Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A short hiatus

I am sitting some exams at the moment. I hope to return with a number of full-length series in a few weeks. (My thoughts need to be exorcised into blog-posts!)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Militant Pacificism: A brief outline

1. Violence in the Old Testament

a. Violence, I would argue, is never unequivocably good in the OT. Sometimes it's depicted neutrally, but then so is deception, polygamy, and a range of behaviours that I would also argue are not morally warranted for Christians.
b. Violence in the OT is used as a means by God to bring about good and just ends. God also uses things unequivocally considered evil to bring about good ends.
c. 'The ban' - the ultimate destruction of conquered things and people, is portrayed in both judicial and purificatory terms. The singular and unique holy war of the Jews in conquering the Land is theologically framed as after the native inhabitants have 'filled up a quota of sin' to the point of no further tolerance by a holy wrathful God.
d. God is a warrior - the war-theology of the OT is strongly, incredibly, weighted to the portrayal of God as the one who brings about and grants victory, and strongly against the self-reliance of Israel, whether in themselves or their allies.

2. Violence in the New Testament

a. Neither Jesus or his disciples are portrayed at any point as agents of violence. (Except Peter at Gethsemane, and there is a good treatment of that passage)
b. Jesus consistently speaks against violence.
c. At best, the few 'problem' verses for this reality must be fitted against that background, not vice versa.
d. The NT regularly and consistently applies military metaphor to spiritual realities. Warfare for Christians is not against flesh-and-blood, not against people.
e. The victory at the centre of the NT's theology is the cross of Jesus. It is through atoning sacrificial death that jesus "conquers".
f. This informs the whole book of Revelation, the most militant book of the NT, and the most vigorously 'pacifist'. At every point 'conquering' in the book of Revelation is linked to faithful witness and consistent endurance to the point of death - in imitating and sharing in Jesus' death.
g. The NT does deal in a form of violence - eschatological judicial violence. This is seen as Jesus judges and destroys sin, evil, death, and the unrepentant. It is not war, but judgment.

3. Violence beyond the scriptures
a. It's not until Constantine and following that there emerges a consistent alternate position on christians and violence other than pacifism, as a position of any weight in the early church.
b. It's not until the Crusades that violence is seen as not necessarily sinful. Before that, I would argue, violence was seen as sometimes necessary, but always sinful, and so needed to be repented of, confessed, and penitence done.
c. The emergence of just-war doctrines, while long established, are continually driven by abstraction and theologising, not exegesis. While I have no problem with abstraction and theology as a whole, when it goes against the grain of every reasonable exegesis of the NT, I think we have a problem.
d. Oddly enough, J.H. Yoder's "The Politics of Jesus" remains the best exposition of a Christocentric protestant pacifism that is rigorous, not liberal, exegetical, and deeply theological.

4. Conclusion
a. Though it goes against some of our deepest instincts, violence must be the terminus ante quem for Christian action.
b. This must be informed by a rigorous re-imagining of the world in which we live, such as the book of revelation holds out for us, if it is to be sustained
c. Christian pacificism must itself be 'militant' - a pro-active, engaged, committed, all-in life that never acquiesces in the face of evil for the sake of some misguided personal purity
d. Christian pacificism of this sort must consistently and vigourously hold to the reality, theology, and rhetoric of Christ's victorious-death and vindicating-resurrection

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Kingdom of Priests, Part 2

With the Fall and the Curse, "the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken"1. Humanity is exiled from the paradise-temple-garden, but the nature of humanity's work is in some sense unchanged - to work the ground. Only, now it is the ground outside Eden, outside the specific presence of God's dwelling place.

In Exodus 19:5 we read "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation...." This is the first appearance of our title phrase. Here Israel is re-constituted on the basis of the covenant God cuts with them, on the basis of the Exodus-salvation he has wrought for them, into a community that reflects the embryonic community of Genesis 2. The formulation "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" cross-polinates the two notions we encountered in part 1 - mediation and regency. Israel is to function as a kingdom, a nation, a political entity. This entity, through the given Torah, is to reflect the rule and regnancy of their Lord - God himself. Likewise, they are to function as priests, holy, as the mediating presence of God in the world. This is also recast in terms of the actual particular presence of God, as it is formulated in the pillar in the desert, then the Ark, then the Temple. The dwelling presence of God in the Temple fulfils the Edenic picture of God among his people. Like humanity in Eden in the world, Israel is to function in 'the Land' in the broader context of the world.

1 Gen 3:23 ESV

Inescapable Realities, II - Evil

While it is more than possible to hold an understanding of the world that has no place for evil, I find such doctrines truly disturbing. In the face of things almost all of us agree are wrong - rape, genocide, pedophilia - it seems to me that we must come to some understanding of what evil is, why evil is, and what this says about the nature of the world we inhabit.

It's my belief, scriptural and experiential, that we live in a world marked by endemic evil. The things humanity does to each other, ourselves, and the world around us, are and for as long as our human memories permit us to reach back, have been, truly vile. I now expect, and am unsurprised, by the suffering and depravity of our world.

The inescapability of this reality is tempered only by my belief that there was once a man who lived a life and did no evil, the crucified Jew. Not only is his life an example, but his death is also the means, by which our human nature may be made whole, made pure, made clean, as it was in the beginning, and as it should be in the new beginning.

Unlike the inevitability of death, there is no coming to terms with the inescapability of evil in our world. To harden ourselves to the sufferings of others offers no comfort. Rather, I believe we must learn to live with weeping hearts - unsurprised but never unmoved at the evil that pervades our reality, compassionate and hopeful for the best, unfeigned by the worst

timor mortis

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain. 1

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

Whatever your creed, I believe each one of us must answer the question of death. Each of us will, without doubt, die. Death is the reality that delimits, defines, demarcates human existence as we know it. What is death, and what may or may not lie beyond it, shapes our whole lives, and the avoidance of reckoning with that reality will either shape our lives in its turn, or leave us to lead lives of quiet self-delusion.

At the heart of Christianity are a number of paradoxes. We worship a God whom we call 'the Author of Life', and yet affirm that death is not the end. In fact, the radical news of the gospel is that, for those who are willing to abandon the supreme value of their own life, to embrace death in the wake of the one who says, 'I am the Life', will find that death for his sake is life eternal. This radical re-evaluation of the place of death wars with the affirmation of life, just as the paradox of the tree of life in Genesis 1 finds strange resonances with the 'tree' of death that is the cross, and the tree of life that re-appears in the book of endings and beginnings, the Apocalypse of John the Seer.

This radical re-orientation creates dissonance in the mind, as the illuminated understanding proclaims death to self, to the world, and life to God, and that a purified and perfect eternal life begins now, but finds consummation in the physical death of the self and the purgative death of the world. So Paul the Apostle can write, "For me to live is Christ, to die is gain"3, and Jesus says, "Do not fear those who kill the body".4

Therefore, I find the words of Herbert and the Hagakure very apropos. They call for a meditation upon the illusory reality of fear, and the inevitability of death. Once freed from the fear of death by the acceptance of its inevitability, and as a follower of a resurrected Jew, one finds oneself gradually embracing a fearless life, holding one's own death as merely an inevitable transition, a death for the deathless, the beginning of life anew.

1Herbert, Frank Dune 1965
2Hagakure: The way of the samurai
3Phil 1:21
4Luke 12:4

Monday, June 09, 2008

A Kingdom of Priests, Part 1

In Genesis 1 we read of the creation of humanity in the image of God. The imago Dei has been a point of contention throughout the history of interpretation. My own take on it is what I call a 'plenary' view of the image. That is, I'm prepared to fill a lot of content into the idea, rather than make a reductionistic claim that the image amounts to one and only aspect of the being of human.

Gen 1:26 Then God said, "Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion...."

Two aspects of the image I wish to highlight in this initial post.

1) Image means the mediating presence of a sign for the absent signified.

That is humanity functions to represent the presence of God, by the presence of the image of God, even with the absence of God. This, I believe, undergirds a theology of presence that is persistent in the Bible. There are a number of senses in which God is present/absent in the world. This is evident when you consider the doctrinal formulation of God as omnipresent - there is a sense in which God is present to, or in, every part of creation. Yet, exegetically, we are forced to reckon with particular presences of God, such as in Gen 3 where it is recorded that God walked in the Garden. This forms the basis of a theology of presence linked to the ark, the tent, the temple, and to a theology of absence in the departure of the glory of God from the temple, as seen in Ezekiel.

2) Image means the mediating dominion of God through his regents.

Regent is a useful word. Probably more useful than 'steward' in some ways. Stewardship is a lovely term bandied around because Christians are eco-sensitive and understand dominion in terms of responsibility to the Creator. Which is right, but often just a weak formulation. Regents rule in the stead of another. I take it from Gen 1:26 that part of the import of the image is that humanity is given a rule over the creation, that resembles (images) God's rule, just as they image God as King.

The Image as Mediation and Dominion expresses itself in the second creation account Gen 2:4ff. There we see the proto-man, Adam, placed in the garden to work it. What is the work given to Adam (& to his 'helper', ie, his co-worker in the primordial mission, Eve)? It is to work Eden, which is the particular place of God's presence (cf., temple) in the world, and to multiply and fill the earth. Mediation and Dominion express the mission in pre-Fall terms as the expansion of the garden of Eden, the paradisical Temple of God's presence, to include what is outside-the-garden: a world which lacks the dominion and mediation of the God-image-bearers.

Creation without humanity is not Edenic, it's extra-Edenic. I speculate that Adam & Eve, apart from the Fall, would have fulfilled a creation-mandate to reproduce image-bearers and expand the garden to fill the earth, thus filling the earth with God's particular dominion and particular presence in the image-bearers he has created.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Robert Jewett: Romans for the 21st Century

Today I had the privelege to attend a lecture by eminent New Testament Pauline Scholar, Robert Jewett, at PTC.

Jewett's lecture followed through 4 main points in arguing his case. His basic observation was that all, or almost all, studies on Romans neglect the 'welcome' language in the final third of the book, and that many people continue to function as if Romans finished or climaxed in 1-8, or at best 1-11.

His initial case was a review of the importance of understanding honour/shame as a dominant sociological paradigm in the 1st century, as seen in the work of E.A. Judge and J.E. Lendon. This being the case, the key issue in Romans is not individual guilt/forgiveness, which has been a post-Roman Western obsession, but honour and shame. Jewett argues that justification language refers to God righting a perverted honour/shame system, which all nations operate with, and equally extending honour/shame to all people - that justification by faith should really be understood as the divine righteousness as impartiality.

He then contextualises Romans as a letter from Paul to the Romans occasioned by Paul's plans for Spain. Spain at the time confronts Paul with particular missional difficulties. The lack of Jewish population, the Imperial dominated business context, the need for double translation (-> Latin -> Celto-Iberian dialects), etc., and the disdain of Romans for provincial Spaniards and barbarians. These cause Paul to address issues of division and superiority in the Roman house-churches.

This leads Jewett to formulate the gospel of the shameful cross in terms of the perversity of all human honour/shame systems, and God's impartial righteousness being revealed by calling for the mutual acceptance of human beings, in welcoming and hospitality, disregarding social and religious boundaries.

I found Jewett's lecture stimulating, but troubling. In response to a question he situated himself neither with traditionalists nor the New Perspectivists. I found myself unpersuaded on the issue of the language of justification/righteousness in Paul, largely because he didn't present a case on that point. He is clearly right about both the importance of honour/shame culture to understanding the NT socio-cultural context, and thus the NT, as well as pointing to the occasional nature of Romans, and the importance of both Paul's projected Hispania mission and the local Roman churches' context. Jewett's understanding of the 'gospel' though sounded very weak, liberal, and left me wondering how he reads the rest of the NT concerning salvation. While I am happy to concede that the shameful proclamation of the cross does indeed equally condemn all our honour/shame cultures, I would argue that the honour/shame dimension of the gospel proclamation is one facet of the gospel, certainly not the entirety. I don't want to overstate Jewett's position, given that this is my first and only encounter with his thought, but that's what I found most worrying about his reading of Romans