All faith is derivative. In other words, because nobody (at least nobody I wouldn’t regard as either a fraudster or schizophrenic) has personally interacted with God, all faith is based on individual interpretations either of religious texts or of personal experience. This means that the nature of the values we believe God to espouse will always reflect our interpretations of the values endorsed by the sources from which we derive our theologies.
If the Bible is the source from which we derive our theology, and if we regard the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, then we will inevitably end up with a God who is schizophrenic. This is because the Bible does not represent one holistic theology. The texts that comprise the Bible are written by people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and from different eras. They have different attitudes towards foreigners, women, moral purity and religious practice, and have different understandings of what faithfulness entails. The effort to reconcile the contradictions produces a God who must both love and smite, and who – to the outsider, at least (and to the discerning insider) – must appear Janus-faced. Invariably this must affect how we configure our “Kingdom” societies and how we treat others, particularly “sinners”. Sacred violence must become normalised within such a framework because it is justified in parts of the Bible.
If religious traditions are the source from which we derive faith, then theology is dependent on how prominent historical figures have interpreted the “texts” or events. Our theologies become restricted by the limitations of the interpreter’s understandings. Luther and Calvin, for example, provided many much-needed challenges to the existing theologies of the time. But both had legal backgrounds, and so it was inevitable that their reconfigurations of Christian theology would be coloured by legal considerations. Charles Parham, who is essentially the founder of the charismatic church, believed that we needed to experience the signs and wonders of the early church, and conducted many experiments to ‘unlock the power of the Holy Spirit’. Thus, many evangelical churches have a heavy emphasis on spiritual experience. The interpreter of the text or event always has bearing on the meaning derived from that text or event.
This is certainly true of the gospels. Our understandings of Jesus are limited by the biographers’ limitations, as well as by our own limitations in understanding their writings (we are also interpreting the texts). But I still hold that deriving a Christian theology based on the life and teachings of Jesus himself, whom we hold to be God incarnate, is the most sensible way to go.
I have argued in recent weeks that if we take this pursuit seriously – if we centre our theologies around Jesus first – then we have to dispense with the obsession around holiness codes, the concept of an angry God, belief in the existence of Hell as a place of eternal punishment. Furthermore, we have to seriously question the prominent place that the idea of personal salvation has in contemporary Christian theology and the way we configure our religious gatherings. Simply put, if we regard Jesus as the source from which we derive Christian theology (and it would be ludicrous to consider any other alternatives), then a lot of current Christian theology is simply wrong.
If we derive our theology solely from Jesus (even given the unavoidable role of the reader’s subjective interpretation of the gospels), the most logical conclusion to reach is that God’s nature is characterised by unconditional forgiveness, non-violence and a passion for social justice (as opposed to individual holiness). The big question is this: how do we turn unconditional forgiveness into a practical reality?
It seems fairly clear to me that Jesus would not have been in favour of ‘fighting fire with fire’. On numerous occasions he rejects violence as a means to challenge violent systems. And by ‘violent systems’, I do not necessarily refer only to brute force, but to systemic oppression too. If it is not obvious to you how he actively rejects it (in the trials in the desert, with the woman caught in adultery, at his arrest… I could go on), at least it must be conceded that he is never seen to actively choose a violent path. And yes, I include his clearing of the temple in that. The text gives no indication that he actually used the cattle goad against people.
It seems equally clear to me that Jesus never endorsed passive submission to oppressive systems either. He sides with the victims of oppression all the time – the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors – against the brutal systems that exploit them. The religious leaders fairly frequently endure criticism from him for their treatment of those who follow them. Even at the cross, though he chooses it, it is not an act of forced submission. There is something defiant about it; it is no weary resignation to the inevitable.
I think, in an age of dualistic thinking, it is easy to polarise our choices into violence or submission. I agree with Walter Wink that Jesus offers a Third Way. While I do think that Wink oversimplifies the equation a bit, his basic observation of Jesus’ relationship with violence is sound. He refers to Matthew 5:38-48. Like Ghandi, and many other commentators, I believe that the quintessence of Jesus’ theology can be found in the Sermon on the Mount, so I think we ought to pay particular attention to it if we want to understand the nature of God, according to Jesus. And here is what he says:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Walter Wink explains it like this: in the first example, in the context of 1st Century slavery, a master would have struck a slave with the back of his hand. This would have been a sign of contempt for somebody not worthy of an open-handed strike. A right-handed person (and left-handedness was actively discouraged in the ancient world – a practice that continued until very recently, historically speaking – so it is safe to assume that any given striker would be right-handed) would have to strike on the right cheek in order to deliver a back-handed blow. By turning the other cheek, the abuser would be compelled to strike open-handed (and therefore to strike the victim as an equal) if he wished to deliver another blow, or to strike left-handed, and thus debase himself.
In the second example, by surrendering the inner as well as the outer garments, the victim is rendered effectively naked. In the context of Jesus’ preaching, and the principle he is trying to tease out, it is safe to assume that the person being sued is being sued unjustly. If the accuser is winning, then it is safe to say that the injustice is legally achieved and that the injustice is masquerading as justice. In such a case, the extremity of the nakedness serves to expose the injustice inherent in the system and shame the one who uses that system to exploit others.
In the third example, Roman soldiers were allowed to compel Jews to carry their packs no more than one mile (and there would have been mile markers along the Roman roads – many still exist today). By carrying the pack the second mile, the abuse of power by the soldier is exposed and the soldier would very likely be punished. Romans were not particularly tolerant of rogue behaviour.
In all of these examples, there are some common threads: the victim acts in a way that asserts his human dignity despite the indignity of the injustice being done to him; the brutality of the system is exposed; the victim is empowered without becoming a monster; the abusers are debased by their own actions and the legitimacy of the structures that allow such abuse is questioned.
If Jesus had simply wanted to provide a law, or issue a commandment, I don’t think he would have given three examples. I think he provides these three examples because he is trying to tease out a principle. Jesus’s (and by extension, if you are Christian, God’s) leadership style is not to issue commands that need to be obeyed if the follower wants to avoid punishment, but to provide guidelines that followers ought to choose to employ if they wish to experience the abundant life of the Kingdom. So I wouldn’t read these examples as a mandate from Jesus on how to behave, but as illustrations of Jesus’ principles for confronting oppressive systems. As I have written before, I believe that forgiveness is the only way to interrupt the cycle of violence. But forgiveness is not merely passive acceptance. And that is what I think these are examples of: forgiveness. Forgiveness asserts the power and the dignity of the victim while offering the perpetrators the opportunity for reflection and change, by compelling them to suffer the debasement brought about through their own actions. Forgiveness exposes injustice while refusing to allow the victims to debase themselves. That, I believe, is precisely what Jesus models on the cross.
As a parting thought, consider this: if forgiveness reinforces the dignity of the victim, while allowing the perpetrator the opportunity to rediscover his own dignity, then the theology behind the cross needs to be rethought. God is not the perpetrator at Calgary; She is the victim. Jesus forgives us not for disobeying arbitrary laws and forcing God to reject us, but for our treatment of the downtrodden (remember in Matthew 25 how Jesus said that whatever we do to or for the hungry, the sick, the prisoners, we did to or for him?), for our treatment of God Herself, for using religion and other social structures – the very guidelines for abundant living that God gave us in the ten commandments – to exploit and victimise others, to accuse and divide and oppress. At Calvary Jesus exposes our systems of justice for what they are, he unveils the brutality of holiness-code oriented and divisive religion, he rejects the myth of a wrathful God, and he offers us the chance to reflect and change. Take it.