where you will be loved and accepted unconditionally. The gospel will give your life new significance and meaning. God will help you navigate through the storms of life. The pastor is there to remind and encourage you that you are loved.

This is Christianity lite – a form of spiritual consumerism that promises all and demands little. God is there for you because you are worth it.

No place here for the NT’s embrace of suffering, injustice and persecution as ‘light and momentary troubles’.

No place here for the notion that being a Christian means death: death to the self; death to sin; death to an old order of existence.

2. When faith is assumed.

This is perhaps the most damaging legacy of Christendom. Everybody is ‘in’; everybody has been baptised; Christianity is natural, universal, and all-embracing. The focus of preaching and teaching is on equipping and exhorting and encouraging members to be more committed to helping the church maintain its structures and existence. Mission is marginalised and almost irrelevant.

Little place in an assumed faith for the deep mystery of the atonement: that somehow in one man’s death and shed blood, something happened of universal spiritual significance that forgiveness and freedom from sin needs to be appropriated through repentance and faith.

3. When Jesus is marginalised.

God IncarnateYou know – things like his apparently crazy teaching on non-violence. His teaching on money and possessions. His utterly uncompromising demands of his followers. His passion for justice. His words of coming judgment. His unrelenting eschatological focus on the kingdom of God and his urgent summons to enter now.

And, to top all of this, is the NT’s exalted Christological claim that this local Rabbi was God in the flesh. A completely unexpected development; foolish nonsense to Greeks, revolting heresy to Jews, unbelievable religious jargon to contemporary atheists, a threatening universal truth claim to modern pluralists.

This is why I love this picture of Jesus by Oliver Crisp – it brilliantly captures the otherness of Jesus who resists all easy categorisation.

4. When the Spirit is paid only lip-service.

Pentecostals and charismatics rightly protest against a sort of virtually ‘binitarian’ Christianity, where the vital, central and life-giving role of the Spirit is replaced with a form of rationalism. Where there is little expectation of the empowering presence of God himself to change lives, heal, and work visibly in the church and the world.

5. When ‘God is on our side’.

I mean by this a form of religious nationalism where Christianity is co-opted to bless and sanctify our politics; our identity; our nation. ‘God bless America’. God on the side of the British Empire. God on the side of Catholic Ireland’s fight for freedom against that Empire. God on the side of [Protestant] Ulster not to be subsumed within Catholic Ireland.

God sure does switch sides a lot doesn’t he?

Once God is safely for us, then our enemies are unrighteous. Since error and heresy have no right, all sorts of horror follows. For examples, read some Irish history.

6. When we buy into the sacred / secular divide.

A nice image here is of an orange and a peach. A Christian view of life is not orange – nicely segmented into distinct categories, with spiritual being one sitting alongside work, family, leisure etc. Rather life is like a peach – one whole fruit where everything is spiritual with Jesus as the centre stone.

The sacred / secular divide attempts to neuter the universal Lordship of Christ over all of life. It reduces Christianity to some sort of Kantian subjective experience. Truth becomes individualised and privatized. The gospel is reduced and personalised. The church has little to say to the world.

7. When we lose touch with the eschatological heartbeat of the Bible.

The OT and NT look forward to a new creation; a remaking of all things within a different order of existence where death is banished. No hospitals, doctors, medicines or morgues there. A future where evil and sin will have no place and justice will be done for ever.

But this is not just away in the future sometime – the future is already here in the present. The ‘proof’ is the presence of the promised Spirit, a foretaste of God’s rule to come. The resurrection of Jesus is the forerunner of the resurrection to come for all who belong to him.

Now that just doesn’t sound ‘normal’ and rational and scientific does it? Such a vision invites scorn and ridicule (as well as joy and hope). Well, let the scorn and ridicule come for Christianity is nothing without eschatology. Whenever the church loses focus on future hope it becomes fat, lazy, complacent and inward looking.

 

So, any attempt to make Christianity acceptable and reasonable to modern culture by removing the ‘unbelievable’ bits is doomed to failure. Even with the best of intentions, what remains will bear little resemblance to historic orthodox Christian faith.

I’ve nothing against good apologetics (defending the historic reliability of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection etc) but increasingly I see a Christian’s primary task as simply announcing and telling and discussing the good news as it stands – without apology, or qualification or embarrassment. (And without aggression, arrogance or coercion either).

The irony is that it’s when we take it upon ourselves to change the story and try to make it more popular and relevant, that we do the greatest damage.

In other words, let the weirdness and Otherness of the Christian gospel stand on its own two feet. This is the apostolic story that we have been given – let’s keep to the script and trust in God to do the rest.

Living gently in a violent world where cartoonists get shot

The graphic images of gunmen executing a helpless French policeman on a Paris street should shock. In conversation the other day, someone called this act ‘inhuman’ in its brutal callousness. Brutal and callous, yes; inhuman? No.

All too human in fact. I’m only stating the obvious (good at that) to point out that 2000 people were killed in violence in Nigeria last week. The nice, good, freedom-loving liberal West has killed thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years: it’s alleged that the CIA tortured at least 14,000 Iraqi prisoners in the (terrifying for victims) ‘War on Terror’ along the way. Violent conflicts continue to rage at a fairly consistent level across the world, with particularly bloody examples in Syria and Iraq.

UCDPmap2013

And you don’t need to know much Irish history to be aware of the long legacy of the glorification of the gun on both sides of Irish politics.

I well remember sitting in a lecture class in Belfast as a student and hearing gunshots just outside the classroom window as the IRA ruthlessly executed Edgar Graham, a law lecturer and Unionist politician. It isn’t extremist Islamic violence that is somehow unique in its willingness to deal in death.

And then of course there is all the ‘common’ violence of domestic abuse and violent crime etc that don’t count in ‘war’ statistics. Or the innumerable ‘unknown’ stories of unimaginable violence that go on out of sight and mind: one a friend learnt first-hand of over Christmas was of Albino children in East Africa being hunted and killed out of the belief that drinking their blood or eating their body parts would bring wealth and prosperity, or having sex with an Albino girl would cure AIDS.

I could go on (and on and on) but the point is this: violence is embedded in the fabric of this fallen world; it’s endemic to human nature (mostly men of course but that’s another topic). It is primarily violence, especially against women, that hinders development in many parts of the world. And neither is violence limited to ‘backward’ cultures; indeed it seems that our capacity for violence climbs in line with our ability to develop technology to kill each other.

Today, it is primarily the democratic, liberal and free Western governments which make billions out of selling sophisticated weaponry globally. The top 100 companies worldwide sold $400 billion worth of arms in 2013. Two-thirds of those companies are in the USA or Europe. The USA makes over half of global arms sales, followed by the UK and France and even peace-loving Germany not far behind.

The causes of violence are complex: tribalism, ethnic conflict, hot nationalisms, religious extremism, political expediency; competition for scarce resources; ruthless greed, over-population – whatever reason you can identify, it is obvious that humans do not lack motives, means and the willingness to kill each other.

It has been ever thus (Gen. 4:8) and this is why the question of a Christian response to the reality of violence and war is a question posed to every generation of Christians in every culture globally.

And since Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God, what the Bible teaches about peace and non-violence becomes pretty important.

Here’s my contention – and feel welcome to join a discussion: the New Testament witness is overwhelming and unambiguous in its commitment to non-violence. And that witness flows from the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Any theory that justifies Christians engaging in violence inevitably therefore takes some form of theological or philosophical or pragmatic argument ‘beyond the New Testament’.

But what about Paul? Does he really have as strong and consistent committment to non-violence as Jesus? Doesn’t he live a more pragmatic grey-zone when it comes to (justified) violence?

Not according to Jeremy Gabrielson in his book Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: the theological politics of peace in Paul’s life and letters. The longest chapter in the book is ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’.

I suspect that, along with Romans, Galatians has been one of the most influential letters ever written in human history. Its huge themes of gospel, grace, justification by faith, law and life in the Spirit have impacted untold millions. What’s fresh here is Gabrielson goes beyond those usual Galatian themes, to argue how the letter also speaks of Paul’s deep and pervasive commitment to non-violence.

The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers (1:23) – out of his zealousness for the law. While Paul does not go into details and we have to rely on Luke for an account of Paul’s role in the killing of Stephen, such zealousness linked to violence is seen in the writings of Philo.

Paul’s experience of the risen Christ, not only causes deep and profound ‘shifts’ in his understanding of the law, faith, righteousness and even his ‘theology proper’ of God himself, but also in his understanding of what sort of life pleases God.

Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’ – killing in the name of God. Rather he can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (2:19-20). However precisely understood (and there are debates over how much these verses are autobiographical), he rejoices in the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion. He is now a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. As Gabrielson puts it,

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence. Violence remains a part of Paul’s life, but it is now violence inflicted on and received by the Apostle rather than performed by him.” (95)

He includes a significant quote from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9)

“Seldom …. is his turn from violence qua violence (as opposed to his turn from persecuting the early church to promoting the faith) seen as a constitutive part of his conversion and life, or as paradigmatic for, and therefore constitutive of, Christian conversion and therefore new life generally. If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

In other words, the violent Paul ‘died’ upon encountering and then following the crucified and risen Messiah. The ‘new’ Paul was a man of peace. Now, IF this radical shift from violence to peace is paradigmatic for all believers, a life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit. Gabrielson puts it this way:

“The trajectory of violence for Jesus’ disciple is ruptured, and once they have been co-crucified, their transformed, newly enlivened bodies take on a power over violence which exercises its power-over-violence only because Violence cannot understand how it is defeated by weakness. The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ.” (99-100)

Gabrielson unpacks Galatian’s rich understanding of the Christian life – a life marked by the fruit of the Spirit in the overlap of the ages. I really like what he says here. It covers similar territory to a chapter I worked on last year on Paul and the Christian life, but with a focus on implications for Christian non-violence.

New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the Risen Lord.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Spirit- flesh contrast in Galatians is talking of a cosmic reality, where the future is already here in the present and Christians to embody that new reality through life in the Spirit which overcomes the old life in the flesh. This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God ( 6:9).

Yet, being peaceful, does not mean that violence will not come your way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

For this was the way of their Lord.

The greatest story

Last week a university student union invited me to give a talk on how Jesus, the OT and the NT fit together.

I used this outline:

1. What is the Bible about? 

An all-encompassing story – from Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Spirit & Church – to our place in the story and looking forward to the END of the story (new creation)

2. What is the NT?

Here’s a suggested definition

a theological reflection on the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in light of Israel’s story as told in her scriptures.

Every NT writer is doing this in one way or another. Examples from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul in Romans .. etc etc

3. Who is Jesus?

The promised Messiah in whom God fulfils his promises to Israel and accomplishes his plans for the redemption of the world.  He is the one around whom the whole story revolves. To understand the OT as Christian scripture, you start with Jesus and re-read the reconfigured story. The NT does this in hundreds of ways -the diagram is a quick sketch of some examples. Most significantly, Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH himself come to his people to redeem his world.

Jesus and the OT

4. What difference does this make?

Someone (rightly) said I didn’t earth this practically enough. So here’s another go:

Being a Christian is much more (but not less than) believing truth – it is faith in a person; being ‘in Christ’ who is the resurrected and living Lord.

This gives believers:

A new identity – the old ‘I’ is gone, the new creation has come.

A new purpose – ‘my’ story finds meaning within God’s story in Christ

A new community – my story is lived with others who are in Christ

A new hope – the story is not over yet.

Such profound identity change costs everything – it is a complete re-orientation of the self, of life, of values to live by, of meaning and of purpose. It is, in other words, a radical decision to join one’s life to one true story; the greatest story of all.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Israel through a Christological lens (3)

BethlehemSo, does the church ‘replace’ Israel?

The charge of ‘replacement theology’ is a heavily loaded one. It is frequently equated with anti-Semitism, It is seen as denying God’s covenant(s) with Israel (especially regarding Israel’s ‘divine gift’ of the land which is assumed to be permanent) and therefore being sub-biblical at best. It is seen as arrogant (Christians better than Jews) and so on.

Sometimes ‘replacement’ theology is equated with ‘supersessionism’. The tricky bit here is that these terms need definition. Rikk Watts has a very good article on ‘Israel and Salvation’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Evangelical Theology. In it he describes Gabriel Fackre’s systematisation of at least 5 forms of supersessionism and 8 forms of anti-supersessionist theology. I’m not going to go into all them here – save to say that it’s misleading to throw terms like ‘replacement’ around without defining what it is you are talking about.

I don’t believe in ‘replacement’ theology. I do believe in ‘fulfilment’ theology. Here’s why:

The church does not ‘replace’ Israel as if ‘that story is a dead-end and now here’s a new one’. The entire NT is incomprehensible without the story of Israel. Jesus completes or fulfils that story – he is the one about whom the whole story revolves. As sketched  in the last post, themes of exodus, Messiah, Torah, land, temple, Spirit, people of God – all find deep continuity and fulfilment in the ‘Christ event’.

It is those who are ‘in Christ’ who are children of Abraham. Believers in Jesus are adopted as God’s children through the Spirit of God (Galatians; Romans). This is a reconstituted Israel – made up of anyone who abides in Jesus (to use John’s language this time). It is crystal clear that it is not sufficient to belong to Israel or to be Torah-obedient. it was not enough for Paul – it is the New covenant which surpasses the Old for it brings life (2 Cor. 3:7-17). The vital thing here is to ‘turn to the Lord’.

The language for the NT people of God is significant. The church (ekklesia) is in continuity with the qahal – the community of Israel. The outpouring of the Spirit to the Gentiles is seen as a fulfilment of the promise to Abraham and to Jacob that all nations would be blessed. Paul explicitly calls the church ‘the Israel of God’ in Gal. 6:16.  There is no longer any significant spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile (Rom 10:2; Gal 3:28, whole of Ephesians) – they retain their identity and culture within the one body, but the spiritual significance of being Jewish is radically relativised. No where is this more clear than in Paul’s radical statement that

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” (Gal 6:15).

This theme of fulfilment is seen in how OT covenants find their completion in Jesus (the Christological lens). Exodus; Abrahamic; Davidic covenants are all fulfilled in Jesus. He enacts a new exodus; those in him are children of Abraham; he is the anointed king. And when it comes to Passover, the gospel testimony is startling: Jesus enacts a new Passover, offering his own body and blood to bring forgiveness in and through his death (and victorious resurrection).

And these theme of fulfilment is seen in relation to the land itself – just as it has been for Temple and Torah and people of God. The eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem is of a cosmic place of reconciliation where believers from all tribes and tongues and nations enter in. Just as the physical Temple is decentered and fulfilled in Jesus himself (and indeed Jesus announces impending judgement on the temple), so the land is ‘decentered’. No longer are God’s people tied to the land, but are formed from all nations through the life-giving Spirit, as the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and bears fruit all over the world (Col 1:6).

What does all this mean today?

i. There is ONE covenant and ONE new humanity in Christ, made up of Jews and Gentiles, equal recipients of grace, first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles (who are graciously grafted into that one story).

ii. Torah is fulfilled through faith in Christ and a life in the Spirit. This is not replacement – but God acting to bring forgiveness and new life and holiness to the world beyond Israel as he had always promised to do.

iii. God has not abandoned Israel (Rom 11:2-6). Theirs is the original story; theirs is the Messiah. Paul longs that they would recognise him as such (Rom 11:13) – and that many will come to saving faith in the future (Rom 11:26-7). The paradox is that God has used Israel’s rejection of her Messiah  to bring the gospel to the nations.

iv. ‘Israel’ is redefined in the NT through the life, teaching and saving work of Jesus the Messiah. There is one unfolding story of God’s redemptive action in history. What has changed is that Gentiles are now welcomed in to that story and do not have to become Jews to be part of it. If the identity of the people of God in the OT was Torah and circumcision (and,  very importantly, faith in and love for God), now the identity of the people of God is faith in Christ, love of God, a life of holiness empowered by the Spirit, baptism into Christ, and the new covenant meal of the Lord’s Supper.

v. The idea that the modern secular nation-state of Israel is in some way a literal fulfillment of God’s promises to OT Israel is a fatally flawed hermeneutic that sits in flat contradiction to the consistent witness of the New Testament. For that reason alone it should be seriously questioned.

vi. Saying this is not anti-Semitic, or anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian or pro-Islamic! To claim that it is is just a form of spiritual bullying. There are other political and pragmatic and moral arguments that can be better made for the right of Israel to exist in peace. Just don’t distort the Bible to bolster those modern political positions when it does not. It’s bad theology on all sorts of levels.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Israel through a Christological lens (2)

BethlehemOK, what follows is a theological sketch.

‘Israel’ needs definition: I’m here talking about God’s elect people, his promise to Abraham and his choosing of Jacob and his descendants and their identity and calling to be his holy people, faithful to the covenant and Torah.

When we come to consider the identity of ‘Israel’ today, we must do so through a Christological lens. For this is how the NT is written – it is fundamentally a theological reflection on the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in light of Israel’s story as told in her scriptures.

Jesus is Israel’s Messiah; the king who announces and demonstrates in power the that the kingdom of God has come; his healing of the sick, raising of the dead, purifying lepers and casting out of demons are all signs that the eschatological rule of God is here in the present. Jesus is the anointed Son of God, the fulfilment of all the hopes of Israel. He alone brings forgiveness and salvation.

Jesus re-enacts exodus around himself; the baptism – Spirit- temptations narrative highlights that he is God’s beloved Son are all strong echoes of Exodus:  (passing through water followed by 40 days in the desert). Jesus chooses 12 disciples; he reforms or reconstitutes Israel around himself. He is even the fulfilment of the Torah – obedience to God is measured in faithful response to his teaching. He is the one with the authority to reinterpret and apply the Torah (Mt 5-7). For John he is the eternal Logos.

Jesus explicitly announces judgement on the Temple. It would be replaced by worship centered on the resurrected Lord (1 Cor 8:6). He is one greater than the Temple (Mt 12:6). John tells of Jesus who is the temple (Jn 2:19-21). Luke records in Acts 7 how the significance of the Temple is relativised in light of the coming of the Righteous One; “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands”. And in the eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, the temple is not a building but the presence of God and the Lamb.

The exalted Christology of the NT reinforces the picture of Jesus, the Lord, the one greater than Solomon, greater than David, the very presence of God himself having come to his Temple in the holy city. He comes a suffering servant, to die for the world.  The entire book of Hebrews is a Christological reflection on how Jesus far surpasses anything or anyone that has come before  – including priesthood, temple sacrifices, prophets like Moses and the tabernacle.

In his resurrection, Jesus is the vindicated Son of God. It is the risen Lord who sends the Spirit, fulfilling the hope of the OT prophets like Joel. It is through faith in Jesus that the gift of the life-giving Spirit is received. Life comes in him, not through the Torah. A new community of the Spirit is formed in Christ – a community, the household of God, that stands in continuity with Israel. Those in Christ are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17)  – whether Jew or Gentile it does not matter. It is the Spirit-filled community which is the temple of the living God (2 Cor 6:16).

Israel is reconstituted around the Messiah; Jews, Gentiles, men, women, slave and free are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Food laws are relativised (Mk 7:19). In other words, the boundary markers of Israel are redrawn and widened. Paul’s writings grapple with this theme in depth. Those in Christ are children of Abraham and heirs of the promise. The Torah is good but could not give life: its very purpose is fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah. Its commands are kept by life in the Spirit (Rom 8:4).

So it’s clear that there are deep themes of both continuity and discontinuity from old to new covenant; issues revolving around the relationships between Israel, Torah, land, Temple, church; Spirit, Messiah.

How do you put those relationships together?

Your answer to that question will shape how you see (among other things) the status of modern day Israel.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Israel through a christological lens (1)

BethlehemThere are few issues as contentious – and where apparently Christian people lose their sense of civility, grace, logic and love – than the place of Israel in the saving purposes of God.

Last Thursday in IBI we had a visit from Munther Issac of Bethlehem Bible College. He was over in Ireland speaking at the Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention. In inviting Munther down to Dublin, we had no political or theological axe to grind. Christians have different political and theological views over land in the Bible and the place of modern Israel and this was an opportunity to explore and think about those differences theologically in an atmosphere of respect and civility. For as Christians, the unity of the body that we have in Christ is far greater than what we disagree about.

Munther spoke about being a Palestinian Christian, living with the reality of life in the West Bank.  He also outlined a theology of the land and of Christian identity in the NT.  He spoke with humility and a plea for fellow Christians to see beyond the assumption that modern day secular Israel has some sort of divine right to the land and to a place that is sensitive to the need for Israel to act with equality and justice.

This sort of unquestioning support for Israel, he argued, is blind to the suffering of Palestinians under occupation but also to deeper spiritual questions. The key question for followers of Jesus is not to argue about ‘divine right’ to the land but how can evangelicals be peacemakers in a context of deep division and entrenched violence? How can they love their enemies and work for justice and equality? How can Palestinians and Israelis share the land since neither are going to disappear?

The reasons behind many evangelical’s support of Israel are complex and I’m only sketching things here: a particular scheme of biblical prophecy that sees 1948 as an act of God bringing Jews back to their Holy Land; a dispensational theology that sees a separation between Israel and the church; an acute awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust; a fear of radical Islam and a political judgement that Israel needs all the help it can get to survive the surrounding hostility of the Muslim world; the strong support of the contemporary Israeli state among many Messianic believers, particularly in the USA.

So, it’s clear there is a lot going on here.

– Theological

– Political

– Religious

And for some, like ‘Jerusalem fever’ (when being in the holy city gets all too much) things begin to get all out of proportion. Some become zealous to the point of fanaticism; of not listening to others, of making agreement on these issues a test of orthodoxy; and of throwing around terms like ‘replacement theology’ as equivalent of being anti-Semitic and somehow being culpable for the rise of Islamic extremism and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East …!

So, a couple of posts will follow trying to think theologically about these things.

(civil) comments welcome.

Musings on Pacifism 2

pacifismChristian pacifism, as the name tends to suggest, begins with Jesus.

The argument goes something like this (and feel welcome to add / correct / expand, these are just blog musings written while watching the latest Scandinavian drama, Arne Dahl and nothing seems to be happening)

Violence ultimately is imposing your will on another through physical force. Violence in the name of Empire or nation is compelling another community to do the same. Where god is used to legitimate and justify the use of that power, it becomes idolatry.

Jesus rejected the violent power-narratives of Roman Empire and also eschewed the route of religious Jewish violence to ‘liberate’ Israel in the name of YHWH. His was a very different path to the bloody one trodden by the Maccabees earlier and the Zealots later. His mission is that of the servant-king, whose kingdom is of a different form to the kingdoms of the world. Rather than use force to advance his mission, he submits to ‘unjust justice’ and illegitimate violence. He is the innocent one, who gives up endless power to win the victory over the powers; over evil; over violence and death by self-giving love.

Disciples in his kingdom are to be busy peacemaking, exercising humility, being self-giving, repenting, loving their hated neighbours and their oppressing enemies. Paul is such a disciple. He embraces suffering, persecution, imprisonment, character assassination and eventual martyrdom for his Lord. He gives up his rights for the sake of the gospel. He never turns to force to advance his mission. He persuades, argues, reasons, serves, teaches, pastors and writes of grace, forgiveness, faith, hope and love. His identity is in Christ, all other identities are relativised – whether his Jewish pedigree or his Roman citizenship.

He models the way of the cross, as his saviour had done – as all Christians are called to do. It is not for nothing that Christians are to remember the Lord’s death as often as they meet. They are to be people of the ‘crucified God’.

The work of the Spirit also rejects ‘the will to power’. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control fulfil the Law and are characteristic of life within the kingdom of God. This fruit is incompatible with force, compulsion, intimidation, threat, control and fear – all ‘fruits’ of violence and war.

Eschatological hope forms the basis of Christian ethics. Christian hope is of a new creation of God’s shalom. Christians are to be agents of the ‘kingdom come’ here on earth. That vision compels them to be peacemakers not war-makers; to reject the use of arms in favour of sacrificial costly love; to forgive rather than fight.

Historically, it is deeply compelling to me that in the first 2-3 centuries of the Christian church, believers refused to take up arms for Empire; soldiering was seen as a sin, utterly at odds with following the Messiah executed by that Empire. The greatest tragedy of church history in my opinion is the later church’s complicity with power, and the ruthless use of force to support and reinforce that power.

Christian pacifism is also coupled with (I would argue) a deeply realistic Christian scepticism about sinful human capacity for self-deception and the mis-use of power. What ‘just war’ does not end up multiplying unjust violence and who decides what is just or not? (one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter etc)  What war cannot be presented as ‘just’ (even if it manifestly isn’t) if the ‘will to war’ is there? (Blair and Bush on Iraq – enough said).

OK, even if you are not persuaded by how this sort of thinking about Christian faith, pacifism and war can actually work ‘in the real world’, why is it that the overwhelming ‘weight’ of Christian non-violence in the life and teaching of Jesus, the Lord and head of the church, has historically been marginalised within the history of western Christianity?

Overcoming Violence: is it possible to distance God from all violence in the Bible?

1331567925I’ve been reading and reviewing Johnston McMaster, Overcoming Violence: Dismantling an Irish History and Theology: an alternative vision. Columba Press: Dublin, 2012.

McMaster is Assistant Professor and Co-ordinator of the Education for Reconciliation Programme within the Irish School of Ecumenics. This is an ambitious and passionate work of Irish political theology emerging out of years of reflection and active participation in reconciliation programmes.

I can’t reproduce the formal review but before I lose more brain cells and forget the details, I’d like to explore what I think is his central theme (and what follows is my take on McMaster’s overall argument not his own words unless in quotes):

It is possible, indeed absolutely essential, to distance God from all violence in the Bible. And therefore, God’s people are to renounce and be utterly opposed to violence.

Violence is always an evil. There is nothing redemptive about violence. Any idea that violence is redemptive is heresy and owes more to Babylonian religious militarism than the Bible. The myth of redemptive violence has been a curse in Western history and within the church. It is something we need to be delivered from for good.

And there have been few places more negatively impacted by the myth of redemptive violence than Ireland. Our blood-soaked religious history testifies to the poison it injects within a culture. Our love of violence reveals the corrosive effects of the ‘Constantinian mistake’ where violence has been exalted and justified in the name of God and of nation. What is required is ‘a whole new vision of what it means to live the faith’ (185).The best way the decade of centenaries of 1912-22 can be remembered is to remember the past dead is as ‘victims to our shared inhumanity and acquiescence in violence’ (190).

God is good. Jesus is the climax of the biblical revelation of who God is, is manifestly against violence. He is the king of the peaceable kingdom. He rejects the way of the sword. He calls his disciples to peace and, if necessary to suffering. McMaster says that ‘this inherent ethos of the kingdom is far removed from the ambivalence towards and even collusion with war and violence in Irish and Western history’ (184-5).

A theology that endorses violence is due to a massive mis-reading of the OT and the NT.  If you read the OT ‘literally’, says McMaster, you end up with all sorts of ‘texts of terror’ that appear to glory in images of a pathological warrior God who divinely sanctions brutal violence against children, humanity in general, the enemies of Israel and women.  You end up with ‘violent zealot’ like King Josiah being seen as a good guy. You end up  with the ‘divine right of kings’ being supported from the OT and being used a pretext for empire building and destruction of enemies by any means possible. To bring it closer to home, you end up with Cromwell in Drogheda.Cromwell in Drogheda

So how else can the violent ‘texts of terror’ in the OT be read? McMaster uses a pretty radical heremeneutic. Following a critical strand of OT scholarship (he doesn’t name him but Martin Noth was a forerunner) he argues that these ‘texts of terror’ need to be read through the lens of exile and judgement. In other words, Deuteronomy to 2 Kings needs to be understood as a theological history (McMaster calls it theo-mythical imagination) compiled in exile and re-interpreting Israel’s earlier history (the details of which are lost in time).

And this revisioning of history is actually anti-violence. The story of exodus, Canaan, Israel’s taking of a king and all the violence than ensued, was a tragic departure from her true calling. And the stories we have in the Bible are best read as a critique of Israel and her violence and lack of trust in YHWH. Underneath the narratives is the call to faith, to powerlessness, to rest in God being their God rather than take up arms. Violence, in this reading, is a lack of faith, a moral failure, a warning to future generations not to repeat their mistakes. And you see this counter narrative of non-violence all through the OT, which culminates in the coming of the Messiah.

McMaster doesn’t go into lots of examples, but presumably every time God is portrayed as commanding violence or as a victorious warrior, it is part of this anti-violent critique of the failure of Israel during this mythological history. Now, that’s quite a lot of re-interpretation going on.

OK, that’s the OT. When it comes to the NT, McMaster doesn’t tone down the radical arguments. He claims that Christians (and especially evangelicals since their close association with penal substitution) have deeply distorted the atonement. Those who believe in substitutionary atonement are responsible for propagating an inherently violent and immoral image of God that is flat contradiction with the teaching of Jesus himself. He says it is

‘baffling to know why Christians have allowed a violent God’s blood sacrifice of “his only Son” as a substitute for sinful humanity to dominate theology and liturgy for the last 1,000 years’ (116)

Without considering other models, or offering a fair view of penal substitution, he chooses the Christus Victor theory of the atonement instead of substitution. The violence in Christus Victor is that of the state, not of God. To believe in substitution (he does not add the word penal) is to ‘traumatise children’ with the immoral image of God as a father murdering his son at the cross (116). Strong, even violent, opinions.

Now, if you read this blog from time to time you may know that I happen to agree with McMaster that following Jesus means a life committed to active non-violence. I happen to agree that violence justified in the name of God has characterised and disfigured much of Irish (and church) history and that narrative needs replaced with an alternative story to that of power and coercion. It is only within such a narrative that the church can begin to recover its integrity as well as its ability to speak authentically of Jesus’ kingdom vision of peace, forgiveness, mercy, love of enemies and of self-giving non-violence.

But it seems to me that McMaster’s theological goal of distancing God from any involvement in violence leads to a critically debatable view of the OT narratives that still fails to deal convincingly with the numerous times God is very directly involved in violence.  And his passionate anti-violence framework leads to a caricature of penal substitution. Revelation is also read primarily as an anti-Empire text rather than a vision of God’s ultimate judgement. I’m not sure if there is a place for judgement in McMaster’s framework but I could be wrong.

While there are not easy answers, I found Chris Wright helpful on the OT and violence, here, here and here.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

UPDATE

Reading this over, I should add that lots in this book is very helpful and I haven’t made that clear in the narrower focus on hermeneutics. There are 4 chapters of history and 2 on putting active non-violence into practice within church communities – all good stuff.