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ayatollah

Divine Revenge? Islam and Khamenei’s False Doctrine of God

Iran and Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties yesterday after a weekend of escalating violence. On Saturday, Saudi Arabia executed a popular Shiite cleric named Nimr al-Nimr, who angered the Saudi Royal Family by calling for their removal in 2011. The Saudi Royal Family claims that the execution was an act of national defense, because it accuses Iran of creating “terrorist cells” in Saudi Arabia.

In response to the execution, Iran requested that the Saudi ambassador condemn the execution. Saudi Arabia said, “Hey, two can play that game” and requested that the Iranian ambassador “vehemently object to Iran’s condemnation” of the execution.

Then Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, took to Twitter (as apparently you do when you are a supreme leader) to proclaim God’s vengeance! “Divine revenge will seize Saudi politicians.”

Ouch.

There is a definite pattern of revenge to this story, but it has nothing to do with God. As René Girard has taught us, revenge is human, not divine.

Girard claimed that humans are mimetic, and we are particularly mimetic when it comes to violence. In other words, humans imitate violent words and actions, passing them back and forth. But the violence escalates because each side in a conflict wants to deliver the final blow. In this sense, the Saudis and the Iranians are just like the majority of human beings. According to Girard, humans tend to believe that,

Only violence can put an end to violence, and that is why violence is self-propagating. Everyone wants to strike the last blow, and reprisal can thus follow reprisal without any true conclusion ever being reached. (Violence and the Sacred, 26)

Throughout his long career, Girard revealed the human aspect of violence. Like the Saudis and Iranians, it is we who condemn one another with escalating threats of condemnation and violence. According to Girard, violence is purely human.

Which means that God has nothing to do with violence or vengeance or revenge.

Girard was a Christian who claimed that the long trajectory of the Bible reveals the distinction between human violence and God’s nonviolent love. He challenged any notion that God is associated with violence. Girard only made a few comments about Islam during his career, but I’d like to show how the Islamic tradition offers a similar challenge to associating God with violence.

Because I want to be clear that I am not imposing my Christian theology onto Islam, I’ll tell you about Mouhanad Khorchide, professor of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Munster in Germany. As with the Bible, Khorchide knows that there are different images of God in the Qur’an. For him, the question is, “Which image of God are we talking about?” Khorchide says that some Muslims choose to believe that God is a dictator who acts like a violent tribal leader that cannot be challenged.

Political leaders, like the Ayatollah, promote this understanding of God because they view themselves as “shadows of God on earth.” Khorchide says, “This sends out an unequivocal message: anyone contradicting the ruler is also contradicting God.” This makes God into a tribal deity, who pits “us” against “them.”

Of course, one can read any holy book, including the Koran and the Bible, and find images of a violent tribal deity. But Khorchide asserts that the God of the Koran is not like that. “I have a different reading of the Koran. God is not an archaic tribal leader, he’s not a dictator. Of the book’s 114 suras, why do 113 of them begin with the phrase ‘In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful?’ There has to be a reason for this.”

The reason is that the God of the Koran is Grace and Mercy. For Khorchide, “The Koranic God presents himself as a loving God. That’s why the relationship between God and man is a bond of love similar to the one between a mother and a child.” The God of Grace and Mercy radically transforms the human understanding of God and violence.

Khorchide talks specifically about the Islamic concept of Hell. For many, Hell is the ultimate example of God’s violence and revenge. This is where evil doers will burn forever as a result of divine vengeance. But Khorchide states that idea is a complete misunderstanding of Islam’s view of Hell. “Hell is nothing other than the confrontation with one’s own transgressions. It’s not a punishment that comes from without.”

The Ayatollah is wrong to associate God with revenge. And so are we whenever we associate God with violence. The God of Islam has nothing to do with revenge. Rather, the God of Islam, the God of Mercy, wants us to stop the cycles of vengeance that threaten the future of our world. In fact, God wants us to transform our bitter enmity with friendship. As the Koran states that God’s goal for human relationships is reconciliation – “Good and evil cannot be equal, repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend” (41:34).

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Image: Flickr, Khamenei poster in Persepolis, by Nick Taylor, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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Advent Meditation 2: The Way to Peace, or Seeing Muslims Through Advent Eyes

Editor’s Note: This Advent meditation is based on the Gospel text for the second week of Advent, Luke 3:1-6. Although I applied the text specifically to seeing Muslims through Advent eyes, as Muslims are targets of foreign policy violence and aggression by politicians, media, and even Christian leaders, the Gospel message of seeing God in victims and enemies could apply to any person or group used by another as a scapegoat.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” I hear the cry go up through the wilderness of barren souls, souls laid bare of compassion by a spirit of fear rushing like an evil wind harshly biting ‘neath the skin.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” I hear, as people prepare their armaments, as gun sales soar and more and more we see nation after nation heading for war.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” I whisper, “Prepare me, prepare we, prepare the way of the Lord.” I take a breath to inhale the Spirit of Love that utters these words and exhale the spirit of the age that prepares for every kind of violence but never for reconciliation. I let the decree fill me, focus me, open me, urge me, guide me. In a wilderness of fear and hatred, where the howling voices of politicians and generals and profiteers demonize some and call others to arms, I contemplate what it means to prepare now, in the midst of jingoistic bells tolling for battle, the way of the Prince of Peace.

Because to prepare the way of the Lord is to prepare our hearts and minds and whole selves to live into what was revealed 2000 years ago, a revelation that is obscured by calls to arms and theologies of glory. God comes among us not in the form of the powerful, not with wealth and weapons, but humbly, meekly, mildly. God is found in the servant, the outcast, the vilified. God is in those whom we reject, those whom we abandon, those we mock, those we scapegoat, those we kill.

And in 2015 – when bombs and missiles fall in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, when people cower under threat of flying robotic weapons of death, when they are made to flee their broken countries, homes destroyed, family members murdered, cramming themselves into boats and camps to escape a living hell only to get doors slammed in their faces, and when the land of the free has become the belly of the imperial beast and citizens must endure the hatred and distrust of their neighbors – we must see the face of God in our Muslim sisters and brothers.

We can’t make a highway for Peace by leveling land with bombs. The mountains that must be made low are the blockades around our hearts, the towering egos and pillars of pride that block our vision. We can’t pave the way for Love by filling the valleys and ditches and missile-made craters with dead bodies. The low places that must be filled with hope and joy and welcome reside in the hearts of those who have been forgotten in the rush to destroy an enemy that can only be strengthened by violence, because violence itself is the true enemy. The collateral families, those who weep and mourn cradling their beloved – weak and war-weary, injured, deceased, in their arms – these are the people who must be uplifted, embraced, comforted with the assurance that they and their loved ones are cherished. The men and women who privately weep in silence after enduring one more insult, one more injury, these are they who must be enfolded in our friendship.

Victims of missiles abroad and malice at home prostrate themselves on the ashes of land blown apart or fire-bombed mosques while we dare to wonder if the god they worship is too violent.

How the log in our eye blinds us!

Triumphalist Christianity is a hall of distorted mirrors, a discordant echo chamber, cheering American aggression. As we make roads on land for legions of soldiers and turn skies into aerial pathways for drones, we steer ourselves through a dark and narrow world that shuts out the light of Christ. We know not who we are or what we do. Our way of violence makes way for vengeance. Moving in circles on this crooked path, entrapped within the walls that shut others out but cannot box Christ in, we are blinded by our fears to the terrors we inflict.

The way of the Lord must lead away from our skewed and narrow perspectives. If we prepare a highway by paving over others, we are our own stumbling blocks and it is our hearts that must be cleared of thorns and brambles. He is with those we have deemed enemies and it is our own hearts he still must reach.

We open the door to the Prince of Peace when the truth of our victims’ humanity pierces our hearts with unbearable light that shatters the fragile façade of sacred violence on which we build our lives. As he walks and the light illumines the darkness within us, our hearts are washed in tears of repentance. It is then we recognize that whatever name we use for the Holy One, however we pray, we are united in worship to the true God when we love one another, and united in idolatry to the false gods of violence and fear when we condemn each other with hate. When we let the Lord of Love pave a way through our hearts, we will embrace our sisters and brothers in Islam and every creed. We will lay down our arms, taking our security in the Love that reconciles us and our enemies into Love’s own self. We leave ourselves vulnerable to those who do not understand, but God’s love will eventually pierce their hearts too, and in our non-retaliation and offering of love we become instruments of God’s peace.

The way of the Lord cuts through barriers and labels, paved by instruments of peace who come from all religions and no religion at all. All who show mercy, compassion, generosity and love across barriers of human divisions bear the fruit of a new world ushered in by the Prince of Peace. When others taste and see the goodness of this fruit they bear it in themselves too, until the old world of violence is drowned and reborn again in the waters of Love’s womb. And all shall see the salvation of God.

Image: Copyright Jorbasa Fotografie via Flickr. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerives 2.0 Generic license

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The Posture of Yes

Our posture matters. In fact, it potentially makes all the difference. If our initial stance or attitude toward a new ideology, whether religious, political, philosophical, or otherwise, is negative, then we will experience the universe dissimilarly than if our posture is positive. As I see it, there are essentially two types of people. On one hand, there are those who are open to new ideas—new ways of seeing and being—and they will often experience the world with wonder. It becomes a magical place; an ever-intriguing mystery that never becomes dull or stale. On the other hand, there are yet others who are too quick to label, good or bad, positive or negative, in or out, us or them, and they inevitably see the world through a glass, dimmer even yet (1 Corinthians 13:12). Their ego becomes fed by the delusion that they possess “capital T truth.” Often, and sadly, this “truth” is simply the product of promulgation by others—a parent, pastors, et al—but rarely, if ever, is it the product of a 40 day quest in the desert.

We witness this sort of short sightedness, most obviously, within the confines of fundamentalism. Many fundamentalists, regardless of faith tradition, relies on pieces of information—sometimes great, sometimes small—that are derived from sacred texts but not on a posture that is positioned toward saying yes to the universe that was created by God. And if there is but one true God of the universe, and I believe there is, to have faith in God is to say yes to God, yes to his creation, and yes to experiencing both. True knowledge is tacit after all. Many fundamentalists, though, do not live by faith in God but faith in their correct knowledge about God. And so, they are postured in such a way that ensures they interpret themselves as elect, as chosen. What better than to “plainly” read one’s self as a sheep and others a goat? As a vessel of mercy and not a vessel of wrath? As Jacob and not Esau? This is to say: the fundamentalist is always “saved.”

Contrary to this type of thinking is one who postures herself toward discovery, not defending truth with mere bits of information (as if truth resides in mere information), but remaining open to it, wherever it presents itself. Faith, then, is built upon this posture. Faith is allowing the Christ in all of us (John 1:1–5), to lead where it may and to trust the Spirit is to trust the wind, for it blows where it chooses (John 3:8). The only way to experience this is to have a posture of openness, to be a pasture void of fences . . . the human constructs that they are!

In Christianity, we have a name for the Spirit that moves through all things. We call her the Holy Spirit and she indeed goes where she pleases. She transcends cultures, languages, and religions and no matter what label we give her, she is never bound by our human constructs. She cannot be contained in a box made of words and ideas. She is indeed free.

This is why, when you listen to the mystics of the various faith traditions—those whose posture is affirming—they all say compellingly similar things, albeit through their own cultural lens. Islam has the Sufis, Judaism has Kabbalah; Buddhism and Christianity has their respective mystics. They all say that the Divine runs in and through all of humanity, nay, through the entire cosmos. Unanimously, God is said to be always merciful, always gracious, always compassionate, and always, always, always loving.

Let me point to a few of the more prominent voices from a few of the various traditions. Gandhi, who was not a born-again Christian and probably would not affirm the Nicene Creed, not only read the Sermon on the Mount daily, but he, more importantly, followed the path of life in the Way of Jesus. Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk, teaches: “the practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.” It seems that he understands the mission of the Christ as well as anyone. Sufi Islam author M.R. Bawa Muhaiyadden teaches: “Be good, have love, and be patient. Never think of harming others. Only think of helping people. Think that others should be made better and that you should be made better.” Indeed, as I have said, the Spirit moves as the wind and goes where she chooses. She always speaks the word of peace. Jesus used the word shalom. In Islam, they say salaam. The Buddhist may use the word “sāma,” or a derivation thereof. But it is all the same message. It is always affirming reconciliation, peace, and unity among humankind.

Brothers and sisters, remember to pay attention to your posture toward life, toward God, toward humanity, toward love . . . which is the reason for our very existence. Open your mind and heart to hear what the Spirit is teaching, for she is the most gracious of instructors. She will never let you down, just as Jesus never lets us down. In unity, the Son and Spirit reveal the Father’s plan for us as John 20:21 testifies to. Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The peace of Jesus will triumph and through the power of the Holy Spirit will continue to move through all of us until all declare that “Jesus is Lord.”

Salaam

 

Image: Via Pixabay.

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Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast Episode 6 with Dr. Jason Okrzynski on the Saints and Friendship with God

Dr. Jason Okrzynsi, M.Div., PhD, recently joined the RavenCast to discuss why Protestants should reclaim the saints as models of faith by helping us find friendship with God.

Jason is the Director of Christian Education for Children, Youth and Families at the First Congregational Church of Wilmette, in Wilmette, Illinois. Jason earned his Master of Divinity at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and his PhD in Christian Education and Congregational Studies at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. He recently delivered a paper titled, “For All the Saints: The Cult of Saints and Theological Imagination in the Art of Liberal Protestant Youth Ministry.”

MP3

Video:

Show Notes:

  • God as gift giver.
  • Our response to God’s gift is our vocation, which is to be Christ in the world. The two primary places we do that is in our family and in our work.
  • The saints stir imagination that invite us to live out radical lives of love and service. The saints present a different picture than the consumer identity of the modern world.
  • Francis rejects the materialism and privilege of his youth and find joy in serving others.
  • Children and youth yearn for transcendence and the saints offer a witness to what that looks like.
  • For Martin Luther, our jobs are not about personal fulfillment, but is about offering ourselves to care for earthly needs.
  • The saints are called “friends of God.” They find friendship with God by intentionally detaching from certain material goods and gaining social status so that they can intentionally attach themselves to God.
  • Most of the saints carried great pain and sadness and struggled through incredible temptation. Most of them have skeletons in their closet. They are models because they are real people who had real struggles.
  • The Christian faith isn’t about making us try harder to be good or worthy. It’s about God giving God’s self. You can reject the gift, you can receive it poorly, but God gives the gift.
  • Liberal modernity tells us that we need to produce enough and be good enough. But the saints claim that we just need to receive the gifts that God offers to us.
  • We often want to know what we can do to produce holiness, righteousness and justice. But the saints ask what do we have to do to receive holiness, righteousness and justice.
  • Paul says “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” This is the perfect theology of the saints. It’s not that we need to be more religious. The point of claiming the saints is not to be them or compare our lives to theirs. It’s that here is one example of what it means to be a friend of God.

 

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Love Is…

Love is patient. Love is kind.

Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Love is not irritable or resentful.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Love rejoices in truth.

Love bears all things. Love believes all things. Love hopes all things. Love endures all things.

Love never ends.

 

Love does not keep a record of wrongs.

Love does not seek vengeance.

Love will only work for the good.

Love will never forsake you.

 

Love suffers everything.

Love gives everything.

Love perseveres through everything.

Love unifies everything.

 

Love is experienced.

Love is tacit.

Love is personal.

Love is the reason for existence.

 

Love is magical.

 

Love is gazing into your daughter’s eyes.

Love is kissing her cheek.

Love is tucking her into bed at night.

Love is holding her hand when she is scared.

Love is making her laugh.

Love is consoling her when she cries.

Love is listening to her with empathy.

Love is not condemning when she is wrong.

 

Love casts out all fear.

Love conquers death.

Love destroys hate.

Love wins.

 

Now, read God in place of love.

 

Image: by Ivan Kruk via 123rf.com.

 

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In Memory of René Girard: The Truth about Life and Death

Many scholars have claimed that René Girard’s mimetic theory is one of the most important insights of the 20th century. But those of us who have been highly influenced by René know better. For us, it is not an overstatement to state that René’s explanation of mimetic theory is the most important discovery of human nature in the last 2,000 years. That is, since the Gospels.

This morning brought the news that René has passed away at age 91. “Girardians,” as we are called, have been on social media sharing our sorrow at his passing, but also our profound sense of gratitude for this giant among human beings. We stand on his shoulders. And our vision is all the clearer for it.

As I reflected upon the news, I was struck by the fact that René taught us so much about death. Specifically, about the scapegoat mechanism. René confronted us with the truth about being human. We all have a propensity to manage our conflicts by blaming someone else for them. We find unity against a common enemy. In good sacrificial formula, all of our conflicts and sins against one another are washed away as we unite in expelling or sacrificing our scapegoat. Temporary reconciliation and peace descends upon the community, but it is only temporary. For the expulsion or murder of our scapegoat never actually solves our problems. Our conflicts re-emerge and the scapegoating mechanism continues.

But if René taught us about death, he also taught us about life. The solution to our natural inclination toward scapegoating is found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, specifically in the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ death. “Christ agrees to die,” wrote René in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, “so that mankind will live.”

Many progressive Christians who do not know René’s work will bristle at that statement. Indeed, without reading René’s books, it could sound like a form of penal subsitutionary atonement theory that claims Jesus allows humanity to live by saving us from the violent wrath of God.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth that René revealed throughout his career is that wrath doesn’t belong to God. It belongs solely to humans. In anthropological terms, what was revealed by the death of Jesus was the human scapegoat mechanism. Once you read René’s works, you realize how obvious it is that the violence at the cross had nothing to do with God, but everything to do with the human propensity to scapegoat.

Still, at this point, we should warn ourselves not to scapegoat penal substitutionary atonement theory. After all, if René taught us anything it’s that human have been projecting our own violence onto God since the foundation of the world. We justify our violence and hatred against our scapegoats in the name of God or peace or justice or whatever we deem to be a important to our well-being.

René taught us that to truly live is to stop scapegoating our enemies, and to stop justifying it in the name of God. Once at a conference, René was asked what would happen if mimetic theory became wildly successful. He answered, “There would be no more scapegoating.”

To end scapegoating and to truly live we need to follow Jesus by turning away from violence and turning toward our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, in the spirit of love and nonviolence.

René not only taught us that truth, he lived into it. I met him once at a conference for young Girardian scholars. I was struck by the fact that René wasn’t interested in teaching us, or making sure we had his theory “right.” What he wanted more than anything was to talk with us. He wanted to learn about our lives and what interested us. He had a special humility about him – instead of taking glory for himself, he gave glory to others. For example, I remember sitting across the table from him. He smiled as he looked me in the eyes and said, “I’ve watched your Mimetic Theory 101 videos. They’re good.” That’s the way he was. He affirmed all of us and encouraged us to follow the truth, no matter where it led.

René always gave the last word to the Gospels. It’s where he found the truth about life and death. It’s only fitting that I end with this quote that sums up René’s theory about God, violence, and love,

The following is the basic text, in my opinion, that shows us a God who is alien to all violence and who wishes in consequence to see humanity abandon violence:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45, Things Hidden, 183)

May our brother René Girard rest in peace and rise in the glorious love of God.

Image: Screenshot from YouTube.

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Does God Have A Massive Ego Problem?

The 10 Commandments are central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. And yet for many of us they seem antiquated. But for their time, and for ours, they provide a huge step forward in the human understanding of God.

Take the First Commandment, for example – “You shall have no other gods before me.” If you are like me, you have often wondered if this commandment shows that God has a massive ego problem. I mean, what’s the big deal with those “other gods”? Is God the cosmic narcissist? It’s as if God is whining, “ME! ME! ME! YOU MUST BELIEVE IN ME BECAUSE I’M SPECIAL!!!”

But I’ve noticed that once we put this commandment in its context, we discover a fresh way of interpreting it. We also re-discover how it has led to the transformation of the human understanding of God.

The 10 Commandments were given to the Israelites just after they left Egypt. The Exodus claims that the Egyptian Empire oppressed the Israelites for generations, enslaving them to make bricks so that Egypt could create bigger buildings and expand its empire.

In ancient Egypt, religion and empire were embedded. Egyptian theology claimed that the gods were on the side of Egypt. The gods of Egypt were the gods of the oppressors. The brutal conditions of slavery were justified in the name of the gods. The pharaohs were believed to be the manifestation of the high Egyptian god known as Ra. In fact, they were called the “sons of Ra.” If you wanted to know what Ra was like, simply look to the power and dominance of the Egyptian pharaohs.

The historical and theological context of the Egyptian Empire helps us better understand the First Commandment. We generally know the commandment as, “You shall have no other gods before me,” but that’s just the second part of the phrase. The whole commandment in Deuteronomy is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

Now we can understand that the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” doesn’t mean that God has an ego problem. Rather, that commandment refers directly to the gods of Egypt. The true God of Israel is not like the gods of Egypt who justified oppression. Rather, the liberation theologians have it right – God is in the liberation business. God brings us “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

The Exodus tells us that God is on the side of the oppressed. This is a massive shift in the human understanding of God. Just like in the days of ancient Egypt, we tend to think that if you want to see where God is, look to those in power – the presidents, prime ministers, kings and other political rulers of the world. But the Exodus tells a different story. If you want to know where God is, look to those who are oppressed because there you will find the true God who works for liberation.

But the Bible is very honest about how the people of God quickly fell into the trap of believing in other gods – the gods that lead to oppression and violence against the poor, weak, and marginalized. And so the biblical prophets repeatedly warn Israel’s political leaders not to become oppressors, not to become like Egypt. Part of the Bible’s genius is that it contains the politically subversive voice of the prophets that not only critiques oppressive political policies, but also reveals how God continues to work for liberation.

Far from an antiquated relic of the past, the First Commandment is as important today as it was in ancient Israel. Unfortunately, a brief history of the United States shows how quickly we were to believe in the gods of oppression. For example, last week we celebrated Columbus Day, what many now call Indigenous People’s Day. When I was growing up, I learned history in such a way that Columbus “discovered America,” as if the Indigenous People hadn’t already been here for many thousands of years. But in the name of God, the United States enacted Manifest Destiny, which justified killing Native Americans and stealing their land.

Of course, whenever any government oppresses a marginalized group, it doesn’t act in the name of the liberating God of Israel. That government, in this case, the United States, acts in the name of the gods of oppression.

Shameful as that history is, I wish I could tell you that the United States’ government no longer has other gods before the liberating God of Israel. But the United States continues to believe in the gods of oppression. We continue to steal land that belongs to Native Americans.

Just this year, in 2015, Congress passed legislation that steals Native American holy land that happens to be rich in copper and transfers it to an Australian mining company. That land is in Arizona. It’s called Oak Flat, and according to MSNBC, it is the “Mount Sinai of the San Carlos Apache, a place where the equivalent of the Holy Spirit came to earth. It functions like an outdoor church, mosque or synagogue … The Society of American Archaeology says the Apache have been there ‘since well before recorded history.’”

No matter. The United States Government continues to act toward Native Americans like the Egyptian Empire acted toward the Israelites. Our Government continues to oppress Native Americans by continuing to break the eight commandment and stealing their land. The Apache have cried out in protest. And we need to hear their cry, because the fact is that God is listening. Like the God of liberation heard the cry of the Israelites under Egyptian oppression, God hears their cry and is working for justice and liberation on their behalf.

For more, read Eric Buys’ article “Jesus Christ, Narcissist?” And then read everything else Eric Buys writes. He’s brilliant.

Image: ra2studio / 123RF Stock Photo

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What We Say About God

Christians say a lot of things about God. If asked to describe the Creator, many answer: “God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. He is loving, merciful, and forgiving, but also holy, just, and wrathful.” Without really even consulting the Bible, answers such as this are often rattled off. Sure, many of these attributes are used in various passages throughout Scripture, but what is missing is one of the only two axiomatic statements about God in Scripture, namely, that “God is light.” (1 John 1:5) The other is that “God is love (1 John 4:8),” which often gets twisted—as in the stock answer above—reinterpreted incorrectly to “God is loving.” You see the difference? When God is merely “loving,” he must be compared to a love that is greater, namely the very essence of love itself. So, right off the bat, you can see that a God who is described in only two truth statements leads you in a different direction than a god based off a litany of attributes—which is the god I would like to talk about in this article.

When you take the approach of the Westminster Confession of Faith, where God is reduced to a laundry list of properties, you fall into the trap of presupposing who you think God is. Let me explain. If you say that “God’s justice is perfect,” what are you really saying? How are you defining “justice” and what makes you think your definition is appropriate? Certainly, the only direct revelation we have is that of Christ Jesus. Yet, ironically—as they predate that revelation—many use the writings of the Old Testament as evidence for an understanding of divine justice. This hardly seems proper handling of something as important as the justice of God. Are we called to be followers of Christ or followers of the Bible?

Since we are on the topic of justice, and since the Apostle Paul spent considerable time as a follower of both Christ and of a collection of human writings, I think it is appropriate to consult him for some insight into the matter of divine justice. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes the following: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33) So, we should gather that the Father’s judgments are not paralleled by how humanity judges things, which can often be summed up with such phrases as “an eye for an eye,” and “the punishment must fit the crime.” In other words, humanity’s justice is often retributive.

How, then, did Paul view God’s judgments?

Well, just one sentence earlier Paul states that God is “merciful to all.” Even though all are disobedient? Yes, even though all are disobedient. Even those whom Paul refers to as “objects of wrath” in Romans 9:22? Yes, even them!

Is it any wonder Paul then concludes with: “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”? God’s justice is not humanity’s justice, at least not in Paul’s opinion.

Now, to make sure Paul is not saying something about the Father’s justice that would contradict that of Jesus, let me ask the following questions: Was Jesus ever not merciful during his life? How did he treat the woman caught in adultery?[1] How did he behave in the Garden of Gethsemane?[2] How did Jesus react to Peter when Peter was about to go all Rambo on Christ’s captors?[3] What did Jesus do when he was tortured and humiliated?[4] What did he utter over and over on the cross?[5] What words did Jesus say to his disciples after the resurrection?[6]

He brought peace.

He brought mercy.

Her offered forgiveness.

I know this interpretation of things will strike many Christians as lacking a certain justice. I get that! In fact, I agree with them. It does lack a certain (retributive) justice. But that is a good thing or we’d all be in trouble. Remember, prior to making the claim that God will be merciful to all, Paul also said that all are held over in disobedience[7] and that “all fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)” Given that fact, are we sure we really want God to possess the justice most are arguing for?

Now, before anyone suggests that I believe God is letting unrepentant rapists, murderers, child-abusers, and wicked dictators “off the hook,” let me say that I believe some will experience a form of punishment. That punishment is mentioned in the conclusion of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The Greek verb used is kólasis and denotes a corrective form of punishment. This contrasts with another Greek verb, timōría, which translates to “vengeance.” So, yes, there very well may be correction for some—perhaps me, as Paul states that fire will test everyone’s works[8]—but that doesn’t mean that (corrective) punishment should continue on ad infinitum. Not only would that not be God’s justice, but it is hardly even retribution. Nay, it must be a lower form as retribution requires that the punishment fits the crime. Infinite punishment cannot possibly fit with finite sins.

I understand devoting only a few sentences on word meanings is not a sufficient study. For a deeper understanding of some of the punishment texts contained in the New Testament, I recommend pp. 75 – 101 in The Inescapable Love of God by philosopher Thomas Talbott. For now, a brief mention will have to do.

My point, then, in this article, is to simply suggest that presupposing attributes of God and their definitions is often erroneous. As I hopefully modeled, this seems true with how the justice of God is understood by many. With justice presupposed as retributive, much of what Jesus taught us about God seems to fall on deaf ears and blind eyes. This could be said with other presupposed attributes like wrath, vengeance, and even omnipotence. In my opinion, a theologia crucis, or theology of the cross, changes how we should talk about both the “wrath of God,” as well as the “power of God.” When one begins their theology at the cross, they will inevitably draw different conclusions then if they start their theology at Genesis 1:1. Western Christianity needs to start at Calvary and work backward, rather than forward from page 1 of the Old Testament.

[1] Answer found in John 8:1 – 11

[2] Answer found in Matthew 26:53

[3] Answer found in Matthew 16:23

[4] Answer found in Matthew 26:67

[5] Answer found in Luke 23:34

[6] Answer found in John 20: 19 – 23

[7] Romans 11:32

[8] 1 Corinthians 3: 12 – 13

Image: St. Paul Writing His Epistles, attributed to Valentin De Boulonge (1591 – 1632). Available via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

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The Bible’s Authority in Its Proper Place

Since my family recently moved to the Portland area, we’ve been looking for churches to attend. Besides visiting a church, the best way to gain a feel for a church is to visit their website. Specifically, their About Us page.

Since examining church websites, I’ve noticed some pretty strange beliefs out there. Many churches have a list of beliefs that are important to them. What is the first belief on many church websites? The Bible.

On one church begins its list of beliefs like this:

  1. The Authority of Scripture
  2. The Nature of God
  3. Jesus, God’s Son
  4. The Holy Spirit
  5. Salvation
  6. Nature of Man (Sorry, women. You apparently don’t have nature … but if you read the description, you might decide that’s a good thing.)
  7. The Role of the Church

Now, those are all important aspects of Christianity, and I don’t mean to pick on fellow Christians, but the order tells us what’s wrong with American Christianity.

We have elevated the Bible above God. It’s time we stop that form of idolatry. Bibliolatry has no place in Christianity. But, unfortunately, the Bible has become another god, above the Trinity, above Jesus, above the Holy Spirit.

I appreciate the passion that many “Bible believing” churches have. That passion is a good thing, but it’s misdirected. Christians shouldn’t “believe” in the Bible. We are not Biblians. We are Christians.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Bible. It’s an important book and has authority in my life in that it points beyond itself to God. But the Bible is not a member of the Trinity. It deserves to be respected, but it shouldn’t be elevated above God.

“Bible believing churches” tend to think that “the Bible is the very Word of God – supernaturally inspired in every word and absolutely free from error in the original documents. God’s word is the final authority in all that it says. Therefore, it must be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”

But the Bible doesn’t work that way. It contains within itself many disagreements about the nature of God and how events unfolded. For example, did Noah take two of every animal onboard his ship, as Genesis 6 claims, or did he take seven of every animal, as Genesis 7 claims? Does God require sacrifice, as Leviticus suggests, or does God require mercy and not sacrifice, as the prophet Hosea claims? Does God punish children for their parents’ mistakes, as Exodus claims, or is each generation responsible for itself, as the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah state? Did Jesus overturn the tables in the Temple at the end of his ministry, as the synoptic Gospels claim, or did he do it at the beginning of his ministry, as the Gospel of John claims?

Those who believe in the Bible’s inerrancy will do all kinds of interpretive gymnastics to put the round peg of the Bible into the square hole of inerrancy, but it just doesn’t fit. That’s because it’s not meant to fit.

The Bible is a document written by human beings who tried to recognize what God was doing in their lives. But it’s not inerrant. Interestingly, if the Bible were inerrant you would think it would tell us. It simply doesn’t use those terms. The Bible never says, “Hi! I’m the Bible. I’m the inerrant Word of God. Believe in me!”

There are disagreements that run throughout the Bible. Those disagreements are one of the things that I love about the Bible! The Bible models for us how to wrestle with God and ask questions about faith.

The Bible contains human testimony about how God works in the world, but it is not God’s inerrant Word. The Bible points beyond itself to God, and in the New Testament, to the God revealed in Jesus. The Bible even claims that Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible itself.

Jesus warned people about elevating the Bible above himself. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus claimed that the scriptures are limited. You cannot have eternal life by believing in the Bible. In fact, when we elevate the Bible above God, it blocks us from our only access to eternal life.

The Bible is important, but we are not Biblians. We are Christians. We are not called to believe in the Bible. We are called to believe in Jesus.

Christians need to put the Bible’s authority back in its proper place. The Bible’s authority rests in the faith that it points beyond itself to the God revealed in Jesus.

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Photo: michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo

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The God We Follow: An Unplanned Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to Matthew Distefano’s original article published on Sojourners. That article can be found here. To summarize, that article suggested that God is revealed completely in Jesus as nonviolent and non-retributive. In order to understand those parts of the Bible that attribute vengeance to God, Matthew Distefano suggests we apply the hermeneutic — interpretive lens — of Jesus to scripture.

I did not plan on writing a second part, but one of my friends posed such a great question on Facebook that I had to offer a detailed response. Jim Rogers asked:

I really like this. How might you address it with those who reject the obvious extremes but still get muddled in the literal translations? I am working through this too. I try not to use extreme examples because many will reject such but can’t see their way out of the thorn patch.

To begin answering this question, I would have to take my examples from the global stage to the local one. Sure, we all recognize obvious religious extremes such as the Westboro Baptist Church, Pastor Steven Anderson, and entities like ISIS. However, what are not as obvious are the more restrained examples—the type of subtle violence that one might find in many churches across America.

It can come in the form of voting, campaign donations . . . you name it! Let us take a look.

Since I mentioned Leviticus 20:13 in Part 1, I will use the anti-homosexual “clobber” passage for the first portion of this piece as well.

For the Christian Right—especially here in the United States—this proof-texting favorite (as well as a few others) has dictated their politics vis-à-vis marriage laws. Because of this, the cultural move toward equality for the LGBT community has been painfully slow. Churches large and small continue to attempt to make the moral case for “biblical marriage.” In doing so, they seem to be violating a teaching from the Bible itself, namely Matthew 20. In a July 24, 2015 article, I commented on this:

Jesus also tells his disciples to not declare themselves above the other, but in order to be ‘great,’ they must be servants. (Matt. 20:25 – 28) Jesus himself did not come to be served, but to serve. How is using the political process to enact marriage law based on ‘biblical values’ not ‘lording over another’? In this passage, Jesus invites his disciples to imitate him in serving—putting others ahead of themselves. How can Christians be called to serve all, while at the same time using the political process to interfere with thousands of loving couples (even if they think it is ‘icky’)? How can a follower of Jesus place him or herself over and above anyone, for any reason?

To vote away the right of another in the name of “biblical truth” does not seem compatible with being a leader who serves, as Luke 22:26 states. It is also a form of structural violence, one that does not allow the LGBT person the same civil rights as the heterosexual person.

It is more subtle but still oppressive.

It is as “simple” as a common vote, but its harm is far-reaching.

Just as far-reaching—or even greater—is when one’s hermeneutic directly impacts the foreign policy of a country with a military budget that trumps all others. The Christian Right—at one time spearheaded by President George W. Bush—was all too eager to go to war with Iraq after September 11, 2001. Bush was their guy—a conservative Evangelical who communed directly with God. The President even went so far as to say that God told him to “go and end the tyranny in Iraq.”

While I am confident that the Father of Jesus did not tell the President to go to war with Iraq, I am not so confident that most American Christians would agree with me.

I mean, the Bible clearly says…

  • “Now go and attack the Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”—1 Samuel 15:3
  • “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.”—Numbers 31:17
  • “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘the man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.’”—Numbers 15:35

Jesus’ Abba said it, you believe it, and that settles it!?

Again, not so fast!

As I discussed in Part 1, the hermeneutics of Jesus are through the lens of mercy and grace. To exegete passages like the ones above—which is not the goal of this piece, so I will not be doing so—we would have to keep that in mind.

What my last goal is, however, is to display how Jesus’ hermeneutics then match his actions. Let us take a look at Matthew 26:53, where Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, rhetorically asks:

“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”

The implied answer is “yes,” and yet, they stay at bay.

Then, there is what Jesus says in the midst of his own murder on a Roman cross. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus, in doing only what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19, 8:28, 12:49), offers mercy and grace.

And finally, even upon his return, Jesus comes with the word of peace—shalom. John 20:19 – 21 reads:

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when he had said this, he showed them both his hands and his side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”

So, all that being said—what could following Jesus in hermeneutics and in action do to change things on both a local scale as well as a global scale? What would foreign policy look like if supposed “Christian” nations like the United States followed the model displayed by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to his death? What if those trying to get in the way of non-violence were rebuked a la Peter in Matthew 16:23? What if retribution was removed from the Divine both exegetically and anthropologically by Jesus? What if the church modeled that?

I believe that a literalist reading of Scripture—as well as a nuanced treatment of Jesus’ ethical teachings—without a doubt, leads to extremists. However, it also has led to a version of Christianity that justifies the use of national violence to get a certain result in the Middle East. It has led to structural violence that oppresses entire groups of people. It has led to many more unforeseen consequences, such as the improper treatment of women as well as the justification of slavery. What we believe about God and Scripture will dictate how we view ethics.

So, Jim (and others), I hope this begins to answer the excellent question you posed above. I hope I began to offer some examples of how a literalist reading of Scripture affects the very world around us. This hermeneutic should be traded in for the Jesus-centered one—biblical ethics interpreted through Jesus’ ethics.

Grace and peace be with you all.

Image: Free Vector From Pixabay