March 31, 2003
Regarding my claims that Christians should practice nonviolence, a reader and former student asks,
Does non-violence mean just that, no violence of any kind? Or does it imply only lethal violence? I wonder if fleeing involves some kind of violence as you struggle against the person(s) who hold you back. Or if Jesus throwing out the money changers implies that forcefully removing someone is in-line with the gospel. The question arises out of the hypothetical situation of what you do if you encounter someone being beaten. Do you wrestle the person free, and take the risk of lethally wounding them?Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify that. In my own work I have been treating "nonviolence" implicitly not to exclude actions such as Jesus' in the Temple, pushing someone away, wrestling to avoid a fight or an assault, and so on. (I don't really see how wrestling an unarmed attacker away would really raise a reasonable risk of lethally wounding, but then again I am not the Mensch that some of you all are.)
I would rather not just say that nonviolence is anything not raising a reasonable risk of death, because many forms of torture would then qualify. The question is contextual and occasional. There are undoubtedly more refined delineations of nonviolence from people who have thought about these things systematically, and I would defer to them. I assume their definitions would center on Jesus' own example and commands.
Why don't we see more of this?
There are, broadly speaking, two theologically coherent Christian positions on war. The first is pacifism: Christians should not practice life-threatening violence. The second is Augustinian just war doctrine: Christians may only fight under a set of theologically determined conditions. (Sheer patriotism, sheer anti-patriotism, pragmatism, utilitarianism, and other ideologies are popular if not dominant among the world's Christians, but the magisterial tradition has typically condemned them as basically idolatrous.)
Those who advocate the just Christian practice of violence repeatedly appeal to just-war principles. Yet we find very, very few Christian American soldiers who actually refuse to take specific actions that the tradition would consider just. In fact, so far I have yet to hear of even one. Why is that?
Perhaps America's military actions are so overwhelmingly just and America's soldiers so well grounded in both Christian just-war doctrine and Christian doctrine in general (to which they would need to appeal for an adequate definition of "just") that there have been no conflicts between American military doctrine and practice and Christian doctrine and practice.
Perhaps these soldiers are too poorly formed theologically to determine the Christian justice of an individual military action, so they trust their commanders to do it for them.
Or perhaps these soldiers are ultimately more loyal to nationalism than to the Church, and more willing to take the consequences of disobeying Christ than those of disobeying Caesar. (After all, God forgives but a court martial does not. "It's easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission," as one of my colleagues says.)
Now this is not an anti-American or anti-military rant. I have already repeatedly expressed my admiration for America's soldiers, for taking on a dirty and brutal enemy without sacrificing their own honor. Much of what the Coalition is doing in Iraq does seem to me to pass just-war criteria, even the occasion of the war itself. But it seems to me that in such a formally Christian nation, some military disciples of Jesus would have some objections even mistaken ones! to some discrete actions in which they are told to participate, and some of these would fear the judgment of God more than a dishonorable discharge.
Yet all I see is obedience.
Contrast that reaction with the widespread disobedience and disrespect for Christian authorities pastors, bishops, parents, professors whom American disciples find hypocritical, unbiblical, unqualified, or just unattractive. This is not just true in liberal circles, but in evangelical circles as well; Catholic and Orthodox as well as Protestant; free-church as well as magisterial. It is true of all of us.
It looks to me like our churches trust generals more than their own pastors and even their pope.
It looks to me like our culture takes military doctrine much more seriously than Christian doctrine.
It looks to me like the military knows a lot more about how to maintain discipline than our churches do.
It also looks to me like many appeals to the just-war tradition are just excuses to do as we please.
I would love to hear a just-warrior explain how Christian military service would really work in a military which (not surprisingly) demands our loyalty for years at a time, not hour by hour, with a Church that no longer takes its own authorities as seriously as the world's. Any takers?
Roman Catholic dogma holds that the Church as such is sinless, because the Church is the body of Christ, and Christ is sinless. This teaching produces a way of speaking about the Church that confuses and irritates Protestants to no end. Point out that Christians err and sin, the centuries of corruption and crusade, the current scandals, and Catholics are still adamant: Despite all of these reprehensible truths, the Church is sinless. For Christ is sinless.
To non-Christians who see only a human organization, the Catholic claim is downright ludicrous. Are these people delusional, or just hypocrites? What is the Church but its people, and what are its people but sinners?
"You shall make a frontlet of pure gold and engrave on it the seal inscription: 'Holy to YHWH'. Suspend it on a cord of blue, so that it may remain on the headdress; it shall remain on the front of the headdress. It shall be on Aaron's forehead, that Aaron may take away any sin arising from the holy things that the Israelites consecrate, from any of their sacred donations; it shall be on his forehead at all times, to win acceptance for them before YHWH" (Ex. 28:36-38).On Aaron's head is a declaration that his actions are acceptable to the Holy One. That declaration is not wishful thinking on his part. It is a command from God, a forceful promise to favor Israel.
The words face outward. Aaron doesn't see them, but God does. Aaron is holy: God said it, God believes it, that settles it.
What Catholics mean by their claim that the Church is sinless is basically what Protestants mean by our claim that the head of the Church is sinless, and that the sinlessness of the head atones for the sinfulness of the rest. Jesus is our frontlet, the one who faces God. He has commanded the world to put Jesus at its head, so that when God looks at his priestly people, he sees his Son.
"The child to be born will be called holy" (Luke 1:35).There are several ways to go with this insight. We could go to triumphalism, asserting that there is no arguing against anything God's people do. We could go to guilt, holding Christians' failures perpetually over their heads as we remind each other that we are not worthy of our own callings. Or we could go to freedom, pardoning each other for offense as God has pardoned us, not that we would go on sinning but that we would renew our original liberation to Spirit and life and peace (Rom. 8:1-6).
Our fellowship of holy things, our "communion of saints," sins even in its consecrations. I remain much more comfortable with the Protestant way of naming sin in the Church, not just in the unchurchly things we do but even in our supposedly holy practices. Even our offerings can be repugnant, and often are: our prayers, our Masses, our worship songs, our revivals, our "biblical" sermons, our offertories, our leaders, and our marriages. We need to admit this to outsiders as freely as we admit it to God, because they notice almost as keenly as he does.
Yet if we wear our frontlet at all times, God will notice it. And God will not be the only one. The world will see the Son, and give glory to the Father.
UPDATE: My assertion that the Church's sinlessness is Catholic dogma has offended a Catholic reader:
Really, I expect better from you. There is NO Catholic dogma that the Church is sinless, this is silly. There is quite a bit of canonical andFar be it from me to confuse papal or conciliar infallibility with ecclesial sinlessness!
magisterial material about the level of authority various teachings have, and how definitive they are, and Catholics argue about them constantly. There is actually quite a bit of nuance in the Roman church, and your flat statement (a personal prejudice against papal infallability, perhaps?) doesn't do Catholic teaching on faith and morals any justice at all.
Catholicism has recognized, in canon and pastoral letter, at least since Trent that (to borrow Ratzinger's formulation in "Mysterium Ecclesiae" of the 1970's) that the content of the deposit of faith remains eternal, but it falls to each succeeding generation to articulate it ever more clearly.
A sinless church? I don't think so, look at the Vat II documents again. This is a pilgrim church, always on the road to perfection. Ecclesia
semper reformanda, and all that.
The Church, whose mystery is being set forth by this Sacred Synod, is believed to be indefectibly holy. Indeed Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is praised as "uniquely holy," loved the Church as His bride, delivering Himself up for her. He did this that He might sanctify her. He united her to Himself as His own body and brought it to perfection by the gift of the Holy Spirit for God's glory.... which is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (823), is adequately summed up in the same catechism here (867):
The Church is holy: the Most Holy God is her author; Christ, her bridegroom, gave himself up to make her holy; the Spirit of holiness gives her life. Since she still includes sinners, she is "the sinless one made up of sinners." Her holiness shines in the saints; in Mary she is already all-holy.(Emphasis added both times.) That paraphrase has the Pope's approval and Cardinal Ratzinger's imprimatur, so I hardly think it is tendentious on my part!
(By the way, don't you think the use of the past tense in Lumen Gentium's "brought it to perfection" is interesting?)
In any event, the purpose of my post was as much to affirm the spirit of Catholic doctrine as to criticize its letter. Without washing out the differences between Protestant forensics language and Catholic infusion language, or the differences between Protestant and Catholic eschatology, I see in Exodus 28 a dynamic similar to both. It finds its fulfillment in Christ, who has made himself our frontlet. For that all Christians can rejoice.
I am way behind in blogging Exodus. We are in chapters 26-28, which carry detailed instructions on how to make the Tabernacle, furnish it, and clothe its priests.
Better imaginations than mine would move to allegorizing the details. I am not so skilled at that to get away with it, but I do have enough sense to notice that both the New Testament and the subsequent Church pick up on a few details and use them to describe the work of Jesus Christ.
First, the curtain between the Holy (the rest of the Tabernacle) and the Holy of Holies (in which the Ark resides) is of course the curtain torn in two at Jesus' death according to the synoptic gospels. Here the outer court is no longer cut off from the inner court. The future has arrived or, rather, Jesus has brought it to us. Matthew among the evangelists gives us a vivid sign of this by portraying some of the dead rising in Matt. 27:51-53.
Second, the writer of the Hebrews interprets the crucifixion of Jesus in a Triune way as a flawless, Spirit-led self-sacrifice of the Son to the Father (Heb. 9:14) in which the priestly Son went to the heavenly Holy of Holies (see Heb. 9:3) in the heavenly tabernacle (cf. Rev. 9:13 etc.) to secure an eternal purification for his people. Here the continued existence of the outer tent is symbolic of the prolongation of the present age (Heb. 9:8-9). The future is near or, rather, Jesus is bringing us into it.
Third, Stephen's sometimes puzzling sermon in Acts 7 lingers over the "tent of witness," now to complain that Israel has always taken good things in the wrong ways. In the heavens they worship the host of heaven and "the tent of Moloch"; on earth they fixate on the tent and the Temple rather than on the God who inhabits neither (Acts 7:42-50). The future is there standing in the open heavens at the right hand of the Father (7:56).
Fourth, if you attend an Orthodox Church service, you will notice a screen (the iconostasis) with angelic doors that lead back into an area into which only priests go. That is the "Holy of Holies." Jesus' death opened those doors and his Pentecost anointed his priests with the Spirit who draws them into it. The hierarchical Church now mediates lifegiving communion between God and God's people.
In different ways these images take the Tabernacle as symbolic of a nexus between God and humanity, and see Jesus as having opened it to us and vice versa. Their eschatologies differ but need not contradict.
In my own community our tendency is to roll our eyes at such detail and ask whether God isn't really above all this. Surely matters of architecture, furniture, and clothing are unimportant? Surely the heart is all that matters? Surely we have matured beyond the sociological state when these physical reminders are necessary? Well, there may be surprises in store for us casual Californians when the new and eternal Jerusalem descends with the same imagery (Ex. 28:17-21 in Rev. 21:12-14 and 21:19-21)!
The level of detail connotes something to me different from primitive superstition. It connotes solemnity. Everything in God's sight is to be just right. Nothing is to be out of place, nothing thrown together, nothing mediocre. That describes the life of the Spirit-anointed Jesus, and (at its best) Israel before him, and (at its best) the Church following him. How dare we worry about the little details of our own lavish proms, parties, and weddings more than the readiness of the community who houses the Holy Spirit!
Next time a student tries to shrug off haphazard liturgy or spirituality, let alone exalt it, I'm assigning a report on Ex. 26-28.
March 29, 2003
A missionary and medical doctor sends a powerful objection to my argument on the politics of forgiveness:
You write:First, genuine thanks for your letter.
The Church's politics of forgiveness are a strategy of spiritual warfare. Our community is called to offer forgiveness to enemies when they are at fault, and seek their forgiveness when we are at fault. By refusing to fight on their terms, and refusing not to fight on ours, we defuse the principalities and powers that drive aggression. When we suffer at their hands, even that is a victory, for it embraces the justice of the cross, and so it experiences deliverance from their rule, even while it waits on final deliverance from their pressure. Even the martyrdom that sometimes comes cannot jeopardize the security of our life in the coming new creation.
Do you say this out of theory or practice? Have you faced the possibility of martyrdom in your own life, or is this merely a theoretical essay?
Have you lived in a war zone where someone might come into your mission hospital and kill you? I have.
I indeed did not carry a weapon, nor did our nuns. We were not naive, but witnesses to Christ. The last year I worked as a missionary, 40 missionaries were killed. One of my friends was found beaten to death and mutilated. A doctor was killed going at night to the hospital for an emergency. Five of our nuns were roused out at night and shot. Another doctor friend had her hospital invaded and she and several others were shot. (Nor was murder the worst thing that could happen: our nuns were permitted by the bishop to go on birth control pills European nuns remembered what happened in previous wars of liberation.)
We chose this. If we had gone around with guns, it would have seperated us from those we served. We knew the chances, but decided to show unconditional love, to embrace the cross.
But one little thing changed my mind that pacifism was the only Christian way to confront evil.
A small mission run by a Pentecostal British group was attacked. They were wonderful Christians who chose to witness, but unlike many Protestant missionaries, they did not send their families home. So the brave men were killed, martyred for Christ. As you write, their deaths "(was) a victory, for it embrace(d) the justice of the cross "
The only problem was that the men were merely shot to death. Their wives and daughters, however, were violated in many ways before they were killed. (I don't know if they put the 13 year old girl on birth control pills or not as a precaution. It didn't matter. she died too.)
And that changed my mind. You see, I as a single woman have the right to risk my life and honor. However, as a Christian, I don't have the right to sit back and allow evil men to take the life and honor of a young innocent girl.
So when I came home, I bought a gun and learned to shoot it. Because I decided that although I myself might turn the other cheek and be passive in the face of those who seek to hurt me, nevertheless I should also be willing and able to defend the helpless should the time come.
You see, Christ might have turned the other cheek when he was accused, but it is telling that when he saw the poor being cheated by the Temple merchants, he was a man of action not platitudes.
So again I ask: Is your wonderful lecture based on experience? If you have, then I apologize. If it is not, then could I suggest you stop spouting nonsense about suffering for the justice of the cross?
Second, let me answer your question as directly as you have asked it: No, I have not personally been in a context where I could expect such things to happen to my family (unless you count living in unarmed in the L.A. area). I have not gone into dangerous contexts as a missionary even alone, let alone with my wife and four young children.
Third, I want to thank you, and thank God for you, for putting your life on the line as a missionary and for practicing medicine as a sign of Christ's healing.
Fourth, let me agree that your experience gives your autobiographical witness greater weight than mine.
Fifth, let me also agree with you that pacifism is not the only way God confronts and defeats evil (as you will see below).
Sixth, having said all that, let me respond not in a spirit of condemnation nor antagonism, but in a spirit of common discernment before our common Lord:
While we all see, think, and write from our own locations, we are not trying to do so merely from our personal experience, but in faithfulness to the apostolic faith, right? We Christians are trying to be adequate representatives of a faith that we did not invent and do not have the freedom to re-invent. In fact, even if that is not true if, say, I am preaching this just out of selfish motives, for instance to make myself look heroic as an "armchair missionary" then it does not discredit the argument itself, if Christ is still preached (Phil. 1:18). Autobiography has its place, but ultimately our witness is biographical, centered on Jesus and the saints rather than ourselves.
You cite Jesus in the Temple, but there he is neither threatening people's lives nor is he protecting innocents. You are quite right that he is a man of action not platitudes, but where does he either counsel or practice violence in the defense of others?
When I encounter the argument that Christians are compelled to practice violence to defend others, it comes across to me as the intrusion of another story into the gospel story. It is as if the primordial story of defending our loved ones, especially our wives and children, is more fundamental than the Way of the Cross, or that the Way of the Cross is merely individual and not familial. I concede that your argument is powerful and attractive, and I further concede that I find it much more attractive when my family is under imminent threat (for instance, when I am worried that there is a stranger in our house at night).
But if we Christians practice violence as a response to that conviction, are we still on the Way of the Cross? Are we still pointing to Jesus as the One who reigns, whose passion and resurrection is a cosmic victory over sin and death for all who are baptized in his Name, or are we putting limits on that victory?
I don't see where Jesus tells his people to defend others violently. I see where he commands us to feed, clothe, heal, visit, and welcome the least of our brothers and sisters (Matt. 25:31-46) and you have been more faithful in doing these things than I have, sister. I see where he warns us of wars and rumors of wars, and tells us not to worry; warns us of tribulation and death and hate, and predicts that many will fall away and betray and hate one another and that many of us will grow cold in our love; commands that the good news be preached as a testimony to all peoples anyway; gives us signs for when to flee, and laments the mothers who have to endure those times (Matt. 24:3-27); and where he answers these atrocities merely with the promise of his coming (Matt. 24:29-31). I see where he rebukes his followers for seeking to defend him by the sword and though he is a single adult, he is also a blessed mother's son and there he warns us that all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matt. 26:52). (For his disciples, this is the breaking point; here they forsake him and flee (Matt. 26:56). After all, he has apparently forsaken them already, putting them in harm's way and then forbidding them from defending each other, hasn't he? Fair is fair.)
I see where Christians are persecuted, not just individually but in families, in Saul's "great persecution" against the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-3); and there the disciples flee rather than fight, ironically bringing the gospel into new and safer frontiers (Acts 8:4-8). I see where Romans are doing the persecuting (Rev. 2-3), and still Jesus counsels perseverence rather than violence (Rev. 4ff).
I see where the apostle Paul tells all Christians to fight, even against worldly authorities and all powers opposing God, but not against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:10-13); and there the weapons (like the sword of the White Rider of Rev. 19) are spiritual and verbal (6:14-19). This from the former persecutor of families, now in Roman chains (6:20)!
I know that many early Christians were Pharisees, who typically were married and fathers (Acts 15:5), and some apostles had spouses (1 Cor. 9:5, Matt. 8:14). So the prospect of a spouse having to watch another spouse suffer, like a mother having to watch her son die on a cross, is not unknown in the time of the New Testament Church.
Moreover, this is a time when husbands and fathers are breadwinners and widows and orphans are severely disadvantaged; so for an apostle like Peter to be martyred puts the whole family at risk. We see churches taking special care of them (Acts 6:1) and lamenting their martyrs (Acts 8:2), but in Scripture we do not see churches resorting to violence to preserve anyone's life or welfare.
I see where Paul asserts his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid being bound and scourged (Acts 22:22-29), so it is not as if he is looking for punishment. I also see where Paul appeals to the propriety of rulers wielding the sword for civil justice (Rom. 13:1-7). The Church does not look for occasions to suffer unjustly, and it appeals to those divinely appointed to violence to see that justice is done. What the Church does not do is take such matters into our own hands (Rom. 12:14-21). (I wrote on this passage here.) We are appointed to a different task, one belonging to a whole different age.
This seems to be the pattern for the first few centuries of the Church's history. The apostolic Church practiced nonviolence in a violent and threatening world because it saw itself as a sign of the new creation breaking into the old. It is not until the new eschatologies of Constantine and Augustine that the just war tradition originates.
Though I concede that your own story is much more powerful than mine, shouldn't you and I appeal to these stories before our own? And if we are willing to do it, might we look there for a possible answer to the problem of defending others, in case a satisfying answer is actually there? I don't want to preach "nonsense", but I also don't want to preach the wisdom of this age; I want to preach the gospel, "the foolishness of God" that overpowers the world with "the weakness of God" (1 Cor. 1).
The question of defending others comes up again and again whenever Christian nonviolence is at issue. Enemies have long known that we find it harder to bear the torturing and killing of those we love. They capitalize on it. If they can tempt us away from our witness with it, they win. That's what Saddam's Fedayeen want to do in Iraq: to exploit the morals of their enemies to their own advantage, and if possible to provoke their enemies to retaliate in kind. If they can get us to do that, they can disadvantage the invaders. So God's enemies want us to fall away, betray one another, and hate one another. They want our love to grow cold. Like the devil in the wilderness, they want us to fall back on a story besides the faithfulness of God, because they cannot prevail against the faithfulness of God (Matt. 16:18).
Is there a way to defuse this weapon of theirs? Well, here is a proposal. It doesn't address every possible scenario, but it addresses some of them, and to me that is a step in the right direction. It comes from me, so I'm ready to defer to you as one who has already practiced it in the context of your vocational mission. What if we Christians invited other Christians not to defend us violently? What if we made it known indeed, what if our baptisms already make it known that we already belong to the dead and risen one rather than to our families and loved ones (Matt. 19:27-30), and that those who love us are freed from the obligation to defend us with unspiritual weapons?
We still appeal to God's authorities in the old creation to defend both believers and non-believers, "to confront evil" in your fine words, using the weapons of the old creation. But we in the new creation make it clear that all who live in the eschatological community of God are free from having to defend each other. The whole Church is like your mission: "We chose this. ... We knew the chances, but decided to show unconditional love, to embrace the cross."
After all, isn't embrace of the cross what it means to be Church? Isn't that what it means to be baptized, not just to take a monastic vow?
What about Christian families indigenous to persecuted areas? In those cases I think the clearest biblical options are to call prophetically and politically for civil authorities' protection, to escape, or to stay and take the risk of harm. Which alternative to take would be a matter for the community to discern in the Spirit.
What will happen to the nations that reject the good news and persecute its messengers? They are spurning their greatest chance at life, and they will suffer greatly for it. Sodom and Gomorrah will have it better (Matt. 10:14-15). I think this judgment does not just lie in the future. The communities that kill God's people are already becoming hell-holes. Their intolerance is killing them. What will become of them, I don't know. But at present it doesn't look good and that isn't our problem unless our distortion of the good news is the cause of their rejection.
My children are young and (as we are part of a Pentecostal Church) unbaptized. I don't think it is appropriate for my wife and me to put them in harm's way unless they have embraced the cross. Yet if our whole family decided to put itself in a dangerous context like yours, then we would go with that understanding. If we could not reach that understanding, we would not all go or perhaps none of us would go at all.
What if they were in harm's way? What if I had the opportunity to kill someone threatening a loved one who is a non-believer? That to me is the hardest case. Am I who belong to the new creation (Col. 3) still allowed or obligated to resort to the tactics of the old creation when I am defending old creation? The many Christians who say yes are, in effect, saying that we live double-lives. Toward the old we are old, but in the new we are new. Lutheran soteriology in particular radicalizes this with its simul iustus et peccator and its Two Kingdoms doctrine. All I can say in response is that this is the direction Paul doesn't take in Rom. 12-13. I never see Jesus or his other disciples taking it either. In fact, I sense that this may be the very sword Jesus refers to when he says,
Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt. 10:34-39).Admittedly the text does not speak directly to violent defense of others in peril, but it does speak to matters where loyalties and responsibilities in the old creation violently conflict with the demands of the eschatological Kingdom. Think of a world where a family asks a disciple, "How could you possibly do this to us? Where is your loyalty? Where is your love? Where is your appreciation for the sacrifices we have made for you? Where is your responsibility? What would happen if everyone did this?"
I have a confession: To me the calls Jesus makes in the passages I am citing are dangerous, offensive, theoretical nonsense but only from the perspective of the old creation. They look very different on Easter morning, as they will to everyone on the day when Jesus returns and the dead rise. Sometimes I walk in the presence of the risen Jesus, but more often I flee from Gethsemane, cower in the courtyard, and stand far away from Calvary. I want to follow Jesus when it's safe and run away when it's not. And I have never been tested as you have. Not even remotely. So let me ask you as a fellow disciple, in all seriousness, what is your counsel? How should I read these passages? How should I follow this man who will judge the world? I am still open to considering that case for Christian violence, and have even entertained it here. But I am only open to it in a way that would be eschatologically coherent and consistent with the canonical stories of Jesus and his disciples. I cannot afford to be otherwise. This is not about spinning theories or saving my own skin; it is about holding fast to my people's only firm hope for the world.
Regardless of my stand on that case, I want to stress that we Christians who are safe have clear responsibilities that we face every day, not just on occasion. We are to visit needy brothers and sisters, to clothe and feed and heal and comfort them at our cost and even at our own personal risk, to look after widows, to adopt orphans, to welcome refugees, to be the family of God that never turns our back on those who suffer for the Name (Acts 5:40-42). We are called unambiguously to that defense of others. When Jesus' sword has cut them off from their old means of support, we are to be their new and eternal ones. You are more faithful at this than I am, sister. I still think it is your habit that tells the story the world needs to hear, not your handgun. But you have my deep respect and my willing ear, and I would love to hear from you again.
March 28, 2003
Ready for a break from the bipolar world of war news coverage? I have just posted "Once Upon a Tribulation," an article in the current re:generation quarterly on Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter and the Left Behind series.
May they represent our God in Spirit and in truth.
March 26, 2003
Actions like faking surrenders, posing as civilians, and propagandizing (and perhaps killing) American POWs [UPDATE: and recruiting children, and using marked hospitals as command posts, and quartering troops with civilian families] are the desperate moves of a threatened regime with few choices. These forms of asymmetrical warfare break taboos in order to reduce strategic disadvantage. They evoke outrage in America, but the fact is that they are pretty effective. Moreover, as long as the Arab-Muslim world gives these tactics a pass, there is little disincentive to continue them. Where wars cross cultural boundaries, the shared understandings that govern the conventions of warfare do not necessarily apply. War crimes and atrocities are in the eyes of the beholder, especially where tribal and national pride is invested. This is as true in the Middle East today as it was in colonial Europe.
Welcome to American global military dominance in a multicultural age. Let these current events serve as the backdrop for understanding another form of cross-cultural asymmetrical warfare: the life of the Church.
The Church's politics of forgiveness are a strategy of spiritual warfare. Our community is called to offer forgiveness to enemies when they are at fault, and seek their forgiveness when we are at fault. By refusing to fight on their terms, and refusing not to fight on ours, we defuse the principalities and powers that drive aggression. When we suffer at their hands, even that is a victory, for it embraces the justice of the cross, and so it experiences deliverance from their rule, even while it waits on final deliverance from their pressure. Even the martyrdom that sometimes comes cannot jeopardize the security of our life in the coming new creation.
These tactics make sense to Christians, but they are foolishness to others. And rightly so: They belong to another culture, the culture of the Kingdom of God. From outside that Kingdom, the cross looks like a humiliating defeat; and the one who pursued the strategy looks like a madman (or at least someone who was seriously deluded). From within, it looks like glorification, like "lifting up" (John 8:28), for by inviting the power of the God who is love, it overpowers all who draw their power from somewhere else.
Asymmetrical warfare tempts the enemy to shift tactics. Iraqi combatants would like nothing more than to provoke retaliation in kind from the Coalition of the Willing. But the coalition will not take that bait, knowing that if it did it would lose its moral credibility with its own constituency and, more gravely, it would lose its soul. Likewise, God's enemies have tempted the Church to abandon its weapons of the Spirit and take up Caesar's sword; and when we have decided to fight on the world's terms, we have given up our advantage and lost our hard-won soul.
Yet when the Church stays faithful to its battle plan, the strategic vulnerability is reversed. The Church's politics of forgiveness are also an invitation to God's enemies to abandon their old weaponry and take up the weapons of the Spirit. We call that evangelism. We would like nothing more than to provoke retaliation in kind from the powers and principalities for that would save, not destroy, them. Many have accepted the invitation. But we are not discouraged when powers refuse. Christ is still victorious. Ours is the advantage either way.
Now that may be a nice theory, but intellectuals are famous for spinning theories that are more persuasive than they are reliable. Can Jesus and these theorists of his be trusted? The ultimate criterion of a strategy is whether it works. To that question, Christians can appeal to twenty centuries of tradition, beginning with the military career of Christ the King himself. Today he sits exalted at the Father's right hand with the world at his feet. Moreover, the disciples that have been most successful waging his war have been those who have been the most faithful to his example and obedient to his will. The ones who have adopted the tactics of God's enemies have found themselves increasingly stranded back in the old world of perpetual war, losing the endgame they had already won, and have either come to regret it or have hardened themselves against his coming judgment.
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels (Luke 9:23-26).If the news can be believed, the Coalition of the Willing is fighting as honorably as a military knows how, refusing to give up its advantage even when it puts them at greater immediate risk. Never mind that its enemies see this as weakness; it is staying true to its principles.
The Church of Jesus Christ should stay true to ours.
March 25, 2003
The daughter of a friend has gone to Iraq not to be a human shield, but to be a witness to the reign of Jesus Christ. Here is the letter she wrote shortly before entering the country:
Dear Friends,Later I will offer some comments about her sponsoring organization, but now I would only ask for your prayers that her team would be a faithful witness to the Kingdom of God, and that they would be safe during their mission.
I write to you tonight with fear and with hope. If everything goes as planned our team of nine will be leaving for Baghdad in four short hours (at 2 am our time). The rest of our team received visas today the Iraqi officials were very kind and helpful once we got to the people who can make decisions. We were VERY clear that we are not going as human shields and if the Iraqi government tries to station us, we will simply leave (if possible). The official was very understanding and talked with us about the situation for over ten minutes.
The trip will take anywhere between 12 and 16 hours. We are leaving at 2 am to ensure that we get to the border at daylight (that part of the trip is 5 hours). Once we cross the border we must make good time because we want to get to Baghdad before nightfall. Between the Jordanian border and Baghdad is only desert, with a few gas stations and rest stops. Two of our team members who were already in Baghdad came out last night (for a variety of reasons expired visas and the threat of jail with no food or water, mainly. Apparently, this one man had had quite a few run-ins with the Iraqi govt. and they wanted him out. No one else has had trouble). They said that the road was relatively safe only one bombed out bridge, which they were able to drive around, and a bombed bus (which was carrying young Iraqis who were returning to fight. We suspect the Jordanian govt. called ahead to the U.S. as they crossed over the border), one bombed car, and a bombed out gas station. They only hit two check points, both of which were Iraqi. As for precautions that we have taken: we are working on getting a driver through Nassim, a man at our hotel that Voices in the Wilderness has worked with for six years now. We trust him very much. We are taking one suburban and one car, caravanning the whole way. We have walkie-talkies and each person has a large white towel to wave if need be (we have been instructed that if we hear an airplane, we must jump out of the car and wave our towels). We are also taping white garbage bags to the roof of our cars and to one window, possibly with a cross made of black
duct-tape on them. We are taking a one paragraph explanation of our team, in English and in Arabic. We have plenty of food and water.
To those of you who wish we wouldn't go (which is probably all of you): we are sorry to cause more worry and pain to some of you. We have discerned, as a team, that this is where God is calling us. We have had several interviews over the past two days (with newspapers and radio stations, most notably with the Associated Press and with the BBC Jerry and I were interviewed on the BBC, so, for my family in Canada, you may be able to hear it) that have helped to guide our thought process.
There are three questions that all of the interviewers have been asking us,which some of you may be wondering as well. They are:
1)What is our primary motivation for going to Baghdad at this time?
This is close to what I told the BBC: Our primary motivation for going to Baghdad is to follow Jesus Christ and to model the life he lived. We believe that he teaches all Christians to practice nonviolence indeed, he teaches us that it is better to give life than to take it. As for the specific situation in Iraq we would rather die than allow this violence to be done in our names.
2)Do we really think our being there will change anything?
We are not naive. There is a possibilty that the U.S. government will kill us. There is a possibilty that the Iraqi government will kill us. There is little possibility that our presence will stop the war (apart from the power of God intervening). However, we believe that our being there makes a big difference in Iraqis' lives, in our lives, and in the lives of people in the U.S. Already we have had amazing conversations with many of you and others. Already I have been transformed in ways that I do not yet know how to express or even understand. And we will offer a presence of peace to those in Iraq who are facing tremendous danger and who are terribly afraid. We will be there to say that this is not the way of Jesus. We will tell them that, while George W. Bush cannot liberate them by the sword (which I am sure they already know) Jesus has
already liberated them by the power of his blood on the cross (which, by the way, I experienced more intensely than I ever have before last night at a nearby church, sharing in the Eucharist with our team and with people from all over the world). We will testify to that power as a peaceful presence to them in the midst of the violence waged by the kingdoms of this world. And we will see good in the land of the living, even amidst some of the worst evil.
3)Are we afraid?
Yes, of course. I have lost my appetite, and my stomach is in knots (although I do feel at peace tonight). But, we are more afraid of what this world will become (and who we will become) if we do not remain faithful to the call of God in our lives. Also, the life of Jesus ends in resurrection, not death. I believe in the resurrection, and will be resurrected with Jesus one day.
If I die, I want you all to know that it is ONLY by the power of the Holy Spirit that I am able to do this. I want more than anything for my actions to glorify Jesus and to point to his crucifixion and resurrection. Please know that my death (if it were to happen) is not in vain, for these past two weeks have made Jesus' life more real to me
than ever before. In that sense, I am ready to die. For that I am grateful.
However, I want to live. And I want to see you all again. So please pray that we will be re-united soon. And please continue to pray for peace.
Thank you for your support and for your prayers. We love you all deeply and miss you.
March 24, 2003
Life is relationship.
You shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me always (Ex. 25:30).Salvation is relationship with God.
Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8).Relationship with God begins with worship.
There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel (Ex. 25:22).
These are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats' hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins [?!?], and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil nd for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece (Ex. 25:3-7).Worship begins with sacrifice.
You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him (Ex. 25:1b).Sacrifice begins with faithful response to God's call.
Tell the Israelite people to give me gifts (Ex. 25:1a).Yesterday, today, and forever, what God receives are the gifts God has already given. But today our mercy seat is Christ (Rom. 3:25) and our gifts are his (Rom. 12:6-8). The Trinity's economy is the world's prosperity, and we are all invited to receive and give back.
The Christological antitypes are hot and heavy in Exodus 24. Matthew especially draws on the imagery. There are seventy elders [like the circle of seventy followers of Jesus] and three insiders [Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration], but Moses alone comes near YHWH and teaches his commands [as the Sermon on the Mount]. Moses builds an altar with twelve pillars [like the twelve apostles]. As the people agree to follow the instruction, he sprinkles the blood of the covenant ["this is my blood-of-the-covenant" at the Lord's Supper, Matt. 26:28] to confirm the relationship. As the elders and insiders ascend and see the God of Israel, the text remembers that "they beheld God, and they ate and drank" (24:11). No better description of the Eucharist comes to mind, or of the wedding banquet that the Eucharist anticipates.
As the chapter closes, Moses leaves his own to wait on God. Whether you consider this three days in a tomb, or two thousand years and counting at the Father's right hand; the implications remain: While the master is gone, the people are to watch and wait and remain faithful.
Will they? Not in Exodus. Will we? Or, rather, which of us will be among the faithful? Time will tell.
In the context of that post, Christlikeness means (off the top of my head):
Bringing the kingdom of God in which Christ reigns with perfect justice and endless mercy.And so on. As you can see, these qualities would produce a Church that is also, to quote that post, "an organization that will follow its orders faithfully, do its job professionally, respond honorably to dishonor, put itself in greater risk to keep innocents safe, protect its domestic critics, sacrifice itself but not its principles ... all for pay the rest of us would scorn," except that in Christlikeness these qualities would utterly surpass the secular equivalents, to the point of redefining them.
Deeply and thickly informed by the traditions of God's people.
Perfectly imaging God in the world; making God truly present.
Determined to accomplish the divine mission.
Unswayed by competing visions and undistracted by competing goals.
Willing to bear all costs.
Unwilling to sacrifice fidelity.
Assured of success.
Reliant on the power of the Holy Spirit.
We have a long way to go. Yet when we realize that Christlikeness is a gift and stop trying to create it ourselves, we will find ourselves well along it.
March 23, 2003
As the war goes on, my respect for the Armed Forces only grows. This is an organization that will follow its orders faithfully, do its job professionally, respond honorably to dishonor, put itself in greater risk to keep innocents safe, protect its domestic critics, sacrifice itself but not its principles ... all for pay the rest of us would scorn.
Is that picture idealized? Sure it is; but the reason America's military institutions enjoy enormous support from American citizens is not mere wishful thinking. They have earned it. In fact, it was earning it years before it was receiving it, quietly and gracefully enduring taunts like George Carlin's remark that "military intelligence" is an oxymoron (at least in public) as it re-created itself into one of the most impressive human organizations in the world.
As I absorbed the morning's war news, I thought to myself, "If only our churches were as disciplined as America's military. If only we had their spirit of fellowship, sacrifice, fidelity, mission, endurance, service, respect, and responsibility. If only we could recover from our ruin with the same determination that they have. We need to learn the lessons they have to teach us."
Ironically, the person who taught that to me was Stanley Hauerwas, who distributed a Wall Street Journal feature on the Marine Corps to his ethics class while I was his TA, in order to show what an ordered and virtuous community can look like. While my thinking was undoubtedly colored by my more pro-war stance than Hauerwas', it was coming from the same place. Many Christian organizations would be strengthened enormously if they would look to the military for inspiration.
Of course there are already Christian organizations who are like this: the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptist International Mission Board (whose people refuse to whine when their missionaries are murdered for offering health care to people of other faiths), the Dream Center here in Los Angeles. Years ago I started a short-lived desktop magazine dedicated to telling stories and offering help for organizations like these, and the dream is still alive in me somewhere.
With all this in my head I went to church this morning, and God blew it away like so much chaff.
Our pastor is on his second week of a long series on the identity of God, and the set of worship songs was tailored to it. We sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (in an arrangement Tommy Walker is famous for through his work for Promise Keepers). We sang a terrific song Tommy had just written. We sang "O God Our Help in Ages Past" (again with a backbeat and a new bridge). As the Word did its work, God convicted me that I had it wrong. The Church will not refresh its power by becoming more like the military or any other organization including itself. The Church will only rediscover its power by becoming more like God.
Now the Church is a human organization, and as such it can learn from other human institutions. One mentor of mine, George Barna, has done years of helpful work applying this insight in concrete ways. Hauerwas, author of In Good Company: The Church as Polis, is another. One tends to look to Peter Drucker and the other to Aristotle, and I will leave it to partisans to choose between these two friends. I only want to note that they are not so different as they might at first appear. Both are skilled at envisioning the Church as an organic human agent of Christ's mission.
However, their very strength makes their readers vulnerable to overlooking the divine aspect of the Church.
Yes, the Church is a community of virtue ordered by sets of human social practices. But saying that the Church is Christ says all this and far more. Jesus himself puts it as radically in John 17 as any have put it: We disciples are to be like God, so that the world will know God through us. We are God's ambassadors, God's translators even, as Paul puts it, God's message.
Yet how are we to be like God? How can we be like One who is holy, who is so unlike anything else? We call it being Christlike.
When Hauerwas was discussing his book in the context of a panel at the American Academy of Religion, he offered what he judged was the strongest critique of his work. It came from his student Scott Bader-Saye: "The Church is not an Aristotelian polis, but Israel." Advantage: Saye! His image is a lot closer, and far more accessible to common Christians. We are to be a holy people. We are to be a priesthood that shares in the priesthood of God-with-us. We are to reign in the one who reigns at the right hand of the Father, who shares his throne with those who share his cross.
But how do we appropriate what he shares with us? In weeks past I have extolled Rusty Reno's In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity. Reno contends that to realize our promise, we must dwell in the constitutive practices of the Church, as Nehemiah dwelt in the ruins of Jerusalem. The long tradition of looking elsewhere for the key to the Church's strength is a trap. This morning my local church refused to let me fall into it. Advantage: Reno!
I still admire the Armed Forces, and I thank all those civil authorities who faithfully discharge their duty to maintain a just order. Their example and the other "Egyptian gold" from our various cultures, heroic theologians, church-growth strategies, and philosophers of antiquity have much to offer the Church that images God in the world but offer only sources of temptation to the Church that looks elsewhere for what it should image.
March 20, 2003
Ex. 23 concludes by dipping back into the narrative, where God gives directions not to bow to the gods of the nations "when my angel goes before you" to blot them out (23:20).
The word for "messenger" in Greek is angelos, permitting Mark 1:2 to merge the Exodus reference into Malachi 3:1 in announcing the coming of John the Baptist. (Note Mark's inclusion of "before your face," which is in Exodus rather than Malachi.)
I have argued elsewhere that Jesus' ministry is a fulfillment of the original conquest of the land of promise. This little prepositional phrase is one more indication that the evangelist sees Jesus' coming in the same way. John the Baptist is the angel of YHWH, clearing the way for Jesus to enter "little by little" (23:30) and flourish.
Time to go teach. God be with you today, and please keep praying for the Kingdom to come.
March 19, 2003
I have reached the point in Exodus where the narrative recedes and the focus shifts to law and I am out of my depth.
One of the reasons I want to blog the Pentateuch is that I have agreed to write a theological commentary on Deuteronomy. Blogging is an informal, low risk joyride in the world of theological biblical interpretation. It causes me to notice details, entertain interpretations, and acquire some skill in devotional practices all at the same time. It is not what I will eventually be publishing, but it will be influential.
There are texts I have thought about for a long time, which Christian theologians have continually returned to in order to teach the tradition. Genesis 1-3 and others are obvious examples. Exodus 21-23 is not one of those texts (nor are many of the chapters of Deuteronomy). Here especially, I need practice.
That means my reflections on these chapters will struggle even more than usual. (The distraction of a war now underway only makes it more difficult to concentrate.)
As Ex. 21 opens, God has emancipated his people; but they are still in profound need. The Ten Commandments suggest that these people have many of the social practices common to all people (worship, family, property, conventions of justice, and so on). The Decalogue holds vast potential for redeeming these practices. Yet rules cannot realize their full potential while they remain at this level of abstraction. "Yes, we shall not steal," my young children assure me. However, they still fail to understand the nuances, the analogies, the boundary cases, and the deeper point of the rule. They need training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
That is what God gives them with the 613 commandments in Moses' instruction: teaching that trains them how to live a holy life together.
These questions will never go away. "Yes, I shall love my neighbor. But who is my neighbor?" Rabbi Jesus will be offering scenarios that train his generation of disciples in a new and deeper way to honor the old rules.
March 17, 2003
Just got this e-mail:
Please remember who our real enemy is as you read this e-mail prayer:This from a friend of Kim's who is a lifelong conservative Republican and a charismatic Christian.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Eph 6: 12
As Jesus said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." Luke 6:27 My new pastor can't stop quoting this one verse and it's really starting to stick in my mind. Now I have to start doing it.
We right wingers really are heartless, aren't we?
This morning I woke up next to Kim with sunlight streaming through the window. We turned up the heat in the house. She took the boys to school while I blogged Exodus 20 and read my e-mail.I poured cereal for Junia and fed Benjamin; both of them are over the flu and finally able to eat whatever they want. I had my usual mug of jasmine green tea and treated myself to a bagel with cream cheese. It is a beautiful, windy, clear spring day in southern California. No sandstorms, no tents, no chemical protection suits, no military rations, no thousands of miles of separation between me and my loved ones, no last goodbyes just in case.
I remember feeling this way for days after 9/11. What an unfathomable luxury daily life is.
I want the people who are sacrificing so much right now, and are prepared to sacrifice their futures as well, to know how much I appreciate them. The fact that I believe Christians have different (and, if we did them responsibly, equally dangerous) tasks than fighting flesh and blood does not detract from my admiration or gratitude for what they are doing. In the end, we are both agents of peace, and we depend on each other: Agents of the Father's grace rely on agents of the Father's temporal justice to protect everyone while we do our work; and agents of the Father's temporal justice rely on agents of the Father's grace to turn hearts from vengeance and desperation to reconciliation and hope. When we are faithful, we are providential to each other.
America's and Britain's agents of temporal justice are on the job. They are not perfect, but by and large they are blessing and honoring us. Are the world's agents of grace on our job? Are we blessing and honoring them? Or just free-riding?
I have said very little lately about the war, and some of what I was planning to say, Damian Penny has already said better:
I'm not a very religious man, but I'm praying for American and British soldiers. I'm praying for the Kurds and Israelis, for Qataris, Kuwaitis and Saudis, and for Iraqi civilians who could be just days away from liberation but some of whom will almost certainly die at the hands of Anglo-American bombs. I'm praying that it all comes to an quick, decisive end, before Saddam can do something desperate and dangerous. I'm praying that the idealists in the Bush administration the so-called "hawks," who want to make the Iraq a model for a new, democratic Middle East carry the day. I pray that the international community, which has put so much faith in the hopelessly corrupt UN, will finally get serious about reform.Amen.
I am also praying for the friends and family of the fighters. Many of them are the same age as my students, and some of whom will not come home. I am praying for the hapless Iraqi conscripts, that they will surrender safely and honorably (and without impeding the allied advance). I am praying for those against this war, that God would give them maturity, discernment, and courage to prophesy against abuse (and only abuse, and abuse on all sides), helping to keep warriors accountable and responsible. I am praying for the Iraqi leadership, that somehow, somehow, through the grace of God, their hearts might change. (As the imams are constantly reminding us with their vitriolic invocations, "They are within Your power.") I am praying for responsibility and fairness among those who are reporting and commenting. I am praying for justice, humility, forgiveness, and mercy among the victors and their champions. I am praying for their perseverance not only during the war but during the rebuilding that follows. I am praying that God will take these actions the sinful along with the good and work them together redemptively for good (Rom. 8:28), as he did long ago on a cross and at a tomb.
I am praying that the Church will wake up and do the work God has entrusted only to us, so that the world might have real and not just imagined alternatives to war.
Those are pretty ambitious prayer requests. So, finally, I am also praying: Come, Lord Jesus.
Pray with me, OK?
"We should fear, love and trust in God above all things." This is Luther's explanation of the First Commandment in his Shorter Catechism. All the other explanations repeat the theme that each line of the Decalogue tells us to "fear and love God."
It is a beautiful and simple insight, well grounded in the scene at the foot of Mount Sinai where God's people are stricken with mortal fear at the thunder and smoke (Ex. 20:15-16). There Moses answers, "Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray" (20:17). God is putting his fear in you, so do not fear! Moses the intercessor is here like a sympathetic parent who explains to the intimidated children the point of the other parent's theatrics. In our family, both Kim and I have played the role.
(By the way, the imagery is still there in the Jesus' apocalyptic discourses in the gospels, in the weather on Good Friday, in Peter's interpretation of Pentecost, and at the end of the age (Rev. 11:15-19). For the faithful and discerning, these signs are good news.)
For Luther the Law arouses fear and the Gospel arouses love. Here in Exodus, the bluster is what terrifies the Israelites; in the long run, it is the Law that arouses love (Ps. 19, 119). In my experience, this love of Torah baffles many fundamentalists, who are used to hearing law as inevitably producing legalism and therefore opposing grace. They are shocked to learn that Jews identify commandment and grace, but as the realization sinks in they often gain a warm, even romantic notion of what a life under divine discipline might look like.
I worry about those who never hear these soothing words of Moses. They grow up with an image of God as arbitrarily terrifying. Some remain haunted, but look elsewhere (e.g., a golden calf, Ex. 32) for an ally against the despot. Others break a few rules, discover that the punishment is slow in coming, and abandon the discipline altogether. Still others suffer injustice and conscript God as their avenger, becoming disappointed when he shows mercy on their enemies (Rev. 6:9-11).
For these sufferers, it is never too late for reassurance. This is YHWH, the One Who Is with us, who brought us out of the house of bondage (20:2). Let us fear, love, and trust God above all things.
March 16, 2003
It is an axiom in the Lutheran tradition that the Law comes first and the Gospel second. The Law blesses conditionally, driving us (when we inevitably fail to pass its tests) to the unconditional blessings of the Good News.
This is true in a way, but at a broader level there is another pattern in which this sequence is reversed and Law follows Gospel. That is what we see in Ex. 19:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to me. Now then, if you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is mine, but you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (19:4-6).For captive Israel, ransom comes before responsibility. God liberates, then God empowers, then God holds accountable. The same pattern occurs in the life of Jesus: he heals and frees and calls, then he shares his Holy Spirit, then he promises to return in judgment.
There is evidence that by Jesus' day the Jewish feast of Pentecost had become a celebration of the Law-giving on Mount Sinai. How appropriate, then, for the Spirit to fall on the disciples gathered and waiting for "the promise of the Father" (Luke 24:49, Acts 2). The difference between the old covenant and the new is not that unconditionality has replaced conditionality, but that the old law was written and the new law is breathed (2 Cor. 3:4-6).
This means that for Christians the lawgiving at Ex. 19ff is not something Jesus has undone, but something Jesus has renewed. We are not to read these verses grateful that we are not under the instruction (torah) of Moses, for the Torah is a blessing. We are to read them grateful that the One we have received writes the instruction on our hearts and brings it to its full expression in Christ.
There is another striking difference: Before, the presence of YHWH was something even God's people could not tolerate (19:21). After Christ's atonement, the presence of the still invisible, still unapproachable God (1 Tim. 6:16) inhabits the people. What would once have killed us now gives us life.
Have a joyful Lord's Day.
Philip Jenkins closes this wonderful book The Next Christendom with the observations that Christianity is never as weak as it seems to be, and never as strong as it seems to be, but that it has the remarkable ability to transform weakness into strength.
Yet we also have a perverse talent for transforming strength into weakness.
The text reminds us of this in the embarrassing episode where Jethro must intervene to save Israel from Moses' messiah complex (Ex. 18:13-26). Moses is so used to looking to himself as Israel's hope that he is failing to empower his people. If left centralized, his leadership would turn into well-intentioned tyranny. Who knew that through faith (18:21) this sorry, grumbling lot had the resources to be their own judiciary? Not their prophet!
(Er, maybe Jethro isn't such a triumphalist after all.)
I have implemented a system like Jethro's in my classes this semester partly to save time, but partly to cultivate the talent and care in my students that my micromanagement would suffocate. For they are weak in their youth and inexperience, and I am weak in my arrogance and overwork. My prayer is that we will let God ride our weak horses to victory, as God crafted one of the world's most inspiring peoples out of Jacob's sorry stock, conquered sin and death forever through a humiliating criminal execution, and assembled the weary and lost of the world into an eternal home away from home.
There is only one problem: All these leaders need to be equipped for the task. So on to Sinai, where God will take these misfits and turn them into a holy nation, a kingdom of priests (19:6) and through them, bring the Light to the whole world.
Word is getting out about YHWH (Ex. 18:1)!
As a matter of fact, in one of my Old Testament classes in seminary I was introduced to the theory that the reason unrealistically large numbers of Hebrews enter the land after their time of wandering is that tribes of Semites are "joining the revolution," so to speak, and being included among the tribes of Israel. (Ephraim, the theory goes, is the most likely tribe actually to have originated in Egypt.)
I am in no position to judge the veracity of that notion (or, sadly, to remember the name of the scholar who proposed it), but it does help make sense of texts like Ex. 18:1-12. For this desert god to have delivered a people under the thumb of mighty (and religious) Egypt is impressive. YHWH is a strong horse; the Egyptian pantheon is a weak stable. If you were Jethro, wouldn't you want to be on the right side of history too?
But there is a problem in the logic. The Hebrews waited 430 years for a shot at returning to the promised land. Where was YHWH then? And if times like that are ahead, what does it say about YHWH's affinity toward Israel?
The Quran alleges that by turning its back on God and corrupting the Tawrah, Israel has lost YHWH's favor, which was never exclusive anyway. Given Israel's place in world politics in the sixth century, I can see why the chosen people might no longer have looked all that chosen. Muhammad had the momentum, so the prudent thing to do was to go with the umma. The Angel told the Prophet to pray towards Mecca rather than Jerusalem, and since then Islam has never looked back.
But Israel was still chosen, and Israel still is. God never takes back a promise at least not when it's a blessing (Rom. 11). Once special, always special and vice versa. Twenty centuries of inexcusably poor treatment have failed to seduce millions of Jews away from their original deliverer. That is an achievement even more impressive than the original exodus. It takes more faith to back an apparently weak horse than an apparently strong one.
Abraham has his spiritual descendants, but Jethro has many more. Many Jews faltered over those centuries, backing whatever horse seemed to be making a better showing at the time; and many Gentiles have done likewise. In Constantinian churches, the "Arab street," Puritan America, among prosperity gospellers, and (I am sorry to say) among my fellow charismatics, the enthusiasm is sometimes directly proportional to how dramatic and recent the reports of signs and wonders are. I wonder sometimes how my faith would feel if I were living in the seventeenth century, when Europe was reeling from the Wars of Religion, modernity was shaking off piety, the Ottomans were besieging Vienna (with the help of Christian Janissaries!), and the world missionary revival was still to come. Would I really have felt like backing Jesus? Am I really a child of Abraham, or just a child of Jethro?
March 15, 2003
Three days after the liberation, the bickering starts. There's no water (Ex. 15:22). Alright, there is a spring for every tribe (15:27); but now there's no food (16:2-3). Alright, food falls down from the sky (16:4); but now the water is gone again (17:1). OK, the rock [of Christ, 1 Cor. 10] supplies the water (17:6); but now there are enemies (17:9).
At Massah, God's people worried: Is YHWH present with Israel, or not? (17:7).
It was easy not to see that the answer was yes. We are a fickle species. This week my two youngest children had the flu; my nine-month-old and my three-year-old both spent days vomiting whatever we tried to give them. Even in a place with urgent care centers, all kinds of drugs, and IV's as a last resort, it is still scary. When several misfortunes hit at the same time even mild ones it is easy to believe that the world is against you.
Call it Murphy's Spiritual Law: Even a brief losing streak convinces us the fates are allied against us.
It is not as if Israel has ceased to believe that YHWH exists. Israel is worried that YHWH is abandoning them in the wilderness, that he is a fair weather god. Never mind that YHWH just hosted a banquet to reassure his people (16:11-13) and that two days' worth of manna falls every sabbath (16:21-30); when the glass of providence is half full, it is also half empty.
Israel has learned that their god is powerful. They have not yet learned that their god is steadfast.
Today the lucky ones whose belief in God survives the acids of modern epistemology are still tested at this ancient level. Many people believe in a God "out there"; yet they remain unconvinced that their lives are very different because of it. Certainly many self-described "spiritual" people live their lives this way, nodding in the direction of deity once in a while but trusting in the visible and repeatable rather than the invisible and unpredictable.
Often I live that way too, truth be told. We dosed our kids' Amoxicillin more regularly this week than we prayed for them. (Not for the flu, by the way, but for the round of ailments that preceded it.)
The pioneer of our faith was tempted in this way too, along with all the others. His baptism was answered in about the best conceivable affirmation: A voice from heaven, saying, "You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," and the Holy Spirit's christening as an eternal seal (Luke 3:21-22). After forty days of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus' tempter dares him if he is the Son of God to throw himself down from a high place. It will assure everyone that he has God's protection (cf. Ps. 91). Jesus remembers that desperate day at Massah and answers back, "It is said, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God'" (Luke 4:9-12, cf. Deut. 6:16-19). He isn't about the make Israel's old mistake. This chosen one is making right what went wrong so long ago. His mission will take him to death on a cross, but he will always be safe.
In our wilderness experiences, we frail creatures are tempted to put our great God to the test (17:7). But we have it backwards: We are the ones taking the test.
There he made for them a fixed rule, and there he put them to the test. He said, "If you will heed YHWH your God diligently, doing what is upright in his sight, giving ear to his commandments and keeping all his laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I YHWH am your healer" (Ex. 16:25-26).I can listen to the tempter and pine for the land of my slavery, or I can listen to my healer and drink at an oasis now and a land of promise later. I can doubt, or I can trust.
Israel doubted, and God still came through. Wow.
I still have a few tweaks (including formatting course syllabi). I coded some of the changes myself, so I would appreciate hearing about any problems.
I hope you find the pages load faster too.
March 14, 2003
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, "The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt." So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 13:17-18).Baptism has become an optional thing in many evangelical circles, especially among the young. The really important thing is to have said "the sinner's prayer" at some point in one's life; everything else is window dressing. When my contemporary Christian thought class read Lesslie Newbigin contending that baptism is an indispensable sign of salvation, many were genuinely offended. It seemed to be adding works to grace (though Paul very clearly does not regard baptism as a "work," i.e., as a work of the Torah, in Romans 6). Isn't my commitment enough?
Well, yes and no. Your commitment is what God wants; but your commitment is flimsier than you are likely to think. The Hebrews' commitment wavered whenever things got tough, and God knew their faith was still too weak to sustain them through what was coming. So God made their lives more difficult. The pillar of fire and smoke led them to the Sea of Reeds and the wilderness rather than through the shortcut of Philistia. God gave them a baptism they could not back out of and a long walk that toughened them up for the task of realizing his promises.
So it is with Christian discipleship. It is easy to commit at Bible camp or an altar call, but easy to forget when the world reasserts its rebellious self. So Jesus demands a vow up-front, a safe passage through water and before witnesses (14:19-22). It tempts sin's armies to attack (Ex. 14:5-9) and hands them a watery defeat (14:23-29). It testifies to the death of our old selves and the beginning of unalterably new lives with Christ (Rom. 6:1-14).
When I am tempted to return to slavery as I am I have this gift from God: I can turn around, look back, see a Sea of Reeds no longer split in two, and remember that the way back is no longer available.
Is that memory a "work" contrary to faith? Of course not. It bestows trust in YHWH and his deliverer (14:30-31). Faith is what baptism is all about. Baptism allows the Church to join the Hebrews in singing the song of Moses:
The foe said,and the song of Miriam:
"I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil;
My desire shall have its fill of them. ...
You made your wind blow, the sea covered them;
They sank like lead in the majestic waters. ...
In your love you lead the people you redeemed;
In your strength you guide them to your holy abode (Ex. 15:9-10, 13).
Sing to YHWH, for he has triumphed gloriously;Whom the Son sets free, is free indeed (John 8:36)!
Horse and driver he has hurled into the sea (Ex. 15:21).
"Consecrate to me every firstborn" (Ex. 13:2). This chapter continues the strange liturgical training session in the middle of Israel's redemption. Here God directs Israel to observe an annual feast of unleavened bread (13:6-10) and to redeem the firstborn of every generation (13:11-16), both in remembrance of the original deliverance. What an odd and pregnant interval, pausing the action in order to describe a meal for catechizing future generations.
One night far in the future, one of the firstborn of Israel will gather his disciples around a Passover meal and initiate a new feast in the midst of their deliverance in which he is the offering. When all is accomplished and he has returned to them, they will naturally remember this narrative and discover that their leader is firstborn of all creation, firstborn from the dead, redeemer of all things and peacemaker through his cross (Col. 1:15-20).
One of the many reasons the Church refused to walk away from the Scriptures of Israel is that they supply the imagery by which the New Testament tells Jesus' story. Nevertheless, keeping the Old Testament around is not the same thing as opening it and devoting ourselves to understanding it. By ignoring the Old Testament, the Church finds itself eating bread and wine without much of a clue to what they mean. We parents of the faith (whether our parenthood is figurative or literal) bear the responsibility of knowing how to answer when, in time to come, our children ask us, "What does this mean?" (13:14).
What we do is a sign on our hands and a symbol on our foreheads that with a mighty hand YHWH has freed us (13:16).
March 12, 2003
Ex. 11 is the final confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh that sets up the Passover in Ex. 12.
Until now, the Hebrews have basically been passive. Now the focus shifts to them as Ex. 12 takes a liturgical turn. The narrative flashes forward repeatedly to a time when Israel remembers the deliverance about to happen that night. The future ceremony will require days of preparation (12:3-6). Its themes: Worship (12:6-7). Finality (12:8-9). Suddenness (12:11). Protection (12:11). Readiness (12:11). Vindication (12:12). Fellowship (12:19). Ancestry (12:24). Heritage (12:15). Catachesis (12:26-27). Vigilance (12:42). Holiness (12:48).
These are the themes that will mature into apocalyptic.
There are also many themes I find largely or completely absent here: Malice. Schadenfreude. Aggression. Vengeance (though cf. 12:12b). Smugness. Triumphalism (though cf. Ex. 15). Retribution for four hundred years of slavery (though the Egyptian gold is a form of partial compensation). Not all of these are missing from later apocalyptic, but they are surprisingly missing from the Passover. (I wish I had the time to read through the Passover Haggadah right now to see whether and how these themes do or do not develop in contemporary Judaism.)
I am pretty unfamiliar with Jewish liturgy, but quite familiar with Christian liturgy, which centers on a Eucharist born of the Passover Seder. It too stresses the former themes and bypasses the latter. All are invited to come to Christ's table, have their hearts circumcised, and celebrate his freedom.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:7-8).
Ex. 7-10 chronicle all but the last of the awful plagues that will finally free the Hebrews from Egyptian captivity.
Moses' signs and wonders start small. They remind me of an old Saturday Night Live sketch where Fr. Guido Sarducci complained about Ann Seton's canonization that two of the three miracles were just card tricks. When Moses' staff becomes a snake, Pharaoh's magicians can reproduce the sign (7:10-12). This gives Pharaoh interpretive leeway to shrug off the miracle and harden his heart, and ignore the significance of the fact that Aaron's serpent swallows the others.
"Pharaoh is stubborn," YHWH explains to Moses; "he refuses to let the people go" (7:14). The words are only confirmed as the confrontation escalates to inconvenience, then hardship, then catastrophe. As things progress, the magicians are outclassed, and God begins to exempt the Hebrews from the damage (cf. 8:18). The narrative ambiguity shrinks as the damage grows, finally exposing the true nature of Pharaoh's position. It is not about the presence of a Hebrew fifth column. It is not about the welfare of his people. It is not even about power, for Pharaoh repeatedly makes inadequate concessions during the plagues and reverses course after the threat has passed. Pride alone maintains the injustice, and in desperation finds whatever grounds it can for the hope of prevailing. More on that later.
Is Pharaoh a puppet of YHWH here? "Pharaoh's heart hardened" (7:13, 7:22); "he became stubborn" (8:11); "Pharaoh's heart hardened" (8:15); "Pharaoh became stubborn" (8:28); "Pharaoh remained stubborn" (9:7); "YHWH hardened the heart of Pharaoh" (9:12), "he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways ... Pharaoh's heart hardened" (9:34-35); "I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers" (10:1); "YHWH hardened Pharaoh's heart" (10:20); "YHWH hardened Pharaoh's heart" (10:27). The phrases seem interchangeable, and are enclosed within the summaries of 7:3 ("I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt") and 11:10 ("Moses and Aaron had performed ll these wonders before Pharaoh, but YHWH had hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he would not let the Isralites go from his land"). Pharaoh begins stubborn and ends stubborn, and his stubbornness is only intensified as God judges it.
Here I do not see a "hypercalvinistic" fatalism at work, in which Pharaoh's will is utterly manipulated. Instead I see cooperation. Moses' signs proclam that YHWH is friend of the Hebrews. Pharaoh and his courtiers are enemies of the Hebrews, and that makes them enemies of God. So the signs of YHWH's power provoke fear during the plague and resentment afterwards, rather than compassion and joy. Pharaoh's court has set itself against YHWH and YHWH's people, and it will go down fighting rather than concede the obvious because to them it is not yet obvious!
Consider this: There is a pharaoh today in Baghdad who would rather put "his" people through hell than concede that he is defeated. When the pressure is on, he makes a few concessions, but never enough to satisfy his opponent; then when the pressure is relieved he returns to his old ways. Turning up the pressure only turns up the resistance. Saddam's heart is already hard, and America's determination is further hardening it. Both are factors in the current impasse. I have no doubt that Saddam's conscience is untroubled; he learned to live with himself long ago.
Saddam's hopes are these: Perhaps his determination can outlast America's. Perhaps another power will intervene and end the threat. Perhaps he can hold his own people hostage and take advantage of his adversary's conscience to prolong his own evil. Are thoughts like these going through Pharaoh's mind? I wouldn't be surprised.
In this passage the hearts of the powerful (Americans included) are laid bare. People have always been trying to outplay, outwit, and outlast the dieties that haunt us. We Christians do it often enough, shrugging off God when we are not on his side. All we are doing is playing for time pathetically but we do it anyway.
Camassia questions the category of collective guilt, and worries about the hapless Egyptian common folk who are suffering under this tyranny the ancient equivalents of the impoverished families and dying children of Iraq. She also infers that God is enjoying the carnage.
Regarding collective sin, Exodus does show us that Pharaoh's people, and not just Pharaoh himself, approve of the oppression, share in dreading the Hebrews, and rule over the slaves (1:9-14). This sense of collective sin does not wash out individual people, but it does rightly stress human interconnectedness. Sin is not just an individual thing; it is a social thing, because humanity is intrinsically social.
For example, American slavery, American hypocrisy to, conquest of, and subjugation of aboriginal Americans were not just the crimes of the American government; they had the tacit approval of "the people." As a white American, I have inherited certain traditions and learned narratives that tempt me to justify these and other collective sins; my surrender to those temptations corrupts me and my family, not just the contemporaries and the ancestors who taught us to live this way. Sin really is contagious and insidious. (And it is not just a white American problem!)
It is not a coincidence that the hearts of Pharaoh and his courtiers harden as one. Both sin and virtue pertain to both the personal and the interpersonal levels of the cosmos. "Powers and principalities" are not just individuals; they are a kind of collective spirit of malice. Here the recent work of Walter Wink on "the powers" leads the way.
Regarding the pleasure of divine wrath, if Jesus shows us divine emotion in a truly human form, then I think we can safely read God's anger at oppressive unbelief as something other than sadistic. He also shows us a God who neither shrugs off nor delights in anyone's suffering. (I have already appealed to Jonah as a story of God's compassion on Ninevites, so here I am not just "running to Jesus" and bypassing the Old Testament.)
Modern liberals are not the first Christians to be disgusted with the harshness of God in texts like these. In the Patristic era, allegory was the strategy of choice to remove the offensiveness of texts that seemed to contradict the God of Jesus of Nazareth. I actually share Camassia's suspicion of such self-serving strategies. So I don't want my inevitable appeal to Jesus as the clearest revelation of God's will to bracket the clear revelation of God's will here in Exodus.
Rather the opposite: In my reading I was captivated by a moment in this narrative when Pharaoh's magicians, unable to reproduce the plague of lice, tell Pharaoh that "this is the finger of God!" (8:15). Recognize the phrase?
He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God (Ex. 31:18).By the finger of God, Luke clearly means the Holy Spirit (11:13, 12:8-12, cf. Mark 3:22-30 and Matt. 12:27-32). The God who overturns the powers through plagues is the God who overturns the powers through exorcism. The God who binds Pharaoh and plunders the Egyptians is the God who binds the strong man and plunders his house. The plagues of Revelation are modeled after the plagues of Exodus. It is not a difference in God we see between Exodus, the synoptics, and Rev. 8-9, but the same Holy Spirit accomplishing one long work of salvation. It is a work whose middle stage is the center: cheering the poor, releasing the captives, healing the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the jubilee (Luke 4:18-29 quoting Isaiah 61:1-2). These plagues of righteousness have afflicted the powers and principalities from Jesus' day down to ours, as they grow to cover the earth in good news.
If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:19-20).
It is here that we see the full point of God's grandstanding as announced in Ex. 10:
I could have stretched forth my hand and striken you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced ffrom the earth. Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you my power, and in order that my fame may resound throughout the world (10:15-16).Now why would the God of one people, Israel, care what the world's other peoples think of him? The reader has long known the short answer (Gen. 12:2-3), and Paul will develop a longer one (Rom. 9-11).
The question is not whether you will elude the Spirit of freedom or encounter him. Nor is it really whether, as some predestinarians have put it, he is with you or against you. Jesus frames the encounter differently: Are you with him, or are you not? "The one who is not with me is against me, and the one who does not gather with me scatters" (Luke 11:23, cf. Luke 9:49-50).
You do not have to believe that George W. Bush has been right to appropriate that language for America's wars against terror (and I am already on the record pleading for Americans to resist our chronic temptation to Messianism) to find the parallels instructive. There is a war on, a war against a demonic oppression that dispirits the oppressed, hardens the oppressors, and refuses to recognize any third party. The lesson of the plagues is not that we are individuals victimized by a tyrannical God, but that the world's petty tyrants will not ultimately frustrate God's purpose to redeem his favored people and bless all the families of the earth.
March 10, 2003
Is trust a precondition of salvation? Or is trust a fruit of salvation?
By the time of Moses, God's promises to the patriarchs of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) are centuries old. That doesn't make them invalid, but it does make them easier to dismiss, especially when a people has been in captivity for hundreds of years. So when Moses tells the Israelites the good news of God's coming deliverance, "they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage" (Ex. 6:9).
So does God rebuke their lack of faith and abandon them? Of course not. Mistrust of abusive power is what God has come to deliver them from. So God is patient with them, enduring their unbelief in the years decades, centuries it takes to heal that unbelief. The story of Israel narrates trust, or faith, as a fruit of salvation rather than a precondition.
This is put in a striking way in Ex. 6:7: "I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, YHWH, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians." Note the (Hebrew imperfect) tense. "I will free you and earn your trust, and you will learn to call on and remember me."
And sure enough: Israel eventually becomes the context in which Jesus of Nazareth lives a life of complete trust according to the Torah. His exodus is a new basis for trust among all the suspicious nations who turn out to be in God's heart.
If life has left you with a trust problem, count yourself in good company, and prepare for Passover.
Exodus 5 brings us the subversive and liberating politics of worship: "Thus says YHWH God of Israel: 'Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness'" (Ex. 5:1). Americans recognize the first four words, but the snowballing secularization of liberation since the Enlightenment has left the rest of the sentence in obscurity.
In the biblical story from here through Revelation, the greatest cause of friction between Israel/Church and its oppressors (and its greatest strides towards freedom) come when it refuses to compromise its corporate worship of YHWH. Conversely, when it grants civil authorities the power to determine its worship practices, it inevitably slips into slavery.
Freedom of worship once made America constitutionally the freest people in the world, but no constitution can guarantee freedom from all tyrannies. Slavery once divided the Church; ethnic, class, and denominational segregation still dominate what is supposed to be "worship in Spirit and in truth". Today the Church submits to the market and the social consensus what its martyrs once refused to the emperor. Lent's mild disciplines are reminders that I submit to them too.
Our God is a jealous god, a consuming fire. I have no doubt that when new prophets come along to call us to worship free in the wilderness, today's Pharaohs will rage, their taskmasters will threaten, and God's people will gripe. That's not fanaticism, folks, it's orthodoxy, and it's for our own good. Come, Lord Jesus!
These are rich chapters in a book that immediately shows itself to be very different from Genesis. In fact, Genesis feels like a "set up" for Exodus, where the real story gets underway. What a remarkable difference from the way systematic theology usually treats the texts. We move directly from the doctrines of creation, humanity, and sin to the doctrine of Jesus Christ as if Israel were just a detail. Every semester I cycle through this sequence and worry a bit more about it. This year my conversations with Camassia make me worry even more. When we move (as we effectively do) from Genesis 3 to John 1 (or Romans 5), we move way too fast. Jesus becomes the solution to sin, the peg that fits just right in the hole. That forces Jesus into a story still woefully underdeveloped rather than letting the sequence move at its own pace. It also makes much of what Jesus does appear nonsensical.
(I wonder what I should do about that in the context of an already overloaded semester-long course in doctrine.)
Anyway, a lot catches my eye in these first four chapters. Twelve leaders and seventy sojourners enter Egypt (Ex. 1:5), numbers which correspond nicely with the two circles of twelve and seventy who follow Jesus out of bondage. Egypt, having benefitted enormously from the earliest "gift of the Jews" (see Thomas Cahill), forget in a generation and become suspicious of a people so blessed (1:9-10). There is a French allegory in there that would do much to indulge America's current persecution complex but Walter Russell Mead already said it better and far more scholarly. Then as now, envy makes terrible foreign policy. There are the poignant facts that the Nile that kills Moses' contempories saves him (1:22, 2:3), and the persecutor is Moses' sponsor (1:22, 2:9). This is more pleasant if I see it as God subverting evil through good. There is the multi-layered significance of Moses naming Gershom (2:22): Midian and Egypt are both strange lands to a man who will die without entering his true homeland. The name hints at Moses' discontentment at having to rely on promise rather than fulfillment a restlessness God will honor but not quite satisfy (Ex. 3). There is the security of a God who is with those he sends (3:10, 3:12), investing his character in lending his name (3:15-17). There is the peculiar description of Moses as "playing the role of God to" Aaron, a phrase picked up by Ignatius when he says that in worship the bishop "stands in the place of God". I had not picked up on the parallel before, and noticing it this time came as a relief. Now I can chalk it up to subtle biblical literacy rather than "Early Catholic" megalomania.
The passage that really strikes me in this reading is 3:18-20. Moses' testimony that YHWH manifested himself to the Hebrews should be testimony enough to persuade Pharaoh to set them free, yet God knows that Pharaoh will require a greater display of power, so he will supply signs and wonders too and these in increasingly dramatic steps. The first signs God well knows can be reproduced by Pharaoh's magicians; only the greater signs are sui generis. More about these later, I'm sure.
Why start with small signs (4:1-9) when larger ones will be needed? Perhaps it is a matter of commensurability. Moses' first signs relate to Egyptian magic; they send a message that should be intelligible to Israel's captors perhaps even more intelligible than the later signs. Perhaps it is a matter of gentleness. God may want to invite Pharaoh to relent with as little force as necessary, and on the most favorable terms. Yet all the signs harden Pharaoh's heart, so perhaps it is better described as a matter of truthtelling. The sequence of events certainly reveals the heart of Pharaoh (and remember, it is hardly soft*). The Hebrews' offer to leave in 3:18 is, after all, a peaceful solution to the dilemma of 1:8-12. Yet Pharaoh is motivated not by the true welfare of the kingdom, but by a stubborn and irrational need to wield power even when his own people suffer for it.
It works like that today, doesn't it? People complain all the time that the signs of God's reign are too small. Yet in Exodus, small is good. Small means there is still time to change before things intensify. We Christians make an awful lot out of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event whole scale is infintesimal compared to the general resurrection to come. Yet the resurrection of Jesus is scaled just right to get the message across in a way that reveals our hearts and speaks to our needs. It is, as Jesus said, all we get. And that's good, for it is really all we need, and all we can stand.
*UPDATE: Corrected an embarrassing error caught by Camassia. Thanks!
March 9, 2003
As you can see, a new look is on its way.
We have been working through musicals for our weekend family video rentals. Last weekend it was Singing in the Rain. This week I tried a new video store, whose stock of DVD musicals was pretty shallow. We took home Yellow Submarine. As expected, it was a hit with the kids.
In case you've blocked out your memory of the film, Pepperland is attacked by the fascist Blue Meanies, who silence their ubiquitous music, turn them from color to gray, and freeze them so that their only mobility is their tears. An invasion of Beatle music revives them and and a barrage of exclamations that "all you need is love" expels the Meanies. (One suggests a haven in Argentina.) The rest is mainly psychedelic filler, with an ominous ending: "There are newer and bluer Meanies out there," John Lennon warns us at the end of the film.
Yes there are. So what campaign would Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band undertake in this decade? Naturally the sixties left marks out Wahhabi, Ba'ath, and Taliban fascists as the greatest contemporary threat to a sonic, technicolor world, right?
Of course not, because playing a few instruments and insisting that "all you need is love" doesn't work against these types. Nor did it prevail against the Brown Meanies of the thirties. The sixties left won't attack today's totalitarians because it knows its weaponry is a joke.
I have no firsthand experience of the sixties; I came of age in the late seventies, just as punk was running it out of the music scene. After the last few weeks of anti-war spectacles I am beginning to see why hippies irritated my parents' generation so much. I can finally appreciate existentially how totally shallow and unserious their vision was and is, and how immoral it appeared to a generation that had sacrificed lives, luxuries, and occasionally even its own morality for survival. Yellow Submarine's decadence doesn't even rise to pragmatism's level of disciplined immorality.
Now I realize that some Christians look a lot like hippies to the rest of the world especially today when many mainline leaders are nostalgic baby boomers, and in Jesus' name I apologize for the confusion. All I can say is that "Amazing Grace" is to "All You Need Is Love" as the March on Washington was to Woodstock.
And as I've said before, I have friends and colleagues for whom I have deep respect who oppose this war. So far they have kept their clothes on (to my knowledge anyway) and offered substantive arguments rather than Beatlesque slogans or Security Council-style dithering. They are serious. They and their pro-war counterparts are among the prophetic voices whom no party in this conflict can afford not to hear especially the warriors.
Some demons come out only with prayer and fasting, and many tyrants are stronger even than rock 'n' roll.
Sin and death are two of those tyrants, and today in church we remembered the love, not in pop music and sloganeering but in body and blood, that freed us from them.
Have a joyful Lord's Day.
Have a blessed Lent.