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Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

Two weeks ago a document called the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel (SJ&G) released and has since been making the rounds. I’m sure no one has checked the list of signatories for my name, but it isn’t on there and won’t be.

I post this comment not to go over the document’s details, nor to note quibbles with those details. I have some quibbles, but those are unimportant next to two big issues the document raises: one of which it gets right, the other that it gets wrong.

The big thing the document gets right is that “social justice” — a term that is far more connotative than denotative, and really needs definition before fruitful discussion of it can proceed — is presently being used by some Christians as a bludgeon against others. Precisely because of its imprecision “social justice” is a useful blunt instrument for pummeling an array of people: some of whom are really socially unjust, some scarcely socially unjust at all. The rapid evolution and lexical range of “social justice” has made it a pernicious epithet in the hands of power players and gaslighters. To the extent SJ&G highlights this, I appreciate its drafters doing so.

The big thing the document gets wrong, though — and the reason I have no inclination to sign — is distilled in a sentence in section VI’s “We Deny”:

Implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.

Maybe not. But it isn’t as though the only way a person can deny the gospel is by denying or altering the definitions. Peter was “out of step with the truth of the gospel” at Antioch because he refused to eat with Gentiles. His conduct contradicted the gospel — which is why Paul said Peter “stood condemned” there and “opposed him to his face.” One of the obvious fruits of believing that the cross reconciled us to God is working for reconciliation among estranged peoples and nations. If the tree doesn’t produce such fruit — especially if the tree does produce the contrary fruit of ethnic superiority, resentment, and segregationism — we may safely say the tree isn’t rooted in the gospel.

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For some time I have been thankful that the Church dropped the dark notes of St. Stephen and Holy Innocents into the Feast of Christmas. In part, for the sake of those who mourn; in part, because it brings out Christmas’s natural patina — the patina that all beautiful things have, and without which brightness and comfort and joy devolve into triumphal kitsch. Mostly, though, I’m grateful for these days because they are helpful markers of what Christmas was, and is, in the story of the world: “a sign that will be opposed (and a sword will pierce your soul also).”

Wherever the gospel forms and moves a man to do good works in public, there will be envious informers and an angry mob with a Saul of Tarsus urging them to cast their stones. When the Light of the World dapples the walls of a cave in Bethlehem, then Herod the King — that oh-so typical political strongman who would co-opt the worship of God for his self-serving civil religion — will rage against the arrival of the Light.

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Nearly five years ago, in the midst of a lot of argument over the public implications of Christian theology — about the demise of the Religious Right, the rise of Islamist terrorism, Christian signaling (often confused and distorted) by Republican politicians — I set myself a task: to write a series of essays on several New Testament passages that address how one goes about being a Christian in public. The purpose of the series would be to set forth the often startling angles from which the New Testament authors regarded political power, angles that would present some surprises for everyone.

After setting forth the idea, alas, two things happened. First, the arguments, provocations, and occasional atrocities piled up. Second, I became too busy following them, and occasionally responding to them on their own terms. After stating that serious Christian engagement with the world requires “reading, marking, and inwardly digesting” Holy Scripture, the troubles of the world distracted me from that very work. The results were frankly terrible for my soul.

The lesson I learned the hard way, of which I am now more persuaded than ever, is simple: deep reflection on the Bible is the key to remaining sane and hopeful in our decidedly interesting times. Not that following the events is unimportant. St. Luke (to take only one example) is a model of how to think with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But ten minutes of perusing the Acts of the Apostles discloses that St. Luke didn’t forget Scripture for the news. And for that reason he neither drifted with his times nor overreacted to them. He could approach issues of his time from surprising angles, and regard them with critical hope.

Moving, then, from introduction to the first essay proper, we leave the pages of St. Luke and the apostolic age and rewind to a small-town scandal preceding Jesus’s birth, as recorded in first pages of St. Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

S Matthew 1:18-21 (ESV).

One of the questions this brief passage raises is “in what did St. Joseph of Nazareth’s justice consist — that he had cause to divorce Mary, or the quiet manner in which he resolved to divorce her?”

The question actually presents a false dichotomy. Joseph’s righteousness consisted in both. For, in his time as in ours, there was no shortage of men willing to divorce their wives on the flimsiest of grounds: to seize upon trivial “causes” to justify themselves when their real motive may have been to marry a richer, more sexually attractive, or more complying wife. In Joseph’s time that was called “any cause” divorce; the contemporary equivalent (now practiced by both sexes) is “no-fault.” Joseph did not practice “any cause” divorce. His cause — Mary’s apparent fornication — was unquestionable. It was a ground for divorce recognized even by the strict disciples of Shammai, and by Jesus himself.

st joseph and gabrielThat said, in describing the nature of Joseph’s righteousness St. Matthew’s accent is on the quiet manner in which Joseph resolved to divorce Mary. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” In legal terms, what that means is that while Joseph had the right to a for-cause divorce — involving a public trial and whatever shame followed for Mary — he would pursue only the remedy prescribed for “any cause” divorce: privately to procure and deliver a certificate of divorce. That would have meant also that Joseph waived his claim for any monetary compensation for Mary’s infidelity, and any recovery of the bride-price he had paid her family.

I start this series here because in the pages of the New Testament St. Joseph’s kind of forbearance — from pressing claims of righteousness, shame and honor — is not an isolated curiosity. It occurs so frequently as to mark a kind of paradigm shift between the Old Covenant and the New: that while the definitions of moral rights and offenses continued, the approach to remedies — penalties to wrongdoers, compensation to the wronged — changed substantially. The didactic passage most obviously on point here is St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians that it’s better to suffer wrong than to have lawsuits among church members (1 Cor. 6:1-8). But this little pinch of leaven leavens the whole of the New Testament, the whole of the Kingdom of God. And in its unemphatic way, this ethic stands as a quiet but powerful witness against the excesses of our rights culture, and the cultural, political, and legal brinkmanship to which those excesses so often lead.

Joseph needed no trumpet, no public assertion of his right, no open vindication. His justice, manifest in the remedies he would and would not pursue, was as regular and quiet as the intake of breath. Like alms given with the right hand and kept secret from the left, Joseph’s resolve is a paradigm of true righteousness. It creates, at the very beginning of the New Testament, a striking new atmosphere, in which we can form the kind of character that alone can sustain faithful Christian public engagement.

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Some time ago a good friend of mine wrote a note, in the midst of a set of truly appalling circumstances, about the importance of non-judgment. For, she said, we don’t really know what anyone is up against. We do not know the history of the one whose action we judge. And, if we were given the history and circumstances of those we judge, would we have done better? 

Nothing in the note, especially given the circumstances it addressed, was wrong. Quite the contrary, in its place it was exactly right. And yet, after reading it through twice, I had a nagging thought that it was incomplete. Yet that’s about all that anyone is willing to say publicly about judgment these days: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” There is more that needs to be said, though, and hardly anyone is saying it.

Hi Ed Nathan Jr.

Thus saith the kidnappers of Nathan Arizona, Jr.: “Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.”

 

The thing more that needs saying has to do with the distinction between appraising and condemning. The connotations attached to these two words are quite different, though both can be used as synonyms for judging. Appraising and condemning may sometimes be distinguished in their effects, but more often in their respective intentions and underlying assumptions. The condemning man, when pointing a finger at a wrongdoer, doesn’t stop to think whether he’d have done any better — but probably assumes he would have. The appraising man also does not stop to think whether he’d have done better, but for a very different reason: what he would have done isn’t the standard.

There’s a reason the demanding teacher — the relentlessly critical appraiser of thoughts and words — is an archetypal character. And it’s no accident that under that archetype’s crusty exterior is a heart of gold. The exacting teacher is the one who cares. It is precisely because he does care that he will push his students to and just beyond the point they think of as “the limit” — but not so far beyond them that the students will break. The teacher knows the standard for all is wisdom, virtue, and high beauty, and that only great exertion will get us there.

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This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

The New Testament is full of sentences that are the gospel in shorthand. I have always found this one from John (1 S John 1:5) the most striking. Not only because it directly confronts the heart of both open unbelief and Christian crankiness and fear — the suspicion that God has a sadistic and miserly side — but because this message really does run through all of Jesus’s conversation. The way of life and renovation of the heart prescribed in the gospels are amazingly difficult. And yet very often Jesus’s portrait of his happy, lavishly generous Father might make one forget the difficulty: “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

When the world slanders Jesus, or remakes him after one of its own patterns, the Christian’s impulse is often to defend his elder brother, to “set the record straight.” Commendable impulse, but wrong: the “Christ’s defender” ethos is misleading. He needs no defense, unless it be the defense of our example — that we delight in listening to our Elder Brother and learning of him.

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Everybody knows that a few weeks ago, Jerry Falwell, Jr. made some rather controversial statements about gun ownership and self-defense to the students of Liberty University. A few people know that yesterday, John Piper responded with a lengthy nine-point rejoinder that comes within a hair’s breadth of absolute pacifism — although Dr. Piper did stop short of such a position by noting that the State at least bears the power of the sword, and by conceding the existence of (unspecified) “situational ambiguities.”

I have been thinking a lot about the phrase “they’ll know we are Christians by our means” lately. Are American Christians formed foremost by Americanism, or by the Way of Christ?

There is a caricature afoot of the history of how Islam spread: i.e. by the sword and nothing but the sword. That is a woefully incomplete picture. Islam spread by a combination of eloquent proclamation of the gospel according to Muhammad, shrewd diplomacy, and the sword — the three means used variously, as expedient.

You could say that the gospel of Liberty, United States Version (USV), has spread by a similarly expedient combination of means: proseletyzing (America as the “city on a hill,” anyone?); shrewdness (e.g. the purchases of Louisiana and Florida); and the sword (the armed displacement of First Nations at the beginning, numerous overseas interventions lately, in between and more controversially, the Civil War).

So even though Piper exceeds reason in a few places (especially the section about defense of family), I find it totally refreshing to see an American evangelical Christian carefully untangling American means of gospel-spreading from the Scriptural ones.

The early Church seems really to have been marked uniquely by its particular reliance on testimony — the testimony of words, mercies, and lives laid down literally and figuratively — occasionally on shrewd diplomacy; never the sword. The apostles spent much of the book of Acts in want and danger, and as targets of persecution, and they didn’t once get out the sword.

What clear, startling testimony that is. That is a kingdom not from the world.

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In my last post I took exception to Miroslav Volf’s unsupported accusation that Wheaton College’s action in placing Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave was “not about theology and orthodoxy,” but “enmity toward Muslims.”

Comes now Mr. Brian McLaren, who takes that accusation and gives it another run through the spin cycle:

The hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates – much of it spewed out to impress the “Evangelical base” of the Republican Party – seems to have swayed college administrators from their professed theology, which at Christmas should remind us all that God is in solidarity with all humanity, all creation …

Dr. Volf had set forth — with no evidence — an alleged motive for Wheaton’s action: enmity toward Muslims. Now Mr. McLaren sets forth the source of that enmity: the college administrators were “swayed . . . from their professed theology” by “the hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates.” I’m not holding my breath to see Mr. McLaren present actual evidence for that claim.

Is it so impossible to suppose that the Wheaton College administrators placed Dr. Hawkins on leave for saying “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” not because they were “swayed from . . . their professed theology,” but because — I dunno — they believed it? 

If Wheaton affirms the Incarnation — a mystery that Muslims flatly deny, and Christians adore — and then also affirms that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” Wheaton is equivocating about whether it believes in God’s supreme act of “solidarity with all humanity, all creation.”

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