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

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

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

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

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

Political Implications of Exodus Today

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

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

Exodus of old becomes Exodus of the present.

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

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

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

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

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

The power of the Exodus story, says Rutledge,

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

‘Political Transformation’ verses ‘Holy Distinctness’?

What do you think of Rutledge’s hermeneutic?

Is it legitimate to universalise the Exodus this way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments, as ever, welcome.

post-Christendom (11) realistic assessment of each issue

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: this is the fifth.

Realistic assessment of each piece of legislation

Some groups opposed the Civil Partnership Bill because of its supposed threat to religious freedom. Catholic Bishops went as far as to say that ‘This Bill is an extraordinary and far reaching attack on freedom of conscience and the free practice of religion.’ Others thought this an unnecessarily exaggerated fear and would be interpreted as a self-interested pretence to oppose the Bill.

But the main reason many Christians opposed the Bill was a perception it would undermine marriage and be a stepping stone to same-sex marriage. And it is obvious that the CPB is intensely disliked by many sections of the homosexual community since it is perceived as discriminating against certain citizens on the basis of their sexuality. Only full equality in marriage will be acceptable.

The EAI statement frankly acknowledged this reality but argued that the CPB was a reasonable compromise for homosexual and co-habiting couples to register their partnerships and gain the associated legal rights. It was a civil ceremony, explicitly not a religious one, which ‘does not challenge the traditional understanding of marriage in Ireland.’

Others disagreed. Which view is correct is open to debate. This is an area of ‘wisdom’ and ‘judgement calls’ rather than obvious adherence to biblical truth.

A question here is how can a minority Christian community ‘protect’ marriage within a plural democracy? Is protesting against such legislation as the CPB ‘where it is at’? Should the state be defending and promoting marriage for social reasons (such as the good of children) even if not for moral ones?

post-Christendom (10) realism about political and cultural context

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: this is the fourth.

Realism about one’s particular political and cultural context

For example, in Ireland, Christians doing public theology need to be realistic about the baleful legacy of Ireland’s recent past as well as political liberalism’s associated fear of privileging any one voice (especially a religious one) in the public square.

In such a context there is a need for humility, listening and dialogue by Christians, given Christianity’s negative associations with self-interest and power in Ireland.

Whether you agree with it or not, it’s clear that the EAI statement on Civil Partnerships was very aware of this context:

Evangelical Christians have no automatic right to have their views preferred to those of others. Nor do we have a duty to try and impose Biblical morality on public life by force of law … It is the essence of the Christian faith that it is freely chosen, never imposed. It is a tragedy of church history that the church ever thought it could use the power of the state to impose Christianity on people.

As Christianity moves to the margins of Irish public life, evangelical Christians cannot assume that their views will be either heard or understood, especially given their status as a tiny minority of under 1% of the population.  Legislation like the CPB therefore raises questions for Christians in terms of how and where they are engaged in building relationships with government, politicians and with individuals and organisations within the homosexual community. On this point John Stackhouse proposes,

I do not intend … to encourage a secularist evacuation of all religious institutions, symbols, values, and personnel from public life – not at all. Instead, we Christians should be taking the initiative to surrender those privileges that no longer make sense in a post- or semi-Christian society and instead use our shrinking cultural power to establish new relations of religion/society and church/state that will benefit all participants, including religious communities and state institutions, without unjustly penalizing or privileging any. Indeed, we should use what influence we have left to help construct the sort of society in which we ourselves would like to live once our power to effect it has disappeared … How unseemly it is for Christians to fight in the courts and legislatures for what remains of the dubious honors and advantages of Christendom. There is no more prudent time to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.[1]

Is this sort of approach an example of weakness in the face of colder cultural attitudes towards Christianity? Or is it, in an Irish context, a wise refusal to subscribe to the increasingly unrealistic and historically damaging ambitions of cultural transformation?

[1] Stackhouse, Making the Best of It, 345-6.

post-Christendom (8) neighbour love no optional extra

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: This is the second.

2. Realism about the implications of Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’

Jesus’ commanded his followers to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ and to love those that do not love in return (Luke 6:31-32). Yet, there is often little or no discussion of what it means in practice to love the ‘Other’ in many Christian responses to life within a plural democracy despite its absolutely central place in biblical ethics (Lev.19:18; Matt.19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27; Rom.13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas 2:8).

What constitutes ‘neighbour love’ towards others who hold opposing political and ethical views to your own? Why do you think many Christian responses to what ‘others’ think seem to ignore engaging with Jesus’ command to love their neighbour?

This is an important and complex question, but one that needs to be thought through and seriously engaged with by those who are following Jesus. Neighbour love isn’t an optional extra of marginal importance to ‘defending the truth’ or arguing for your own rights.

The whole point of Jesus’ parable in Luke 10:25-37 is that neighbour love is costly, radical and shocking since it is generously offers grace across deep gulfs of hatred, suspicion and alienation. ‘Neighbour love’ does not pretend profound differences do not exist but rather, in the face of such difference, says ‘I love you as I would wish to be loved’ or ‘The rights we desire for ourselves, we are glad to affirm for others.’

Christian love is not self-centred, fearful or defensive. Rather, since love is relational, it should also involve a sacrificial commitment to meet, talk with and listen to the ‘Other’.

The EAI statement on the CPB attempted to apply Jesus’ command in this particular case, and argued that the most loving thing to do was to support the Bill.

 … as followers of a just and compassionate God we can recognise the justice and fairness of providing some legal protection for the reality of both same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiting relationships … the Gospel requires of us that we show grace to those who fundamentally disagree with our convictions and who do not shape their lives according to what we believe is good for them. Jesus requires of his followers that they love and do good to those who oppose them or who hold to different ethical standards than they do.

Others strongly disagreed with this interpretation (to put it mildly). But my point here is to suggest that, whatever the conclusion, any Christian public theology must grapple seriously with the implications of ‘neighbour love’. Since love is not equivalent to mere toleration or unthinking acceptance, how it is expressed in different contexts will require significant wisdom and discernment.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

post-Christendom Ireland (3) distance and belonging

This post continues to unpack the argument of my paper “Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture”

Public theology has been defined as

‘the attempt to address matters of common or public concern in the community in light of the special truth claims and insights of Christian belief’.

It therefore seeks to engage in dialogue with policy makers and public institutions to make a constructive contribution towards the building of a better society but does so by offering a distinct voice, shaped by the overarching gospel narrative on which Christianity rests.

One of the most powerful and beautiful books I’ve ever read is Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (1994). It inspired me to study for a PhD and provided a key theme for that research. In it he talks about the tension facing the church of ‘distance and belonging’ – a critical distance from its host culture alongside an engaged belonging within that culture.

So, while belonging to and participating constructively to the renewal of their own culture, Christians will simultaneously be ‘dissenters’ from a secularist understanding of that culture that attempts to exclude the Lordship of Jesus over all cultures.

A couple of things to say here and I wonder what you think of this tension:

1. Some Christians seem to assume their job is simply to assert Christian truth and (somehow) expect society to order itself to Christian principles and all will be well. This is what Oliver O’Donovan calls (in the quote below) ‘abstract idealism’. Volf would call it ‘distance without belonging’.

2. Other Christians appear afraid of speaking with a distinctly Christian perspective. What other voice does the church have but to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ the living Lord? This failure of nerve leads to what O’Donovan calls ‘colourless assimilation.’ Volf would call it ‘belonging without distance’.

The church will frame its political witness with authenticity, avoiding the characteristic evils of abstract idealism and colourless assimilation, when it stands self-consciously before that horizon and confesses that it looks for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. (Desire of the Nations, 288)

Comments, as ever, welcome

post-Christendom Ireland (1)

A paper of mine was just published in Evangelical Quarterly (84.2, April 2012) with the snappy title of

Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture”

Here’s the abstract:

This paper uses the 2010 Irish Civil Partnership Bill as a lens by which to describe and explore different Christian approaches to public theology in general. Interacting especially with the work of John Stackhouse, it analyses the reasoning behind Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s (EAI) support of the Bill and argues that it represents a Christian Realist position. Various other negative Christian responses to the Bill are identified as representing two distinct theological poles which Stackhouse terms ‘cultural transformationalist’ and ‘holy distinctness’. It concludes that a credible public theology has to attempt to bridge a hermeneutical gap between the realm of personal ethics and the complex realities of a modern, democratic plural state and that this will seldom be easy or obvious. Six themes are proposed for shaping a Christian Realist approach to public theology within a plural democracy.

I hope to unpack the argument in some follow up posts.

Comments, as ever, welcome