Monday, July 30, 2012

Monday Morning silliness

I don't know where my father finds this stuff, but I enjoyed waking up to it this morning.  Thanks, Dad!

You can find more at Biblical Farside.  Have a great start to your week!

Friday, July 27, 2012

We Are Not Old Testament Israel - Hello?

Perhaps you can quote it verbatim, too:  ‘If My people, who are called by My name, humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.’  It is, of course, 2 Chronicles 7:14, and it is a promise given by God to King Solomon after he had finished and dedicated the temple in Jerusalem.

I have seen this verse used as the theme of revivals, caligraphied on posters with pictures of people praying earnestly, placarded on signs carried in demonstrations against the immorality of the day, written in giant letters at the most prominent place in at least one large church I know, inscribed on coffee mugs.  I’ve heard TV evangelist preach with emotion on it, I’ve heard lesser known revivalist pull this verse out as their trump card and rail at their audiences for their lack of repentance and imply that the bad state we are in is our fault for not having followed the simple instructions given here in God’s word.  I’ve heard this verse put to music, again with the implications that the solution to all this trouble we seem to be in is to humble ourselves and pray, and, quid pro quo, God will hear and act and heal.

There are two problems with all of this.  First, I have never seen any indication that God is in the business these days of forgiving corporate sin.  Nor have I seen any evidence whatsoever that, despite the earnest efforts of preachers to persuade us otherwise, and the efforts of earnest pray-ers to create the right conditions, there is no evidence that God has ‘healed [our] land’.

But secondly, and even more seriously, there is almost no recognition among all of the preaching that I have heard on this topic, that this verse actually has nothing to do with us Christians today living in America (or fill in the blank whatever country you are in) whatsoever.  This verse is a promise, that’s pretty obvious.  But it is a promise that is not made to Christians.  It’s a promise made to the people God is actually addressing – the Israelites – Jews – God’s covenant people.  It’s a promise given in the context of God’s covenant with his people.  And by the way, while we are at it, God’s Sinai covenant (the 10 commandments and all those other laws) is a covenant that God has not made with Christians, nor with anybody running around today.  This was a covenant God made with his people whom he delivered from Egypt and then led by Moses’ and Joshua’s hands into the promised land.  And the stipulations and consequences were clear – do what is written in this covenant and I will bless you.  But if you don’t do what is written in this covenant I will curse you.

Fast forward to Solomon’s day.  God’s promise is being given to his people Israel that should they break the covenant and begin to incur God’s covenant curses (which they did repeatedly) many of said curses had to do with curses on the land and its fertility, the way out of that dreadful situation of living under God’s curse was to humble themselves and pray and repent.  It’s in this context that God promises to hear and to forgive how they have broken his covenant and to heal or undo the consequences of the curse on them as a people and on the land.

The confusion comes because many of us Christians for whatever reason think that we are under obligation to keep the laws of the Old Testament.  This is the same problem that the Christians in Galatia were having.  They had been persuaded that they needed to keep the Sinai covenant stipulations regarding circumcision and eating kosher before they could be truly pleasing to God as Gentiles.  In other words, Gentiles needed first to become Jews in order to be proper Christians.

Paul, however, was apoplectic when he heard what was going on in the new Galatian churches, and he wrote his letter to express his exasperation that they were so quickly abandoning the gospel that had saved them.  Paul makes the point repeatedly that not even the Jews could keep the old covenant and that they had suffered the curses of the old covenant.  And why would Christians ever believe that they too needed to keep the old covenant when the old covenant simply brought curses.  Even the Jews themselves couldn't keep the covenant.  For this very reason, Christ came to set Jews free from the curse of the law, says Paul in Galatians 3:13-14, in what must be one of the most important verses in the entire Pauline corpus: ‘Christ redeemed us [believing Jews] from the curse of the Torah by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hands on a tree” -  in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we [all – Jews and Gentiles] might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.’ 

As Gentiles (that would be you, and me), our problem is not the same problem that Jews faced.  Our problems have to do with the consequences of our rebellion against God and our captivity to sin and death - the same problem that Adam and Eve had.  The Jews had the added issue in that they simply for the life of them could not keep their covenant with God, and so rather than experience God’s blessing, they called upon their on heads the curses that were to follow those who broke God’s covenant.  See the blessings that are promised to Israel for keeping the covenant in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 (‘If you will only obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments…’).  And see the curses that are promised Israel for breaking God’s covenant in Deuteronomy 28:15-68 (‘But if  you do not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all of his commandments…then all these curses shall come and overtake you…).

One final thought.  Often the ‘If my people…’ exhortation is used as if the ‘my people’ refer to us Americans or us Kenyans, with the implication being that if us Americans just all got on our knees and humbled ourselves and prayed, then God would do all this wonderful stuff in our country.  But we are not living in Old Testament times.  The only nation that God ever made these sorts of promises to was the nation of Israel, and they were promises conditioned by an actual covenant he had with them.  And we are not Israel!  God does not deal with nations today. He deals with individuals, and with churches.

So when we read passages like the 2 Chronicles 7 verse, how should we understand it if it is not addressing us here today?  God may not be addressing us here today with these words, but we do learn a lot about God and what he values and about what his priorities are and what he is doing in the world.  There is a lot we can take away when we read about Solomon or David or Saul and Samuel.  We just have to keep reminding ourselves that ‘We are not Israel, and God did not make his covenant with us.’
The same is true with prophetic passages like Jeremiah 29:11-14, again, another coffee mug all time favorite: 
For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you search for me with all your heart.  I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’  
Most quotations of this passage stop with verse 11.  And most people who preach this passage or write about it or sing it shamelessly individualize it, as if Jeremiah is saying this to ME, or YOU.  And so we do silly things like make this our ‘Life Verse’ and cling to it as an example of God’s love and care for ME.  Well there are plenty of passages in the Bible that talk about God’s love and care for ME, but this is not one of them!  Again, Jeremiah is not addressing me or you or the church or anybody today, he is addressing the Jews who are living in the horrific state of exile in Babylon, and exile that is one of the curses that came upon them for their chronic breaking of the covenant.  And Jeremiah is reminding them that God has not forgotten them as His people, nor has he abandoned them, but he will bring them out of exile and restore them to their land and their place as God’s covenant-keeping people.

When all is said and done, we don’t want these passages to be applicable to us, because that would mean that we were under obligation to keep the Sinai covenant, which as has been conclusively demonstrated, nobody can keep.  And if history (and our Bibles) show us anything, it’s that no one has managed to keep the covenant, except Jesus.  Which is why responding to the gospel and becoming one with him in baptism and chrismation opens up a whole new life for us.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Tolerable Level of Senseless Death

I have stopped being shocked.  Breaking news reports that a gunman has killed an unthinkable number of people in a movie theatre, a shopping mall, at youth camp, a family gathering, a university campus, a military base, a high school, an elementary school – and those are just the event I’ve pulled from the top of my head.  I read this morning that one victim of the most recent 'incident', just emerged from a coma to discover that she had been shot in the stomach and neck, that she will be paralyzed for life, and that her six year old daughter was shot dead next to her.  Oh, and the woman is pregnant and somehow the unborn baby has survived.  What can anyone say to this woman and her husband in the face of such horror?  Switch to scenes of little groups of shocked and bereaved residents, makeshift memorials with the obligatory balloons and teddy bears and flowers and candles, the endless eye-witness accounts on cable of those moments of terror.

I have some very bad news.  This is a scene that is going to replay itself again and again and again.  Our Western societies are producing no shortage of (almost always) men who feel someone has not treated them well or who carry long festering grudges against this or that element of society, or who are simply deranged .  Combine these men with access to all sorts of weapons, not always but including the whole spectrum of firearms, as well as the immediate media celebrity/notoriety of the perpetrators of these massacres receive, and it simply is a recipe for one incident after another.  In fact, for as far back as I can remember, it has been one incident after another.

What interests me is that both the American political class and the media are completely hamstrung in the face of this epidemic of bloody massacres (we could add the less sexy homicides-by-gun and the run-of-the-mill ordinary crime-by-gun, and while that might make my case stronger, it would also distract from the horror of the day).  I have already seen editorials saying guns have nothing to do with the Aurora theatre massacre (never mind the perpetrator walked in with an arsenal of a Smith and Wesson M & P assault rifle, a Remington shotgun and a Glock 40 caliber hand gun, along with a tear gas canister, all purchased legally) and that any attempt to tie what happened there to the need for gun control is cynical opportunistic politics.  I have seen other editorials wringing their hands about the need to do something in the face such carnage.  And I’ve seen other articles discussing the fact that the number of gun-related deaths in the US is more than 20 times that of Canada or the UK or France or Germany, and several times greater than the Western democracies put together.

However, these statistics are meaningless to most Americans.  The NRA has done a terrific job of pushing its anti-gun control agenda, and of tying any attempt to control weapons in the US as a mortal threat to our constitutional right to bear arms.  In many districts and states, it is political suicide to disagree with the NRA.  Never mind that the advocates of gun control have morality and reason on their side, this is not a rational debate.  And that is why, in my opinion, things will simply continue as they have, and will, in fact, get worse.  Angry men, spurred on by the examples of too many others, will march armed to the teeth (with guns mostly) to some crowded venue, like a theatre or a college campus or a daycare center or a sports stadium or a hospital or a school and then open up and take out as many people as they possibly can before someone stops them.  And then we will see the sickening Breaking News headline of yet another massacre.  The only way this will ever stop is when the level of violence and killing is such that we as a society simply cannot take it anymore.  Only then will our politicians become more frightened of us the voters than they are of the NRA and other like-minded lobbying groups.

I have two daughters.  I cannot imagine losing one to a f***ing moron who equips himself with an arsenal and then goes and shoots up a movie theatre full of people.  But what’s even worse is to be told by the politicians and society around me that, though we are sorry for your loss, nothing, really, is going to be done about this.  In fact, your loss will be repeated again and again. For you see, we are still well within the tolerable level of senseless violent death, for Americans at least.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Very Strange Love Affair Between Conservative Christians and Israel and the Very Real Harm it is Causing Our Fellow Christians in the Middle East

I receive regular barrages of American Fundamentalist Christian platitudes backgrounded by lovely holy land scenery extoling both the virtues and necessity of Christian support for the state of Israel.  You know the story.  How Israel is surrounded by ‘enemies’ who are all plotting its destruction.  How Israel is the only true democracy in a region dominated by dictatorships and Islamist regimes, and how it remains the one true beacon of freedom in that part of the world.  Bollocks.

My Christian Fundamentalist and Evangelical friends seem to have forgotten the real reason for their support of Israel, namely that when Israel achieved nationhood in 1948, it was immediately hailed by Dispensationalists as a sign that God was finally fulfilling prophecy, and that with Jews being restored to the promised land the Temple was surely about to be rebuilt and the end was certainly at hand, certainly within our generation.  (First see this article by Tim Weber. An this is John Hagee's take on why Christians support Israel, written for Haaretz.)

Well more than 60 years has come and gone and two things, at least, are clear.  First, the Israel of today bears no resemblance to Old Testament Israel and remains a modern secular state, not an OT-style theocracy.  Nor has modern Israel taken steps to re-ratify the Covenant.  That's not what these people are about.  Secondly, the end has not yet come.  Nor will it.  At least according to the road map charts of Revelation expounded upon at length for more than 100 years by hard-core Dispensationalists everywhere.  Give it up, people.  You’ve had to change your predictions so many times (Remember, the USSR was Gog.  The European Union the 10 horns of the Beast.  And my favorite – You all can forget about having to live according to the Sermon on the Mount because that wasn’t intended for us in the so-called ‘Church Age’ but rather for the Jews during the Millennium!) you really have no credibility left whatsoever.  In the meantime, we Christians have been relieved from having to support the state of Israel because there we find the linchpin of God’s eschatological plans.  I’ve looked hard for any sign of anything eschatological in today’s Israel and it isn’t there.  You can go ahead and support Israel like you might be partial to any other nation. I quite like Suriname, myself.  But don’t make it a moral imperative for Christians to support the policies of the Israeli government, especially when some of those policies don't themselves seem very moral, or support the existential concept of Israel or be mindless in your wrath against those who dare question Israeli policies, say with regards to illegal West Bank settlements or the government seizure of Palestinian land.

But this blind support for today’s state of Israel beggars belief for another, and in my opinion, much more serious reason.  It causes Western Christians to be completely insensate to the real story of persecution and hardship happening right now in Israel and throughout the Middle East.  It’s not the Jews who are in danger in the Middle East.  It’s the Christians.

Over the past 30 or so years, whenever a country has undergone religious radicalization, Christians end up getting persecuted and pushed out.  Thousands of them.  This has happened in Iran.  This has happened in Iraq.  This has happened in Turkey. This has happened in Algeria. This is happening in Egypt.  This has happened in Afghanistan.  This has been happening in Pakistan.  This has been happening in Palestine.  And Christians have faced pressure and persecution even in Israel, the Israel of so-called Christian Zionism.

But it is about to happen big time in Syria.  Syria has a significant minority population of Christians, mostly Orthodox and so-called Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox.  And while the longtime al-Assad family dictatorship has been repressive, to its credit the government has managed to create a society where majority Sunni Muslims live in tolerance with their minority Christian and Alawite and Shiite and Druze neighbors.  The government’s over-the-top harsh response to initial protests against its repression has spiraled into the civil war it is today.  And in the enveloping chaos, Alawites, from whose number the al-Assad family comes, have sought to protect their privileged status in all the wrong ways, provoking ever more shocking displays of inter-communal vengeance.  And in all this, Christians are caught in the middle and are already bearing the brunt of threats and violence, being forced at gunpoint to flee their homes as different Muslim groups conduct their version of religious cleansing.

I mention this because the silence on the part of the so-called Religious Right in America is deafening with respect to the plight of Middle Eastern Christians.  How is it that you people will raise a gazillion dollars to support Israel and shout down any dissent to Israeli government policy and swear your allegiance to the idea of Israel, but you can’t be bothered to notice that your fellow Christians throughout the Middle East are being persecuted, driven from their homes, tortured, imprisoned, killed, even massacred?  Have I missed something?

Please pray for the Christians in Syria.  And for the Christians in Palestine.  And for the Christians in Lebanon and in Egypt.  Pray for the Christians in Iraq and Turkey.  In Iran and Pakistan.  In Sudan and Algeria and Tunisia.  Many of these Christians are the progeny of Christian movements that go back in Christian history as far as one can go.  They are the ones who need our support.  The Israelis have nuclear weapons and the best army and airforce in the region.  But our brothers and sisters in Christ there have nobody who will stand up for them, or stand in the gap for them.  It’s time for us to let go forever our eschatological fantasies and face up to the realities endured today by our fellow believers.  Because if Christian history teaches us anything, it may not be long before we are the ones who find ourselves in need, praying that there might be someone out there someplace who might courageously stand up for us in our time of desperation.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jesse Jackson, Jr., Depression and Christians

Reading the fevered speculation over the whereabouts of US representative from Chicago Jesse Jackson, Jr., and then seeing today that he may in fact be at a clinic in Arizona being treated for depression or a ‘mood disorder’ or ‘alcoholism’ or some combination thereof has reminded me in a fresh way that our society does not deal very well with people who suffer from depression.  Granted, the term ‘depression’ covers a lot of ground in popular usage, and is often used in contexts that simply imply unhappiness that things are not going the way one might want them to go, or other temporary feelings of unhappiness.  But psychiatry has demonstrated that there is such a thing as ‘clinical depression’.  There are many possible causes and many possible treatments.  Sometimes depression is caused by a pile-on of difficult circumstances, and the resulting inability to cope brings on a kind of mental shut down. Sometimes depression is the result of trauma, either physical, relational or emotional.  The sort of depression that results from external events can often, after the passage of time and without any kind of medical intervention, resolve itself.  But sometimes such depression can partner with other issues or predispositions and become more serious and even dangerous.  When a depressed person, for example, looks to alcohol or drugs for relief of their internal disarray, addictive patterns are quickly created that become very difficult to undo.  And then, of course, depression may be so profound that it leads to suicidal thinking.  And if not identified and helped, this sort of depressed thinking may lead to actual suicide.  See this article for a particularly sad example.

Then there is the depression that results from all kinds of hormonal or chemical issues.  I know a woman who suffered from a difficult post-partum depression.  She attempted several different solutions, but the depression remained until she quit nursing.  After she weaned her baby, she woke up one of the following mornings and discovered that the world was in color again after having been shrouded in grey for months.  It is also known that certain medications increase the risk of depression, as do some medical conditions.  The antimalarial medication Lariam or Meflaquin, for example, is known to induce depression in a percentage of people who take it for extended periods.  The raft of suicides and spousal murders among US service members returning from Iraq in the 2000s was linked in a number of cases to prolonged exposure to Lariam.  (see the article, ‘The Dark Side of Lariam,’ for example)  I myself suffered from what we think was a Lariam-induced episode of depression in 2001.

Genetics may play a role in one’s susceptibility to depression.  While scientists cannot explain yet how the hereditary connection works, studies have documented an increased incidence of depression in the descendants of those who struggled with depression.

The mind also responds to major transitions by exhibiting symptoms of depression.  Job loss or new job, moving house, death of a loved one, marriage trouble and divorce, serious illness, any one of these can push one into a deep dark hole, in which one finds oneself completely debilitated, out of which escape and deliverance feels almost impossible.

And then there is the debilitating onset of chronic clinical depression.  This too has a spectrum of causes and a range of possible treatments, usually having to do with counseling or medication or most often a combination of both.  Efforts are made to understand any contributing factors from one’s past (trauma, abuse, relational trouble) and to identify unhelpful coping strategies used to deflect or manage the pain (addictive behaviors, unhelpful relationship patterns, etc) and to treat medically the symptoms so that one is not crippled by feelings of despair.  But this sort of depression is a cruel disease, affecting one’s perspective on life and relationships and one’s patterns of behavior long after the actual symptoms have been managed successfully by medication.  And often management is all that can be done.  Depressive symptoms that recur after apparently successful treatment indicate that the illness is just that, an illness and that it is chronic and will have to be managed for the rest of one’s life.

That being said, people who struggle with depression and get help do manage to climb out of the dark pit and back into a life where love and joy and light and happiness are once again a part of their experience.  And often the perspective on one’s life gained through counseling is immeasurably helpful in restoring a relational equilibrium that has been missing for a long time.  Recovery can lead to a wholeness in self-awareness and in relationships that were previously warped or even missing in one’s life as one’s energy poured into efforts just to cope.

However, experience shows that most people are ignorant of depression.  People who suffer from depression are sometimes told that they should just ‘snap out of it’.  Christians can be the worst in this regard, imputing a lack of faith or spiritual maturity to those who are depressed.  Depressed people can be treated as if they are somehow defective or damaged goods.  Even in the 21st century, with all we know about depression and other mental illnesses and with all of the advances and successes in treating it, there is still stigma attached to those who suffer.  Fear of this sort of reception, of course, leads many depressed people to hide their depression from colleagues or acquaintances.  Their own circumstances are already painful enough without adding rejection or worse to their burden.  Many depressed people therefore choose to suffer silently, afraid of what might happen if it gets out that they are ‘mentally ill.’  They choose to ‘gut it out’.  They are ashamed of what this says about them.  They refuse to reach out and get help until it’s too late and the depressed person begins to feel that there is no other way out of an impossibly painful situation than to end it by taking one’s life.  This happens more often than any one wants to think.

I know all of this from personal experience.  I suffer from a chronic clinical depression.  My first episodes occurred in 2001, and I was probably enduring cycles of depressive illness for years before then.  I was just in denial.  Once I realized what was going on, I reached out for help, first to a MD friend, and later to a psychiatrist.  I will be on medication the rest of my life.  I have managed to excel in my work, but my illness has taken its toll on my relationships.  And sadly, I have experienced the painful reality that many people, including many Christian people, and especially many Christian people who are in leadership positions and who should know better, do not understand depression nor do they understand how to love and help someone who is depressed.

Some years ago, I was the senior pastor of a very large church.  In an effort to model vulnerability with the elders, I shared with them my struggle with depression, what was being done to help me, and asked for their prayer and support.  Before two weeks had passed, I had a delegation of elders in my office suggesting that I take ‘a long break’ from being a pastor ‘for the sake of my health’.  At that time I was being successfully treated and was feeling fine, and things at the church were going well.  I politely declined and suggested that they read some things on what depression actually was.  I wanted them to know that in my case it was a medical condition, like diabetes, which could be treated and controlled.  I will not go into the long sad story that follows, only to say that two years later these same elders succeeded in pushing me out.  I offered my resignation and they accepted it with immediate effect and would not allow me to return to the congregation.  They never told me why I was being treated this way, nor did they ever tell the congregation why I was there one week and then vanished the next.  According to people who heard him, the chairman of the elders did say in several contexts that I had been suffering from mental illness and that it was ‘for my own good’ that I was gone.  It was all incredibly painful and disorienting for me.  And I still cannot fathom why people who claim to be Christian leaders could treat one of their colleagues in this manner.

So when I read stories about Rep. Jackson’s struggles, and all the rumor and speculation along with the additional cruel innuendo that people feel obligated to contribute, I’m taken back to my own experience.  I can only hope that his own outcome will be different than mine, that he will get the medical and counseling help that he needs, and that even if his life does fall apart, he will be surrounded by people who love him and who care for him and who understand and who will be there for him.  Sounds like what Christian love should be.  Sounds like what the Church should be.  If only.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Violence, Christianity and the Bible

I’ve just finished reading Daniel Clendenin essay, ‘Sacred Scripture, Violent Verses: How Should We Read the Bible’s Texts of Terror?’ in this week’s edition of his Journeys with Jesus: Notes to Myself.    Clendenin raises the disturbing issue of the many passages in the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, that not only relate horrific scenes of violence, slaughter and suffering, but seem to indicate that some of the atrocities, at least, are committed at God’s behest.  Just off the top of my head I can recall God’s sanction of Amorite genocide, or Moses’ command to the Levites to slaughter the debauched Israelites in the aftermath of the gold calf debacle,

or the slaughter of most of the tribe of Benjamin in the aftermath of the rape and dismemberment of the concubine, or David’s use of a measuring stick to single out those captured Edomites he was going to slaughter.  There is the deception used by Simeon and Levi to ensure that all the men of Shechem would join their sister’s rapist in getting circumcised, after which they went through the town and murdered them all.  God himself is responsible for the death of Egypt’s firstborn, both human and cattle, just as he is responsible for the annihilation of the Assyrian army camped outside the walls of Jerusalem.  One of the songs in Psalms describes the joy the singer will feel when he is able to return the favor and smash Babylonian infants to death on rocks (Psalm 137:8-9).  Joab, David’s military commander, is allowed to continue in his position even though it is known by every one that he murdered both Abner, who had defected to help restore Israel to David, and then Amasa, a later rival for his position.  And then it would seem that to be born a male in an Israelite royal family was to live as a marked man.  Almost every dynastic change (and there were many) resulted in all of the male relatives of the preceding king being slaughtered.  Even hero Gideon’s entire male progeny was slaughtered by the usurper Abimelech, who blackmailed the lords of Shechem into handing over the seventy sons of Gideon, whom he then slaughtered ‘on one stone’ (Judges 9:1-7).  And then there is the bizarre episode of David agreeing to the Gibeonite’s request:   “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel – let seven of his {Saul’s] sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gebeon on the mountain of the LORD.”  The king said, “I will hand them over.”…and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the LORD.  The seven of them perished together.  They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.  Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of the harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.  When David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa.  He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan,; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled.  They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded.  After that, God heeded the supplications for the land.’ (2 Samuel 21:5-14)  

This is in our Bible.

Clendenin notes the offense these ‘texts of terror’ (the title of Phyllis Trible’s 1984 book) has caused over the centuries.  They were so offensive in some 2nd century Gentile Christian communities that some leaders thought the entire Old Testament a scandal to New Testament sensibilities.  One influential and persuasive leader named Marcion went on to claim that the god of the Old Testament was inferior to the God of love revealed by Jesus in the New Testament.  Marcion also got caught up in a lot of Gnostic ideas that made him persona non grata in the Orthodox Churches, but his concerns were by no means solitary.

Interestingly enough, Biblical violence does not cause much of a scandal after the early Christian centuries until the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment and the advent of modernism in western Europe.  Once again religious and intellectual authors professed themselves appalled at the blood-soaked pages of Scripture.  And just as in Marcion’s days, the offending stories of the Old Testament were declared to be not worthy of the exalted ideals of love and brotherhood found in the pages of the New Testament.  And ironically, just like Marcion so many centuries earlier, men (mostly) used this as justification to pare away those parts of Christianity that they did not like and keep those parts that suited them.  The end results were often noble and certainly interesting, but were not recognizable as historic Christianity.  These passages have continued to cause offense even into the 20th and 21st centuries, as Clendenin points out. (see, for example, this blog)  They continue to be the fodder of many late night discussions in dormitory rooms as earnest undergraduates wrestle with what they can believe from a Bible that is filled with stuff like this.  When I was a college student there were several members of my student fellowship who wandered away from the faith as a result of the difficulties these passages presented to their understanding of who God should be.  This undoubtedly still goes on.

I have gotten old enough that either I’ve lost my earlier idealism, grown out of my naiveté, or become more realistic in my view of the world and of religion, or maybe a bit of all three.  First, an observation.  Perhaps this is obvious, but it needs to be said.  The Bible, with all its violence, reflects the real world in which we live.  The very same people who profess shock and disgust at the fact that God would order the Israelites to clear out the baby-sacrificing idolaters of Canaan seem to be oblivious to the fact that mass murder and genocide has been going on almost non-stop for as long as history recalls.  To observe this is not to justify or celebrate it.  But even in this century, whether you are Armenian or Greek or Jewish or Russian Orthodox or Indian Hindu or Indian Muslim or Gypsy or Bosnian or Croat or on the wrong side of politics in China or the USSR or Argentina, not to mention the incessant genocides and murderous conflicts in Africa from Rwanda to Congo and Liberia and Sierra Leone.  In our lifetime, our planet has been soaked in human blood.  Even today, my own country is involved in a war in Afghanistan, another in the mountains of Pakistan, as well as remote control conflicts in Yemen and Somalia.  Then there is the horrific daily slaughter in Syria, as well as much quieter conflicts in Myanmar and China.  And dare I mention the narco-slaughter in Mexico?  Now bring the focus in much closer to home and one is forced to the inescapable conclusion that we live in a violent world.  Not far from where I live, a thief was run down by a mob, clubbed and beaten senseless and then doused with petrol and burned to charcoal.  I was checking the paper in my South Carolina hometown, and in one day, two people had been killed in a car crash, one lady drowned after she slipped when wading in a lake, another man was murdered behind a local ball field and a two-year old found his step-father’s loaded pistol and shot himself dead.  We live in a tragic, senseless, violent world which bears almost no resemblance to the world of peace and love and upward and onward progress dreamed up by the religious and philosophical progressives of our day.  We certainly have made amazing progress when it comes to the technologies we enjoy that make our lives interesting.  But in terms of how we treat each other, I don’t think we can make a sustainable claim that we are any better than our ancestors who held slaves or who fought the Native Americans or who fought in a gazillion European wars or who raped, pillaged and plundered our way across (choose your time and continent).  As far as I can tell, it has always been this way.
The Old Testament reveals that God has entered fully into the reality facing the descendants of Abraham.  It is a bloody reality, and horrific wrong was being done on all sides.  It was in this context and with precisely this sort of people that God made a start of his plan to redeem humanity.  The Old Testament is written as if we all understand that this is the situation being addressed and that God’s interventions reflect the necessities of the situations he engages.  And let’s face it, even in this more ‘civilized’ day, we human beings habitually do terrible things to each other.  To pretend otherwise is to ignore both history and the daily paper.

A second point that needs to be made is that the God of the Bible does not pretend that this violence is not a problem or that it doesn’t exist.  Instead he takes it on, embraces it, draws its fangs out and slays it.  The incarnation is wonder enough – that God would become one of us in our world.  But God chooses to take on the ultimate act of violence against human beings – death itself.  And he does so not by inflicting violence, but by become the victim of extreme violence.  And so as a human being he is tortured and killed horribly.  And as God he confounds death, breaks its power and rises again as a human being no longer bound by death or anything anyone might ever do to him.  Violence is defeated through the violence of the cross, and a way made for everyone who wants to be saved from what our sin has wrought in our lives and in our world.

The violence in the Bible is horrific.  But it reflects our reality.  And in the end it becomes in God’s hands God’s means for our deliverance from the violence that surrounds us and fills us.

What about you?  Any thoughts on violence and the Bible?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Have You Ever Laughed So Hard...

Have you ever laughed so hard that the tears came down, that your sides hurt, that you thought you'd never stop?  That was me back in 1976 when I was watching one of my favorite TV programs, The Carol Burnett Show.  The spoof was a send up of Gone with the Wind.  And the moment all was lost is when Carol appears at the top of the stairs in her new dress made special from the curtain in the downstairs window.

I started thinking about it after all these years a couple of weeks ago and just today wondered if I could find it on line.  Silly me, of course it's on line.  I've just watched it again, now thirty-six years later.  There are some very good comedians and comedy shows today, but they just don't make them like Carol Burnett and her crew 'way back then'.  Anyway, thought you might enjoy a classic of American comedy.  Here is part one.  And here is part two.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Oceans of Words

Somehow we have managed to surround ourselves, to inundate ourselves, with words.  I’ve just returned from the grocery store where I’ve been furiously accosted at every turn by brightly rendered, eye-catching words pleading with me to put whatever is on the inside of the billboard-like packaging into my shopping trolley.  I recall from our years in the UK how even the roads verily shouted at us.  For some reason Brits feel obligated to write involved messages in reflective paint on the tarmac of every road to cover every possible eventuality a driver might face.  So insistent and so frequent are these official communiques that this driver at least was nearly driven to distraction.  I sit at my laptop online and flip from webpage to webpage and am rendered nearly senseless after a while by the sheer gush of words.  And yesterday, whilst sitting in a college library reading lots of words about papal authority in the 19th century Roman Catholic Church, I found I needed a break (as one just might given the circumstances).  Stretching my legs I found myself passing through the library stacks, shelf after shelf of scholarly or otherwise earnest religious output, with scintillating titles such as The Exodus in Modern Scholarship or The Indigenization of Christianity or Mechtild von Magdeburg: a Medieval Mystic in Modern Eyes.  And in each one of the thousands of books arrayed just so according to the numbers and letters taped to their spine, some author has wrestled with concepts and labored with words in an attempt to communicate with whoever might be so moved one day to pick up her or his book and read.  We are a communicative species.  Our chatter fills the airwaves, from radio to TV to broadband.  We have even assumed that whatever other life that may exist in the universe must be just as wordy as we are.  From the Pioneer 10 and 11 plaques carried by an early 1970s vintage space craft that is even now about to leave the verges of the solar system and enter inter-stellar space, to more recent attempts to communicate to whoever’s out there by low frequency radio, our urge to talk, to, in the words of the old telephone company advert, ‘reach out and touch someone’, seems to be a defining mark of what it means to be human. 

And while zoologists are from time to time pleased to report gorillas who have learned sign language or elephants that communicate with each other, no other species is known for retiring to bed with a murder mystery or waking up to the Washington Post the next morning, or of having even the faintest urge to check out some badly written romance novel or history of the Counter-Reformation from the local library.  We, however, do words.  And we’ve become quite dependent upon them.  I’m not one to complain.  My whole life is words.  As a preacher, I wrestle with words not only to communicate the meaning of a Bible passage but to persuade an appropriate response.  As a teacher, I use words to communicate ideas and illustrate meaning and challenge the process of critical thinking in response.  I use words to lay siege to the closed up castles of my students’ minds, words to catapult flaming ideas over their ramparts, words to force a crossing over their crocodile-infested moat of wrong assumptions and lazy thinking, words to batter down the gates of their close-mindedness, words to set them free from their fear of thinking.  And as a blogger I launch out on the stream of consciousness, not knowing where the currents of all those electrical impulses in my brain might take me, surprised one day at the connections I might make, alarmed the next day at the offense I have caused.  And yet, for someone whose job it is to communicate, I am constantly undone by how poorly I manage to do so in those relationships that matter most to me.  And while each of us is an expert at using words to mask our hearts, our hearts in the end are revealed by our words. ‘See what great a fire is started by these little tongues of ours,’ says James. ‘One minute we bless, the next minute we curse.’ We are capable of such good.  But we are capable of such harm as well.  And all with our words.  Somehow, this impulse to communicate, this desire to engage with another, this capacity to use words is a part of what it means to be made in the image of the Holy Trinity.  The Plurality of God mentioned in Genesis 1 is matched by the plurality of humanity – the fact that to be made in the image of God has to do with our being made male and female.  We are created to communicate, just as God the Holy Trinity exists to communicate.  But even more fundamentally, we are made to love, just as God the Holy Trinity is love.  Words with love.  That was God’s intention.  But we separated words from love with disastrous results.   Even today, it doesn’t take a journalist to observe that we humans are awash in oceans of words, full of information, full of entertainment, full of secrets to power and wealth and pleasure, but empty of love.  Which is what makes Jesus all the more astonishing.  In Jesus, born of the Virgin, fully human, the second Adam and incarnate Son of God, Word and Love are restored to God’s new humanity.  This is the new life of the kingdom to which everyone is called.  Our reconciliation with God through Jesus’ death on the cross opens the door into this new life, which is really life as we were intended to live.

In the meantime, surrounded by words.  Swamped, distracted by ever new torrents of words.  So easy to be carried along.  So easy never to realize that words have always been intended as a means to a greater end, an original end.  And of course the challenge for me is not simply to add my words to the empty oceans that make up our lives on this planet, but rather to strive with everything I’ve got to reconnect these words with my purpose, to become again somehow the Icon of God.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

After a hiatus of nearly a year, during which time I, a recent convert to Orthodoxy, attempted to navigate the shoals of having to visit all of the supporters and supporting churches that made it possible for my wife and me to continue our teaching ministries in Kenya, during which time my oldest daughter got married, after which I was sacked by the evangelical Protestant school where I had taught in Kenya, and shortly thereafter sacked by the evangelical Protestant mission board that I had been a part of... We returned to Kenya with my wife's position and ministry intact, but mine suddenly and completely vanished.  One can understand why these two institutions felt they needed to be rid of me.  As nicely as they could, both school and mission  intimated that they they were actually doing this for my good, setting me free to follow my call.  I choose to accept their explanations, though I suspect the real uncommunicated reason is more in line with an inability to accept an Orthodox person with his Orthodox perspectives on ecclesiology and his Orthodox perspectives on Scripture as part of an authoritative apostolic tradition, even though said Orthodox person could happily sign their respective statements of faith.  Whatever their reasoning, I arrived in Kenya this past August unemployed.  And if you the reader have ever been unemployed then you will know how I was feeling.  I immediately applied to every possible academic position and even some NGOs and, in my increasing despair, considered taking the foreign service exam and applying for US government positions (State Department, CIA, etc).  God knows I would be a terrible spy so I was spared that line of enquiry.  Just after Thanksgiving (American), I was contacted by St Paul's University which is located in Limuru in what must be the coldest location in Kenya.  The good news was they wanted me to teach two courses in their modular MDiv program.  The bad news was that the term had started two days earlier, and that one of the courses I had never taught before (The History of Christian Spirituality).  So I said, 'Yes, please, thank you!'  Somehow I and my students survived.  I taught another course for the university in the Spring.  And now I have been informed by their leadership that they would like for me to come on board as a full-time faculty member.  If I tell myself not to think very hard, this is all very good news.  If I allow myself to begin to think about it, then it begins to strike me as ironic, if not odd, that a Protestant  (Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Christian Reformed) institution  would be happy to have an Orthodox historian and theologian teaching their Masters level students.  It gets even weirder.  When I was at my previous position, I was teaching Evangelical and Pentecostal students.  You must recall that I was a Presbyterian (USA) pastor for more than twenty years, and that all of our supporters and supporting churches are Presbyterian.  So now that I am Orthodox, I am now actually teaching Presbyterian pastors in Kenya, for the first time in my entire missionary career, actually.  Go figure.  Like I said, I try not to think very hard about this.  At least I have a job.  All of this has been very difficult, challenging, disillusioning, disorienting.  I have endured major wobbles, and at times been a very difficult person to live with.  When I stopped my previous blog, Onesimus Online, one of the major reasons was that I realized I was entering a difficult season of my life where my energy needed to go into surviving as opposed to blogging.  The break has been good for me.  I am hoping that I've learned to slow down and think through what I want to say before I press the publish button.  And now that I am hopefully emerging on the other side, the desire to engage again with ideas and with fellow travelers and with the issues that make living in these times so fantastic and annoying and thrilling and appalling has brought me once more to stare at an empty screen and fill it with letters.  So in the manner of St Paul in Ephesians 3, I pick up where I started but left off - after a hiatus of nearly a year, Onesimus is back.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos and all of the Saints, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us!