I am the Way and the Truth and the Life

The reason I get passionate about theology is because it matters. Not because of any eternal consequences, but because theology determines how we treat others in the here and now. If our picture of God is of an angry and violent brute, we tend to become violent and brutish ourselves. And it so happens that – although modern Christianity tries hard to manage the tension between a loving God and a “just” God – the picture of God held by most today is of a vengeful, monstrous God, who one minute wants to love us and the next feels compelled to obliterate us for offending Him (here I use the masculine pronoun deliberately, even though I hold to a gender-neutral Hen). Christianity has invented a God that needs to protect us from Himself. That is twisted. But it is at least partially why rape culture can flourish in nominally “Christian” nations – because men are the ‘heads of the household’. It contributes to why so many forms of child abuse find sanction in the church – “spare the rod and spoil the child” is “God’s command”, after all. It’s why members of the LGBTQ community have been inexcusably persecuted. It is why girls are made to feel ashamed of their sexuality. It underpins so much of the world’s racism and cultural exclusivity. Our pictures of God (theologies) inform our ethics. Our ethics inform our actions. Our actions affect the shape of society. The pictures we form of God matter. Theology is not merely an academic pursuit; it is an absolutely critically practical one. For that reason, I think we should develop the habit of constantly critiquing our theologies. Harsh as this is going to sound, if you refuse to critique how you think about God, you are a part of the problem. To that end, I want to address John 14:6 today.

 

John 14:6 is perhaps one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture. We have turned it into a creedal statement when it was not ever intended as such. I will say it unequivocally: unless we understand that Jesus’ theology is rooted in his Jewishness, and not in a post-modern interpretation of Reformation Protestantism, we will distort the gospel into something devastatingly dangerous. We need to understand something of Jesus’s Jewishness to see what was intended in this most famous claim:

 

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

 

To properly understand what Jesus is saying, we need to engage with the concept of Teshuvah. It is loosely translated as “repentance”, and describes the journey of turning back to God. And I use the word ‘journey’ on purpose. The path of repentance, as Jesus and all of his contemporary Jews would have understood it, is not a single event. It is a path of righteousness to be travelled. Central to a right understanding of Jewish faith is acknowledging the importance of the idea expressed in Deuteronomy of two paths, one leading to death and one to life:

 

26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— 27 the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; 28 the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. (Deuteronomy 11: 26-28)

There is a path of obedience to God that leads to life, and there is a path of disobedience that leads to death. Jesus repackages this central Jewish text in Matthew 7:13-14:

 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

 

When Jesus makes this claim, as when he claims to be the true and living Way in John 14:6, I think we need to read it in the light of Teshuvah. He is not making a statement about world religions. He is not defining faith as conceding that Jesus is God and agreeing intellectually with a particular creed. He is not talking about salvation as saying the sinner’s prayer and asking Jesus into your heart. He is talking about turning back to God and walking a Jesus journey. His Jewish disciples would have readily understood the Deuteronomic reference and understood that he was himself claiming to be the true path to life. And the fact that it is a way, a path, and not merely a decision, means that it is deeply rooted in obedience to a certain ethic – a Jesus ethic. It is, to put it bluntly, a way of living, not a way of believing. If you really want to take this passage seriously, you need to understand what a Jesus Teshuvah looks like.

 

The season of Teshuvah starts on the first day of the month of Elul (the sixth month in the Jewish calendar) and continues for 40 days, culminating in Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). As an aside, it would be very interesting to explore Jesus’ 40 days in the desert in the light of Teshuvah – I will try to get around to that at some stage. Anyway, for the entire 30 days of Elul, in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the faithful are encouraged to use the Scriptures for introspection (that is, using Scriptures as a mirror for the self, not as a description of God). It is a process of turning back to God in a prodigal Son kind of way, where repentance is not merely a statement of faith in the Father, but is the action of returning to the Father’s house (with its many rooms…) and making things right with those one has wronged. Psalm 27 is the central text for the month of Elul:

Psalm 27

Of David.

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When the wicked advance against me
    to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
    who will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me,
    my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
    even then I will be confident.

One thing I ask from the Lord,
    this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
    and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
    he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
    and set me high upon a rock.

Then my head will be exalted
    above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
    I will sing and make music to the Lord.

Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
    be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me,
    do not turn your servant away in anger;
    you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
    God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord;
    lead me in a straight path
    because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
    for false witnesses rise up against me,
    spouting malicious accusations.

13 I remain confident of this:
    I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord.

 

 

I think there is a lot that could be said about the importance of this Psalm to Jewish faith. I want to note just a few things. First, the Psalm gives a voice to the victim, the scapegoat, whose oppressors are “wicked” “false witnesses” who raise “malicious accusations”, and it speaks of the Psalmist’s conviction that God will vindicate the oppressed. The only sacrifices offered are “shouts of joy”, not blood, and the psalm roots its hope very much “in the land of the living”. Crucially, it makes the suggestion that repentance is only possible if one is able to see the goodness of God (especially if one translates verse 13 as “If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of God, [I would no longer be] in the land of the living”). For me, this is a direct contradiction of penal substitution theory, which suggests that we need Jesus to rescue us from God, where we can only understand God if we understand His (again deliberate) wrath. If Jesus is the true and living way of the Teshuvah, therefore, then it seems abundantly clear that we need to reject any notion that God is among the oppressors of the scapegoat. This psalm is a clear rejection of the scapegoating mechanism that drives our political and religious activity. It is a promise that the Jesus – as the living “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:18) – will side with the oppressed and will establish a Kingdom here on earth. The hope that Jesus promises is not a pie in the sky when we die promise. It is not a veiled threat about who will be toasted like a marshmallow in the fires of Hell or an assurance of who will be sipping champagne in Elysian fields.

 

John 14:6 is not a doctrine on comparative religions. It is a call to repentance. And it is premised on a radical redefinition of God’s sense of justice. When, in Matthew 5:44, Jesus commands people to love their enemies, he says we ought to do so because the Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5: 45, my emphasis). I am certain that, given the importance of the Deuteronomic text (see below) to Jewish thinking, his listeners would have understood the full extent of the ramifications of what he was saying, which is essentially that God’s wrath has nothing to do with punishment. Jesus’s statement is a direct refutation of the idea that God blesses the good and curses the bad:

 

13 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. 15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

16 Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17 Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. 18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.” (Deuteronomy 11: 13-21)

 

The way of repentance, the Jesus Teshuvah, is a way of peace and love. As in this example, this is clear when you examine how Jesus used Scriptures. Every time Jesus uses a Scripture or alludes to one, he subtly changes it to remove suggestions that God is punitive. Take, for example, the famous passage from Matthew 7: 21-23:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Jesus is directly quoting from Psalm 6:

Psalm 6

For the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith. A psalm of David.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
    heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
    How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
    save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
    Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping
    and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
    they fail because of all my foes.

Away from me, all you who do evil,
    for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
    the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
    they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

 

For those of you who still think that the Scriptures are equal to Jesus in terms of being God’s revelation of Henself to humanity, Jesus’s hermeneutics – the way he uses Scripture – directly challenge that view. Jesus constantly reinterprets Scripture – he clearly places himself in authority over them. They are not an authority over him. When it comes to God’s revelation of Henself, it is not ‘Jesus and the Bible’. It is Jesus only. And there is a recurring theme whenever Jesus references Scripture: God is not a punitive God. He is a God of love only, not of love and justice, or love and wrath. As John noted:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

Instead, Jesus vindicates the oppressed, he hears the cries of the scapegoats – for he, too, was scapegoated – and through his resurrection, puts to shame those who believe that guilt can be transferred onto some randomly chosen, innocent third party. When Jesus says that nobody can come to the Father except through him, he is not making exclusive claims about a new religion; he is showing us the right way to understand an old one. He is laying before us a path to walk that leads to life. And that way is the way of peace and love and forgiveness. It does away with sacrifice, for sacrifice has to do with scapegoating and fear of punishment from an angry God. God, as the prophets noted over and over again, and of which the examples below are mere samples, never wanted sacrifice anyway (so why do we insist on an atonement model that has Hen requiring it?!):

  • “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Psalms 40:6)
  • “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalms 51:16-17)
  • “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
  • “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies.” (Isaiah 1:11-13)
  • “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices”. (Jeremiah 7:22)

 

The Jesus Way does away with distinctions between those who are acceptable to God and those who are not, for God shows Hens favour to all. Jesus’s Teshuvah is a way of unconditional forgiveness, even of the vilest sinners, even we who consented to his scapegoating (a fact that he asks us to remind ourselves of whenever we participate in Holy Communion) – seventy times seven. Jesus’ way is a way of non-retaliation. God is not a mighty smiter, to use Brad Jersak’s term. And unless you can recognise that the ethics of God are the ethics of Jesus, that Jesus’s way of love and peace is God’s, and unless you are prepared to walk that journey, then you can never understand what it is to know God and to live in Hens Kingdom. The alternative is a way of blood, of death. It is a way that led us to kill God, in the form of Jesus. There is no coming to know God through the satanic spiral of retributive justice and sacrifice and violence. That way – as we demonstrated by crucifying God – can only lead to our choosing to completely separate ourselves from the God of love. Jesus sets before you two paths. And I do not believe that the Scriptures suggest there is any punishment related to your choice. But there are consequences. Choose the narrow road of life.

 

 

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How To Read The Bible

If you read the Bible and find comfort there, then I suspect you are not reading the Bible properly. Almost certainly, you have not fully understood what you are reading. The various texts that comprise the Bible were penned for a lot of different reasons: to preserve the history of a people, and to tell the stories of individuals within that broader context; to warn and correct the wayward; to cry for vindication in the face of overwhelming oppression. But I am sure that I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that not one of those writers sat down and put quill to papyrus with the intention of exhorting future generations to be all that they could be. The Bible is a lot of things: it is shocking, it is challenging, it is starkly brutal, it is divisive. What it is not, is comforting.

 

And that is the problem, really, in choosing to believe that God is the author of these texts. If every word in it is straight from the mouth of God, a theological lesson that is beyond reproach, then the God revealed there is absolutely terrifying. I can find no comfort in a God who asks us to emulate the prayers of a people who ask God to dash the brains of the children of their enemies against a rock (Psalm 137:9); I can find no comfort in a God who so regrets Hens own handiwork (Genesis 6: 5-7) that Hen must destroy it by drowning pretty much all of it (even the animals), but who lacked the foresight to see that this would be the inevitable result of giving humanity free will (in other words, if disobedience is going to compel God to deep regret and violent retribution, why create a species who will inevitably sin?); I can find no comfort in a God that praises the zeal of Phinehas, who kills an Israelite man because he took a foreign wife (Numbers 25: 6-9), and whose wrath is averted by this scapegoat killing; I can see nothing even remotely comforting in a God who can sanction a man’s being scourged to the point of death and then nailed to a tree (can you even begin to conceptualise how absolutely depraved it is to nail somebody to a tree and leave him to die?) on a trumped-up charge, especially what that man is Hens son. And I know that some of you will say, but the comfort is in that Jesus took the punishment that was meant for us. But that is no comfort. The point is, you are arguing for a God who has the capacity to do that at all; even if God did spare us that brutality by redirecting it, that God found such an act of unspeakable violence and injustice necessary testifies strongly against the character of such a God, who is content to accept scapegoating as a legitimate means to restore peace. That is not a comforting God. If you find comfort in the Bible, you have not understood what you are reading.

 

Now please do not misunderstand me. I will never subscribe to a mode of thinking that argues that because something is flawed it is valueless. Just because the Bible contains material that is incompatible with the theology evident in the teachings and ethics of Jesus, it does not mean that it can be discarded. Completely the opposite is true. The Scriptures are indispensable in terms of understanding the nature of God. Not because they are the perfect word of God, but because they do what all powerful texts do (whether musical ones, drawings, films, plays or poems): they hold up a mirror by which we can see ourselves and they illuminate that which was hidden or obscured. That is where I see God’s hand in the Bible: not in the issuing of theological imperatives and directives, not in constructing a sort of ‘manual for life’, but in holding up a mirror to humanity and providing Jesus as the ‘light of the world’, through which to look at it.

 

When I was much younger, I had what was rather euphemistically termed a “major depressive episode”, which resulted in my spending a few weeks in a rehabilitation clinic. It was a clinic with a very good reputation, and which premised its treatment programme on the belief that all addictions – whether eating disorders, drug or alcohol addictions, or depression – were manifestations of similar psychological dysfunction. So, as a young man with a decidedly Puritanical outlook on issues like drugs and alcohol, although I had never before even seen a drug and only once ever been drunk (and that in the build-up to this ‘episode’), I became intimately acquainted with the struggles of men and women I would never have interacted with in the normal course of my life. And I found Jesus among them.

 

They were not Christian, most of them. But there was more Kingdom activity in that space than in most of the church activities I have ever been a part of. They had done despicable things, some of them. They had had despicable things done to them too. They were broken, they had lost everything in life they valued – jobs, families, reputations, dignity. And I was afforded the privilege of being allowed to listen to their stories, to sit quietly with them while they wept – among them, some of the toughest men I have ever met – to bear witness to their humanity. As they, in turn, bore witness to mine. And there was no condemnation, only forgiveness and repentance and a sincere desire to be better. There was a tacit recognition that unless one could comprehend and accept the extent to which one had fallen, there was no way up. Group therapy became a sort of mirror in which I finally saw myself, and in the climate of love fostered there– in that space of no condemnation – I found the courage and the wisdom I needed to change myself, to dismantle and rebuild. I understood in ways far deeper than the intellect why Jesus chose to eat with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, why he rose to the defence of the outcasts and the lepers. Jesus saw that bringing about the Kingdom of God is not a matter of obeying rules and setting yourself apart for God; it is not a matter of perfectly following rituals and observing holiness codes so that you can dodge God’s retribution; it is not a matter of right belief and purity; in his own words, Jesus is to be found among “the least of these”. In that rehab centre I saw something fundamentally important about Jesus, which the gospels had inferred the whole time: he is not the one doing the scapegoating. He sides with the victims. Every time.

 

That’s why Jesus is the light of the world. He depicts God as a God who rejects scapegoating, who stands side by side with the victims. God was not siding with the persecutors at Calvary; God was the victim. God was not venting bloodlust at Easter; God was exposing and renouncing it. If it the modus operandi of Jesus to side with the scapegoats, I can tell you where he is in the stories I alluded to earlier: he is with the innocent infants being brutalised in the name of divine retribution on Babylon; he is with the Midianite woman impaled by Phinehas’s spear so that ‘God’s judgment’, in the form of a plague which has cost tens of thousands of Israelite lives, can be averted (Numbers 25:6-9); and I am utterly convinced that God never contributes to the injustice that is the scapegoating of Jesus.

 

The Bible is – from start to finish – a book about blood. It is not so much about God as it is about us. And so the graphic descriptions of violence are not there because God endorses them, they are there because we do. We have recreated God in our own bloody image, and so long as we cling to the mistaken notion that the Bible is God’s divinely authored Dummy’s Guide to Life, rather than our clumsy and misguided attempts to understand God, we will fail to see that we are using the Scriptures to justify making our most abominable failings – our scapegoating tendencies – into Godly virtues. As long as we refuse to recognise that the Scriptures are a mirror held up to our faces, not to the face of God, we will fail to recognise that Jesus’ voice is not among the throngs baying for blood; it is raised in protestation against it. We can never understand the depths of our depravity so long as we interpret Jesus through the light of the Scriptures rather than interpreting the Scriptures through the illumination of the Light of the World.

 

I am not asking you to discard the Bible. I would insist that every Christian read it. But it is not a self-help book; it is not a devotional series; it is not an invitation from Jesus asking if he can be your boyfriend; it is not a fire-insurance contract; it is not even a revelation (at least not primarily) of God. It is a mirror. And whether you see the face depicted as God’s or your own (hint: it’s your own. Any illusion that it is God’s is actually a projection of self), there is no comfort there. The blood cries out from every page. But there is light, and in that light there is truth. And the truth will set you free.

 

Image taken from http://www.godfuel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/scapegoating.jpg

Of Goldfish and the Gospel

Goldfish seemed like a good idea at the time. Somehow these things always do. After all, Nathan (my almost five-year old son) could learn about responsibility and develop empathy by having to care for other creatures that would be dependent on him. And all the experts on child-rearing seemed to think it was an imperative. Who was I to argue? Anyway, my brother-in-law had a fully-equipped tank that he wasn’t using, which would save us any major expense, so we had no excuse. And so Nathan ended up with fish.

 

For the first few days they delighted him. But inevitably much of the work fell to Megan and me. One cannot entrust the responsibility of cleaning the fish-tank every couple of weeks, of keeping the pH levels and the temperature of the water within a safe range, to a pre-schooler. Even we found it quite challenging. At one point, the fish kept getting sick and dying and we became quite good at recognising symptoms and helping fish to recover. For those of you who are tempted to buy fish, I caution you: there is a lot that can go wrong with a fish. And if you are empathetic by nature, it is not good enough to keep watching them get sick and die and then simply replace them, when it is possible to analyse the situation and correct whatever it is that is causing them to become sick in the first place. And so we learned how to keep the ammonia levels and the nitrate levels and the pH levels and the temperature and the parasites, and all the host of things that make the tank unsafe for fish, under some sort of control.

 

But the fish do not know any of this. They just swim. If the water is unsafe, they do not know it, although their bodies respond. An individual fish may well feel that something is not right, but it will not know what causes the distress. It cannot comprehend that its destruction is ensured by the very mechanism keeping it alive: it must breathe. Sometimes that very act of breathing, if the water is not right, will slowly kill the fish.

 

Theology is the same. For whatever reason, I believe that theology – how we think about God – is the key determinant in the quality of human life. And I don’t mean in a ‘Heaven or Hell’ sense. I mean in the lived experience of the here-and-now. We are a religion-prone species, and whether or not people believe in God today, I believe that the anthropological spin-offs of being descendants of religious cultures that rooted themselves in sacred violence affect society profoundly even today. As I discussed in the last post, I believe that the vestiges of this shared history manifest in our tendency to scapegoat and in our sacralisation of violence. Theology, whether or not we believe in an actual god, is – in that sense – like the water we breathe. That means that toxic theologies will have devastating consequences, whether or not we realise that. But unlike fish, we have the capacity to recognise what it is we are swimming in and to change the water.

 

This is why I believe Christianity has relevance to society as a whole, whether or not the members of said society believe in God at all. The water needs to be changed and I think Christianity offers a solution. In what I am convinced is the essential distillation of Jesus’ theology (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus makes the following statement:

 

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. (Matthew 5:43-48)

 

In any age, that is a powerful teaching. However, I do think that one of the great shortcomings of the way we do theology nowadays is that we almost completely neglect context. We fail to understand the full impact of this message because we read it through a post-Reformation Penal Substitution theological framework, overlayed with a post-modern conceptualisation of the world that says that what is right for me is right and therefore – by extension – my opinion is all that matters. And we don’t even realise that this is the lens through which we are filtering our theological water because it is the only water we have ever known. Jesus is saying a lot more than: ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could all be nice to one another for a change?’ So let me ask you, for a moment, to set aside your Calvinist understanding of Christianity (and I suspect this to be true even if you don’t profess to be a Christian at all), and ask you to put on a 1st Century Jewish lens.

 

The Holy Land is a political tinder-box in the 1st Century. People are deeply resentful of Roman occupation, and the Romans are particularly brutal colonists, so the sentiment is entirely understandable. There are many different groupings of people, responding to the occupation from a complex variety of ideological standpoints. For purposes of this discussion, suffice it to say that a common debate at the time, among Jewish people, is whether to oppose the Romans by force or not. A key point in this debate is the nature of Jewish identity – what it means to be set apart, and how to give expression to that. The Zealots are in favour of an armed rebellion, and already the Holy land has seen many such uprisings. It will see more of these after Jesus’ death too, culminating in the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD. Groups like the Pharisees, on the other hand, express the rebellion through strict adherence to the Torah – the dietary laws and the Sabbath laws take on a greater significance now that they are expressions of Jewish identity in the face of Roman oppression. The Pharisaic observance of the Torah is not about personal holiness, but about Jewish identity. It separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. This separation of ‘us’ from ‘them’ is a critical Jewish concern at the time, and often all that separates different expressions of this is the degree of willingness to engage in violence.

 

Enter Jesus. I think all of his listeners would have been pretty clear on who the “enemy” was, and who the “pagans” were, in this extract from the sermon: the Romans. Jesus’ teaching is completely radical. He is saying that even the Romans love other Romans, that if the Jews only love their fellow Jews, they are no different; if they really want to be a people set apart, they need to love the Romans too. I bet you can guess how popular that teaching was. It is positively incendiary. It is the same teaching that nearly gets him killed in Luke 4 (see my discussion here) and which drives Caiaphas to plot his death in John 11 (see my discussion here). And the teaching is simply this: if you want to “be perfect” and “be children of your Father in heaven”, then demonstrate love for even those you consider unworthy of it. In your head, lose the idea that you are better – God shows the same favour to all – and show the same love for your “enemies” as you would for your friends. You need to love the Romans.

 

To his countrymen, that was an unpalatable teaching. They wanted a Davidic Messiah to crush their enemies and restore their status as God’s chosen. They got a teacher who instructed them that the only way to be different was to overlook difference. The teaching is as unpalatable to many today: we expect God to smite all of those whom we regard as unclean; deep down we look forward to the day when they get what is coming to them. But God is still saying this: if you want to consider yourself perfect, and My child, forget your holiness codes – they don’t set you apart; forget your religious rituals – children of God are not made by saying the sinner’s prayer and intellectually assenting that Jesus has saved them from their sins, they are not identified by their willingness to abstain from sexual ‘impurity’ or from engaging with ‘unclean’ art or by regular church attendance. Real children of God are identifiable by their willingness to demonstrate love to their “enemies”. Can I put it another way? Being “perfect” (Jesus’ words, not mine) is a function of how you relate to the people with whom you most profoundly differ, not of what behaviours you avoid.

 

And here’s the real theological punch: the perfection Jesus calls us to, in loving those who most vehemently oppose us, is a modelling of the Father’s perfection (“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”). And who do you think most opposes God? The ones who scapegoated and crucified Hen (“Hen” is a gender-neutral pronoun invented by the Swedes in the 1960s). The implication is that God does not set Henself apart from Hens “enemies”, but chooses to love them instead. That is to respond ‘perfectly’. That is why Penal Substitution Atonement theology is so toxic: it sets God apart from us; it -essentially – rejects the perfect love (outlined here by Jesus) by insisting that God’s love for us is contingent on our worthiness of it, which can only be achieved by our fulfilling all of the Law, even if only by proxy. That was a mouthful, so let me put that into the context of this teaching on loving your enemies: if Penal Substitution (the idea that God punished Jesus for our sins) is valid, Jesus would have had to argue that Jews can only love Romans if the Romans behave like Jews, or at least if one of the Romans behaves like the perfect Jew on behalf of the other Romans. Say what you want, but you have to do some fancy semantic gymnastics to argue that Jesus is preaching that in this passage. If perfection means loving your enemies as they are, then what does such love look like? Paul gives an insightful description in the well-known passage in 1 Corinthians 13:

 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 

If you want to set yourself apart, if you want to mark yourself as God’s, then practice love. I encourage you to take Paul’s description of what love is, and think of the person or the group of people you despise the most (who are your Romans?), and frame your practical expression of this theology of love by substituting your Romans into the Corinthians passage. Let me give you an example. My “enemies” are bigots, so I would rework the passage like this, for myself:

 

Love means being patient with bigots, understanding that they will need to be treated with kindness and not feel humiliated and condemned if they are to come to embrace a way of love. Loving bigots means that I do not regard myself as either worse than nor better than them: I have no reason to either envy them nor look down on them: we are all human. If I love bigoted people, I will not treat them with disrespect: they are human too and that alone earns them the right to be treated with dignity. Loving bigots is not a means I use to make myself feel superior, or worthy, or good. It is not a PR exercise to win admiration and accolades. Loving bigots means that while I cannot condone their behaviours and attitudes, and will sometimes actively oppose their actions and ideologies, I do not let my emotions dictate how I respond to them; I will never seek the satisfaction of having my emotional and psychological needs met over my duty to love and respect them. I will not keep a tally of their wrongdoings and wield it like a weapon against them. Rather, I will choose to forgive. I will not make them responsible for all the evils of the world, using them as scapegoats so that society can achieve some sort of pseudo-peace. I will not use my differences with bigots to justify perpetuating a cycle of violence that never ends, but instead choose to work diligently towards dismantling violent and exclusive systems of power and building a peaceful Kingdom society that is founded on love. To love bigoted people means always to protect them from being scapegoated, from having their dignity as fellow humans stripped from them; it means always trusting that through love – as practically expressed through me – their hearts may soften and change, and they may repent; it means always hoping for a better world and seeking practical and peaceful ways to bring that about by showing bigoted people what the way of peace looks like; it means never giving up on them.

 

Imagine the world as a fish-tank. The theological waters are filled with toxic nitrates and parasites, and are altogether the wrong temperature. The theology we breathe asks that we accuse and divide (it is surely no coincidence that the words for the devil ha-satan and diabolos in the Bible literally translate as “the accuser” and the divider”) . Our theology asks that we set ourselves apart from others based on what religious practices we observe, what cultural practices we follow, what ideologies we defend. Our theological water makes us feel that we are better, more deserving of God’s favour, closer to holiness, and suggests to us that it is God’s will that the “enemy” be struck down and crushed. We anticipate the judgment of God on the unrighteous with a twisted sort of relish, and sometimes feel compelled to speed things along by smiting them righteously ourselves. But that theological water is toxic. Stop breathing it in. I have, to quote Paul (1 Corinthians 12: 31), shown you “the most excellent way” of love. Use that to change the water.

Demythologising Sacrifice

It is impossible to condense a complex anthropological work into a blog-sized space, even a blog-sized space that is significantly larger than blog-sized spaces are supposed to be. So if you treasure the work of René Girard, please understand that what is to follow is a very much reduced (and thus inevitably inadequate) summation of some of his work. But what I want to explore is so important a concept that I have no choice. While there are plenty of legitimate reasons to contest some of René Girard’s assertions, I believe that his work on the scapegoating mechanism provides such absolutely critical insight into the workings of Christian theology that he simply cannot be dismissed.

 

In times of deep stress – the kind of stress that threatens to overwhelm us completely – when we are feeling fearful, anxious or distressed, one of the psychological mechanisms we employ to diffuse that stress is to blame somebody or something else for the turmoil. The object of the blame is normally arbitrarily chosen, and choosing to lay the blame on this ‘scapegoat’ prevents the greater violence that would result from addressing the real source of our discontent. The act of placing the blame for this ‘evil’ on someone or something else releases some of the tension and produces a sort of catharsis. The ‘evil’ is assigned to the scapegoat, and we vent our wrath on it. The result is reduced tension – a comparative peace. Afterwards, we tell ourselves stories about how the scapegoat deserved the violence, because deep down we recognise the innocence of the scapegoat and we need to justify our violence. We render the victim invisible by mythologising hen1.

 

For example, imagine that your boss is giving you a hard time. You are unwilling to confront hen (J) on it because you cannot see it ending well. You may well lose your job, but even if that is unlikely, at the very least the confrontation would result in the working environment being a little more unpleasant for a while. So instead, when you get home, you snap at your partner. You find some arbitrary reason to justify snapping. You bring to mind your partner’s past behaviour to further strengthen the justification. Before you know it, your partner is no longer a victim, but has become a source – if not the source – of your frustration. The work tension is eased a bit. You have blown off steam and redirected the anger, preventing a greater catastrophe.

 

On a more complex social level, we do the same. In times of extreme social anxiety – famine, disease, economic collapse – we invent scapegoats. We feel powerless against the larger forces so we assign blame for them to an arbitrarily chosen third party – it may be foreigners, adherents of another religion or culture or political system – and then we vent our violent wrath on them. We release steam and we feel better, unified. We prevent greater social chaos by expelling the scapegoat, and then we mythologise the event to hide the victim and obscure the injustice and the violence of the act – it was God’s will; it was for the common good; democracy triumphed – and for a while we restore unity and peace.

 

I have hugely simplified Girard’s hypothesis, but I think you get the picture. And when you look at history – even when you look at the world right now – you can see just how profoundly insightful Girard is. Look at how we respond to Donald Trump: yes, the man is despicable, but assigning all the blame to him allows us to avoid looking at the social constructs that produce not only him, but so many well-intentioned people who believe that following him is not only right but good. Blaming Trump is easier than examining our own complicity in creating a society that allows the likes of Trump to flourish. In my country, South Africa, much the same is true. It is easy to blame Jacob Zuma (as arrogant and corrupt a man as any, and a truly despicable leader) or the Guptas or Apartheid for the country’s ills. No doubt removing a Trump or a Zuma or even the colonial legacy will restore a sense of peace and unity. It will work. And we will feel that the violence – whether systemic or physical – required to do so is justified, because the result is good. But we will avoid looking at ourselves.

 

So scapegoats are useful. The scapegoating mechanism is a key one for regulating social order. But it is fundamentally immoral. The victim is always hidden, because to expose the scapegoat as a victim – to give the scapegoat a voice – is to render the whole process visibly unjust and consequently less effective.

 

We can be surprisingly creative in the ways we hide the victim. One of those ways, as far as religion goes, is to make the victim an animal. Some members of society would become understandably uncomfortable with the practice of human sacrifice, but most could become accustomed to a proxy animal sacrifice. And really, that is what all forms of animal sacrifice essentially are – proxies. Technically, a human should die, but that is messy so we will settle for animals. But everybody knows what is really going on. Everyone understands that the blood of a goat or a bull cannot really offer any form of atonement for sin, cannot appease an angry god. And because the sacrifice works in assuaging our guilt and fear, we avoid questioning the legitimacy of the process. We don’t want to see that sacrifice is wrong because it works. And sure, in the modern age we have become good at making our sacrifices look less primitive, but they are still there. Nowadays they take the form of foreigners or immigrants or the LGBTQ community or radical Islam or Christianity or black people or colonists or women or men or racists or …

 

What Jesus does on the cross – not by any means the only thing he does on the cross, but certainly among the many important meanings of the cross – is to expose the process by giving the victim a voice. By deconstructing the mechanism for all to see. For millennia we have used the scapegoating mechanism as a means of getting closer to God, and God – by making Henself the sacrifice – exposes the illegitimacy of the process and ends it as a viable way of approach Hen.

 

Consider the following account from the gospel of John (Chapter 11: 47-53):

47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

 

It is clear what is going on. Note that what is at stake is Jewish unity under the weight of Roman occupation. Many people – notably John Piper – have tried to argue that the socio-political and religious contexts of the 1st Century have minimal bearing on the gospel message. I think that is a hugely irresponsible and intellectually lazy approach, which obscures vital facets of the gospel message, like this one.

 

Essentially what Caiaphas is arguing is that in order to diffuse political tensions with the Romans, and with the goal of reinforcing a sense of Jewish identity that is threatening to fragment as people assimilate into Roman culture (the very reason the Pharisees place emphasis on observance of the law – it has almost nothing to do with personal holiness), it is necessary to make Jesus into a scapegoat. Jesus provides the perfect victim – his claims to kingship will violate Roman law, as they challenge the title of Caesar as the only legitimate ruler, and the challenges to orthodox Jewish identity posed by his teachings and lifestyle mark him as a perfect candidate. His death can be legitimised and will serve the common good by unifying people and diffusing the almost unbearable political tension.

 

When Jesus goes willingly to the cross, as a lamb to the slaughter, God Henself becomes the ultimate scapegoat, reconciling people to God once and for all, using the very ritual we designed to make our relationship right with God to end that ritual. God knew that the only way this could end – this cycle of sacralised violence – was for Henself to be the scapegoat, exposing the fundamental injustice of this sinful human practice, cutting through all the mythologising that we use to legitimate sacrifice, by being completely innocent. We cannot say Jesus deserved to die – even Pilate concedes that (John 18:38). Jesus lived a life that exemplified love and forgiveness, even forgiving those who murder him. The injustice of this act stands out starkly. The sinfulness of our religion, of our politics, of all our social interactions, is unveiled in all its brutality. Scapegoating stands exposed. As Jesus hangs on that cross, dying in full view of the whole world, absorbing all our blame without retaliation but also without assuming guilt, his innocence cries out: “Enough! It is finished. No more! You don’t get peace like this!” And God’s final “No!” to this practice, God’s slamming indictment of the whole system of sacred violence, is to raise Jesus from the dead. If Jesus remained dead, we could possibly conclude that he deserved it; that it was God’s will, that sacrifice works. But God raised Jesus. He vindicated the victim. He rejected the verdict and exposed the myth. And he forgave. The victim forgave, ending the retaliatory cycle. God said: No more blood. No more blame. You don’t get to feel that you can draw close to Me by venting your fear of Me on others, by blaming others for your shortcomings. Come to me as you are.

 

That’s the gospel, friends. That God forgave. That Jesus took our sins upon himself once and for all. And how should we respond? We repent. We say: no more blaming. We turn away from the practice of hurting others so that we can feel good about our lives, from using others’ suffering to assuage our own. We reject the lies that say that others must die so that we can live, others must suffer so that we can find peace. And we choose a much more difficult path: a path of love, of forgiveness, of peace. As Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father but by me”.

 

  1. The Swedes have invented a gender-neutral pronoun, “hen”, to avoid the awkwardness of having to write she/he. So when I use “hen”, please do not be tempted to infer that I am referring to poultry, or that I am prepared to compare humanity to the noble chicken.

The Way of the Cross

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.

Rejecting the Nashville Statement

If you move in vaguely Christian circles, or if you are part of the LGBTQ community, you have probably heard of the Nashville Statement. And if you have heard of the Nashville Statement, you almost certainly have an opinion on it. The Nashville Statement was the brainchild (I almost wrote brainlesschild, but I have reminded myself that now more than ever I need to resist the urge to invoke ad hominem arguments that accuse and divide people, and extend love even to those with whom I profoundly disagree, or what Jesus called our “enemies”) of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (don’t get me started on the name). Essentially, the document invites Christians to sign their agreement with what it calls a return to a Biblical understanding of sex.

 

I applaud the desire to make a Christian statement to a world that seems to be losing its mind. I wholeheartedly agree, when I look around me, that what the world most desperately needs right now – as it always has, in fact – is for people to start to live in a way that honours life in the way God intended. If we could accomplish that, we would not have to live in constant terror of a nuclear war. We would not need to be concerned that our children would suffer the agony of being the victims of the violence that inevitably follows peoples’ desires to conform the world to reflect their own ideologies. We would not need to worry that our children would themselves become monsters, justifying the violent satisfaction of their own needs. I completely applaud the recognition on the part of the signatories of the CBMW that the world needs to shape itself around a Jesus lifestyle.

 

What I cannot understand is that with all of the issues on which they could possibly have chosen to take a stand, they chose sex. What is with the Christian obsession with sex? There seems to be almost no concern over the right to bear arms – to brazenly wield instruments that have, as their sole purpose, the destruction of others; there is a relative silence around race and gender-based violence; tyrants rise to positions of ultimate power in their countries and we find reasons to justify keeping them there; we throw away enough food each year to feed all the starving; there is so much wanton and irresponsible dumping of plastic – which, even if it can be broken down at all, takes hundreds of years to degrade – that it is estimated that by 2050 we would need three planets to sustain our current consumer habits. But the CBMW’s biggest concern is what people do with their naughty bits. Really?!

 

When will Christians start to see the real nature of evil in the world? How do we make ourselves recognise that we are the problem? All of us. And not because we transgress some divine law by thinking too much about genitals; but because we use issues like different perceptions of genitals to justify hatred, to exclude and accuse and divide. The world we construct through our flawed theologies is so steeped in scapegoating and blood that to focus on moral codes is easier than the hard work of reshaping our thinking so that it is in line with the peace-making, humble relationships Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

 

Jesus did not say: “By this shall all know that you are my disciples: if you renounce homosexuality”.

Jesus did not say: “By this shall all know that you are my disciples: if you suppress your sexual urges”.

Jesus did not say: “By this shall all know that you are my disciples: if you separate yourselves from those you regard as unclean”.

Jesus did not say: “By this shall all know that you are my disciples: if you sign public statements that depict marginalised groups as threatening and deviant”.

Jesus never made any claims to the effect that some version of moral purity was key to a relationship with God.

Jesus said: “By this shall all know that you are my disciples: that you have love one for another”.

And when they asked him who the neighbour was, who the person was for whom they ought to be willing to lay down their lives, he told them the parable of the good Samaritan. And after two millennia his point should have had time to work its way into our theologies, but tragically it seems not to have. His point was that the priest and the Levi, those who would have been considered to be leading virtuous and pure lives, were not doing as God commanded because they refused to love. They walked by on the other side of the road and averted their eyes. But the one whom Jewish society would have regarded as threatening and deviant did not. Who, Jesus asked them, do you suppose was doing God’s will?

 

The sole virtue of the Nashville Statement, so far as I can see anyway, is that it polarises opinion. It makes it impossible to sit on the fence. It forces Christians to take a stand. And here is the issue: pretend, for a moment, that the LGBTQ community, that all who have had sex before marriage (and who, as a result, have been made to feel dirty and unworthy by the church’s obsession with sex), that all boys who struggle with pornography, that young people beginning to explore their sexuality through masturbation, are the traveller on the side of the road. Villains (sadly the church, mainly) have robbed them of dignity and beaten them down. The CBMW wants you to be the priests who walk by on the other side of the road. The CBMW asks you to be blind to the violence that declarations of “faith” like this have caused. It makes the indefensible claim, in Article 10:

“WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.”

The claim this makes is that anyone who does not agree with the articles of “faith” that the Statement outlines cannot be considered Christian. Was Christianity ever a matter of sexual “purity”? I don’t see evidence of that. I see a Jesus walking away from the woman caught in adultery. I see Jesus eating with prostitutes. I see a Jesus, who – through his life and his teachings – always came out in defence of the marginalised and the oppressed. I see a Jesus who chose love over the letter of the law every time. And yet the Nashville Statement would have me believe that I must disregard everything Jesus modelled because some Old Testament priests, who also advocated stoning unruly children and the genocide of peoples who were not Israelites, said that sexual purity was important? Do you see why – given the incompatibility of this with Jesus’ ethics and theology – I cannot consider the Bible to be inerrant? I wish people would think before putting their names to anything that calls itself Christian.

 

Do you know that young people who have realised that they are attracted to the same sex are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual teens? And do you want to know why that is? Research suggests it is because they fear being rejected by their families, their communities, the very people who ought to love them. And the research suggests that the suicide rate diminishes sharply when these young people know they have the support of their loved ones. When they are loved for who they are, people can cope with just about any hardship. No wonder Jesus said all of the commandments hinged on love.

 

So what is more loving? What, in other words, is more in line with God’s will: to sign a statement that effectively alienates people from their communities and families, that makes people feel dirty and worthless and scared, and which is very likely to lead to suicides, bullying and violence, or to raise your voice in support of the marginalised and oppressed? Which do you think looks more like the Kingdom of God that Jesus envisaged: a society where everyone can live in peace and where everyone knows what it is to love and be loved, or a society that uses Scripture to divide and accuse, that draws lines in the sand about who is welcome in the Kingdom and who is not? It’s not a very difficult question. Don’t walk by on the other side of the road. Show your colours.

 

Please don’t think – no matter how passionately I argue – that I hate John Piper and company. I do not, although I do have to try very hard not to be contemptuous or disdainful, which I admit comes too easily. I want to love like Jesus did – even those with whom I profoundly disagree. I will leave you with the words of Katelyn Jackson, someone who demonstrates the grace I think ought to exemplify Kingdom thinking: http://auburnseminary.org/open-love-letter-nashville-statement-signatories-gay-christian/

Dear Friends,

I hold you in love today.

I can only imagine the fear and heartache that must have motivated you to sign the Nashville Statement. Our country’s view on same sex relationships, even in Christian circles, is rapidly changing. I sense you feel we are on the precipice of Evangelical Christian persecution. If someday your views on the Bible and homosexuality are labeled as hate speech, you must worry that social pressure and government intervention will try to force you to change what you preach, how you hire, and how you interact with the world.

I have studied under you, prayed for you daily, celebrated the adoption of your children, and considered you some of my heroes of the faith. You sat with me while I cried, offered me a safe place to stay when I needed a break, and supported my dreams in ministry. I’m sorry that the divide between us has made you believe this statement was necessary.

I affirm that you are loved by God and members of my family, deserving love, gentleness, and compassion. I will continue to hold you in high esteem.

I affirm that many of you are deeply kind people, despite your signature on this document – committed to caring for the poor, protecting the fatherless, and loving your neighbors.

I affirm that many of you love the Lord deeply – studying God’s word, praying, and leading churches out of love for Jesus’ work on the cross.

I affirm your declaration that my religion and your religion are radically different. I give you the freedom to consider your faith substantially different than mine.

I pray that we will partner together in an interfaith movement to denounce hate and promote kindness and gentleness. I pray that you will hold me in love, as I hold my Muslim, Mormon, Jewish, Evangelical, Hindi, Buddhist, and Atheist brothers and sisters in love.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”

Signed, Katelyn Jackson

Forgiveness Does Not Require Repentance

If you do not follow Game of Thrones, please keep reading anyway. I promise that I will not make this post about the series, although I do want to use an incident from one of the recent episodes to illustrate a point. The show is seven seasons and a few years in, and it was only last week that I – a faithful adherent – recognised just how vividly and insightfully the story presents modern Christianity’s theological flaws.

 

The scene: after completely routing her enemies in battle, Daenerys’s troops round up the surviving stragglers of the defeated army and bring them before her. She addresses them from atop a large rock, with a terrifying dragon perched menacingly at her side. Initially, she demonstrates a promising empathy in understanding the plight of these commissioned soldiers, wrenched from their homes and families to bleed for a cause they do not really believe in. Throughout the series she has attempted to define herself as a defender of the people, a queen who refuses to compel others to follow her but insists that they choose to do so freely. Now she offers her prisoners a simple but horrifying choice: choose to join her in her war to liberate the world from tyranny (and incidentally to become ruler of every people) or die. The irony seems utterly lost on her. It is a refrain that has become –as far as I am concerned anyway – an annoying part of her character development: she is unbendingly insistent that everyone else acknowledge her rightful claim to the throne. She is admirably merciful to those who do… but not everyone does. The general of the defeated army and his youthful son (and only heir)refuse to bow. Even in defeat, their allegiance is unwavering. The director frames them as admirably honourable and we cannot but respect their decision. But with a cold imperiousness, and in spite of protestations and pleas for clemency from her advisor, Daenerys orders the dragon to incinerate them and they are obliterated in a torrent of flame.

 

If you believe that God speaks to people, and orchestrates events so that we can ‘hear’ Him, then this was one of those moments. That very morning I had been challenged by a Facebook post from one of the men I regard as a theological mentor, Michael Hardin. He had made the observation that in the gospels, forgiveness always precedes repentance, and not the other way around. Forgiveness, he argues, creates the environment in which repentance is possible; it can never be a prerequisite for forgiveness. Since it is impossible to legislate a change of heart, repentance can never be achieved by making it a legal requirement. While a law may compel people to modify their behaviour, it can never compel them to change their attitudes or beliefs. Certainly, true loyalty and devotion are not won through duress. Force only breeds resentment and anger, compliance possibly, but never love.

 

As I watched Daenerys’s failure to understand that hearts are not won at the point of a sword (or the maw of a dragon, as the case may be), her incomprehension that a choice between death and devotion is no choice at all, but simply another form of tyranny, I understood very clearly the fatal flaw in modern Christian theology. The choice Christian theology presents people with is exactly the one Daenerys offers her prisoners: turn or burn. Choose to love God or roast eternally. No choice to follow God, under those constraints, could be considered authentic. The only authentic choice possible is the flames. And that is supposed to be “good news”?!

 

Like Daenerys, we – Christians – are blind to the tyranny we perpetuate through our theologies. We cannot grasp that insisting that people must love God and bend the knee before they can be forgiven is monstrous. We cannot seem to see that such a theology is not consistent with a truly loving God. Love does not demand that the lover change, or even express a willingness to change, in order to be loved. But Jesus understood. Consider his interaction with ‘sinners’, if you do not believe me. Notice how he never requires tax collectors or prostitutes or lepers or religious zealots to change before he is willing to eat with them, to speak with them, to heal them. The words “your sins are forgiven” are never predicated upon a confession. If repentance is evident, it is born out of Jesus’ mercy; it is not the catalyst for that grace. Sometimes there is no repentance at all. At the cross, Jesus offers his most powerful teaching: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Whether the “they” refers to his persecutors or was meant to pertain to humanity as a whole, the principle remains the same: forgiveness is unconditional. Nothing is required to earn it. Not even repentance. Paul notes, in Romans 5 (my emphasis), “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. If repentance was a requirement for forgiveness, then God would be a tyrant.

 

That does not mean that repentance is unimportant, though. It is important for reasons other than the ones our theology assumes. It is not a precondition for acceptance by God. Repentance is important because it means we turn away from a system of social organisation that is founded on violence as the ultimate expression of power and justice. It means rejecting religious practice that requires scapegoating and bloodshed to win God’s favour. Repentance means – in Jesus’ words – “picking up your cross” and following him: refusing to participate in retributive justice, in violent and oppressive systems of power (if you are interested, watch Brian Zahnd’s excellent sermon on this at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRtfKrbC4tQ) .Repentance means responding like Jesus did to those systems. And not because our salvation depends on it; because it is the only sustainable way to create a peaceful and equitable society. Repentance is a big “no” to the monster God embedded in our blood-soaked religions. If we want to understand God’s character, we need to turn our backs on the sacrifice-oriented theologies that are so deeply ingrained in us. Jesus’s extravagant and subversive forgiveness enables us to see that.

 

I was chatting online with an old friend and past pupil a couple of weeks ago, and he remarked that Christianity was useful only as an ambulance for the weak, but that it had no value in moving the human race forward. I would agree, if the only ideological beliefs of Christianity were the personal salvation, holiness-code-obsessed, me-my-Bible-and-Jesus ones that dominate contemporary Christian theology. I, too, see no value in a theology that depicts Jesus as a Daenerys-like figure, demanding that we love him or die, or which exists to provide a sort of psychological security blanket to a clearly delineated in-group in the form of free fire-insurance and a Sunday morning entertainment and coffee club for the middle class. But that is not the Jesus of the gospels. And when I look at the mess the world is in today, where we use difference (whether race, religion, sexuality, gender, culture, age, political affiliation or favourite sports team) to justify violence against others (and liberals are as guilty of this as conservatives – look at the way we talk about Trump or neo-Nazis, for example), then the only way I see of moving the world forward is through forgiveness. And not the sort that requires the other to acknowledge her wrongdoing first. Conditional forgiveness is a veiled attempt to wield power over another; it uses the moral high-ground as a platform to launch an attack. Conditional forgiveness is oppressive. A free and peaceful society cannot be built on demands to bend the knee. I think Christianity – following Jesus’s teachings – is the only way forward for humanity. Time and time again we have borne witness to humanity’s inability to learn from history. Violence breeds only violence. Hatred gives birth to more hatred. What we need is Jesus-style forgiveness. Extravagant. Self-sacrificing. Completely contrary to all of our notions of common sense. If we want the world to be other than it is, we cannot keep insisting that others conform to our definitions of good and right, that our own sense of justice must prevail. We need to give up the right to hate. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

 

If you want to understand repentance, read Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 13. Repentance, born out of being loved, seeks to love. It discards childish ideas of a God that needs to be appeased, gives up the right to judge, surrenders the moral high ground, recognises that adherence to some social or moral code is inadequate:

13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

 

Did Jesus Meet Satan in the Desert?

After I argued against the existence of Satan as a “person” in my last post, someone asked me how I would then account for Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the desert. I confess I have been at a bit of a loss as to how to structure an answer. That is not to say that I don’t have any thoughts on the matter, but rather that any answer that will make sense to my readers needs to be underpinned by a common understanding of Jesus’ mission and what “sin” is. Those are meaty concepts and I could write several posts on each. I even intended just that. But I have decided that a brief explanation will need to suffice and that it is more important to just answer the question. I will unpack the idea of sin, and provide a much more detailed opinion on how I understand Jesus’ mission at a later stage.

 

My interpretation of the events described in the gospels regarding Jesus’ trials in the desert, rests on a particular understanding of evil and sin. Evil, I would suggest, is not located externally. Nor can “evil” be confined to categorical descriptors for particular actions. That would be to suggest that the action is independent of the actor, and that the actions are independent of their consequences. Instead, I would like to suggest that evil is primarily a relational concept. It is a way of relating to God and to people. Sin, then, rather than being an event, is the process and result of relating to both God and other people in problematic ways. So while some behaviours can certainly be labelled as satanic or evil, they can be classified as such not because they break particular laws, but because of the impact of those actions on our relational structures. I do not think it is coincidental that in almost all of our understandings of the term “evil”, “evil” can be linked to some form of violence. And violence is, crudely put, the extension of our egos at the expense of others. That, by the way, is what I think Jesus is alluding to in the Sermon on the Mount when he says that even those who call their brothers “fools” are committing murder. It is not the act of killing per se that is at the heart of God’s prohibition of murder. It is the violence that destroys peaceful relations that is problematic, and such violence can be achieved through our attitudes towards others as easily as through physical shedding of blood. This link between sin and violence, I think, is key to understanding Jesus’ trials.

 

An understanding of how Jesus understood his mission is also imperative. According to Dr Jeffrey Gibson in his book Temptations of Jesus in early Christianity, the word that we translate as “temptation” or “trial” with regards to Jesus’ desert experience is, in its origin, a word that uses “trial” as a description of the process of proving, through hardship, one’s worth or commitment; a test of one’s mettle, so to speak. We cannot, then, talk of Jesus’ trials in the desert without understanding what aspects of his mission were at stake if he failed, or in ignorance of what it was to which he needed to prove commitment. If your understanding of what constitutes sin is ‘performing an action forbidden by God’, then Jesus’ trials in the desert would make absolutely no sense. Where does Torah ever caution against the grievous abomination of transforming metamorphic rock into a baked good? Given that Jesus was perfectly happy to transmute well water into merlot by the jarful, how does it make sense that a solitary loaf of bread would be taboo? If you understand sin only as individual actions that transgress a law, this cannot make sense. But if you understand sin as primarily relational, and linked to violence, then the light will go on.

 

What is at stake in the desert is the very relationship between humanity and God. The satanic, I think, is always linked to our own willingness to use violent means to extend our egos, to fulfil our own desires. What Jesus confronts in the desert is not an external locus of evil that wants to make him do naughty things; it is the dark side of his human nature that shows him the appeal of using his divine nature to satisfy his needs: his physical discomfort, his longing to have his mission understood, his authority recognised, so that he can restore righteous rule to his people. But Jesus resists the allure of the easy way out, of wanton and self-serving uses of his power. He could easily simply coerce people into his service through an overwhelming display of raw power, enforcing his will on them. But he refuses. Just as later, in Gethsemane, he reminds the disciples – as they draw their swords to protect him from arrest – that he is perfectly capable of defending himself should he so choose, but he renounces violence. It is the allure of the ease with which he could become the Davidic warrior Messiah that the disciples expected that causes him to chastise Peter in Matthew 16:23, where he alludes to this construction of the Messiah as being an ‘adversary’ to his mission.

 

In short, Jesus renounces violence – the forceful extension of ego at the expense of others – in the desert, and not only there, but in Gethsemane, in Caesarea, and probably on several occasions not documented. This was the core of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. And in these trials, he proved that he was committed to the mission, that he could ‘walk the talk’. And it is just as well he did.

 

Had he failed in those trials, he would have trapped us in a relationship with a monster God, a violent God, a God willing to use force to make us submit to his will, even if that will is to our benefit. The end does not – nor ever can – justify the means. A peaceful and righteous, God-ruled kingdom cannot come at the price of an abusive relationship. Jesus refused to be the God that throughout the ages we have made him out to be – vengeful, aloof, pious, willing to get his way at all costs, even if that meant sweeping us aside. Instead, he let us hurt him in the name of justice, demonstrated that true evil happens when we turn religious piety into a weapon to accuse and “other”, when we assume our own holiness and compel others to be like us.. In the desert, and on numerous other occasions, it was not a personified, externalised evil over which Jesus triumphed. Even if the writers of the gospels may have understood it that way (And I am not convinced they did. Where, for example, would Jesus have found a mountain high enough to see the whole world, as Matthew’s account narrates?). It was himself, his capacity to act satanically. What was on trial was God’s very commitment to a relationship with humanity that does not require sacred violence. To show us that the shedding of blood as a requirement for atonement was always ours, not his. He was willing to die to show us that instead of forcing us to bow the knee. And then he forgave. Because God is not violent. God is not like us. He was tempted in every way, yet was without sin.

A Very Brief History of Satan

The truth is that I have not spent much time incorporating the satan into my theology. So when a commentator requested last week that I explain my beliefs regarding the satan, I was a little anxious, to be honest. The request makes sense, though: if I am dismissing the notion of hell as a literal place of punishment and torment, then what do I do with Satan? It is a legitimate question. But it is not a question to which I have devoted much time, preferring to focus on the light than on the darkness. So I am aware that what follows is not a coherent and complete doctrine. All I hope to do is provide some insight into the framework which I would use to construct a doctrine on the satan if I were to devote time to doing so.

 

I need to begin by noting that I am more than a little concerned by the modern Evangelical preoccupation with Satan. I am not convinced that darkness-oriented ministry is a particularly fruitful use of time and energy. First, I see it as largely unnecessary: if I do ‘good’ (ie. imitate Jesus’ ethics of practising forgiveness and relinquishing violence, whether systemic or personal) then by definition I restrict ‘evil’, as evil is simply the absence of goodness rather than the opposite of it. Second, I think an ‘evil’-oriented ministry speaks to fear (rooted, as it is, in a crime punishment mentality) and, consequently, ultimately drives out love (1 John 4:18) and thus God, for God is love (1 John 4:8). Still, some understanding of what has come to be known as Satan is probably useful: if we have a picture of Satan that is wrong, the chances are that we have a picture of God that is wrong too. And if our pictures of God are wrong, our ethics become distorted as a result. Even a brief look at what has been done in the name of religion will provide a sobering reminder of the necessity for having a right picture of God.

 

Getting a sound picture of God is hard work, but critical. How I wish that all Christians would try to do meaningful research when constructing their theologies. I completely understand why, when asked what the greatest commandment was (Matthew 22:36-40), Jesus added that we ought to love God with ‘all of our minds’ – which is not in the original – when quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 (Do you notice how he uses scripture? There is no hint that it is complete and inerrant). Religious people tend to avoid thinking. I don’t mean that cruelly. I think we do it because we conflate our theologies (our ideas about God) with God. In other words, God becomes what we think She is, and we cannot accept challenges to our God-concepts because they are challenges to our selves. It is easier to avoid thinking. I think Jesus understood this, except he pointed it out more diplomatically than I know how to. In the spirit of developing an informed theology, I have done a little research into Satan, and I am going to paraphrase the key ideas from the reading list at the end of the post. Although I do not agree with everything all of them write, they each provide valuable insight for you to sift through. All of my ideas are derived from their work.

 

It may surprise many to know that Satan is not prominent in the Biblical writings at all. Most of what people have come to understand about Satan is derived from mythological writings and theologically questionable apocryphal texts.

 

In the Old Testament, satan is mentioned only a handful of times. On almost every one of those very few occasions, the word – meaning “adversary” or “accuser” – is used in reference to a human being. The absence of any reference to a supernatural “evil” being in literally centuries’ worth of writing has to suggest that either the concept of a being that embodies evil does not exist within the theologies of the people of those times, or is entirely unimportant if it does. And this is borne out in the way the word satan is used in the ancient writings: when the word satan is used, it denotes a function rather than a title. Thus, for example, when Jesus tells Peter “get behind me, satan” (Matthew 16:23), or when satan enters Judas (Luke 22:3), it is not meant to indicate possession by a malevolent spiritual force. Simply put, it indicates that these people acted as adversaries or stumbling blocks to Jesus’ mission through their behaviour. Nor does the word necessarily carry connotations of evil: note how God acts as a satan to David in the parallel passages of 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1.

 

Somewhere during the exile in Babylon, possibly as a result of exposure to the ideas of Persian philosopher Zoroaster (who was trying to understand the nature of evil in the world, and had developed ideas around principles of light and principles of darkness, like opposing gods, locked in eternal cosmic battle), dualistic thinking about spiritual forces of good and evil entered Jewish (and later Christian) thinking. Over time, a mythology developed around a cosmic battle for the human soul between a good God and his evil counterpart, Satan. But this notion is entirely absent from early Jewish theology. Any reading of a literal being embodying evil (like the snake in Eden) can only be read backwards into the earlier texts. Any such reading would be anachronistic.

 

Ideas about a literal devil do start to have increasing sway in Jewish thinking, largely in accordance with the books of Enoch, which scholars date to somewhere between the 3rd and 1st Centuries BC, and which some of the new Testament writers quote. Although the claimed authorship is Enoch, the son of Noah, it was common practice at the time to claim that a prominent authority was the author of a text, in order to give it increasing credibility. This, for example, is the case with the book of Hebrews, which claims Paul as its author, a claim which scholars are fairly unanimous in rejecting. But when it comes to the concept of the satan, while traces of the ideas in the books of Enoch can be found in the New Testament, by no stretch of the imagination could anyone legitimately claim that the current understandings of Satan are Biblically derived.

 

Where does that leave me? I don’t know, truthfully. I think sin and the satan are tied up somehow, but I am convinced that the origins of the works of the satan are with me. Whenever I act in a way that opposes God’s peace agenda and Her grace, whenever I fail to forgive, or point fingers and accuse others, whenever I use the Bible or my faith as a weapon to define people as unacceptable or to perpetuate violent and unjust systems, I am the satan. I have a feeling that “him who holds the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14) , “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and the “powers”, “principalities”, “authorities” and “rulers” to which Paul often refers, even “the world” against which Jesus sets himself in opposition, are ways of relating to one another and to God that promote violence, and use the power of death – the devil – to maintain authority. Perhaps, in short, the devil is not so much a being as a way of relating, both to others and to God, that is built on violence (the absence of forgiveness). I do agree with Tom Wright that the presence of evil in the world is somehow bigger than the sum of the individual sinful human contributions, having almost taken on a life of its own, so to speak, and I am sure that, in some way that I do not comprehend, this is what Jesus defeated on the cross – why adherence to holiness codes could never suffice; why the law cannot bring life (Romans 8:2).

 

More than that, when it comes to the satan, I am unsure. I am not sure that I need to be more sure either. But I am certain of this: it is more valuable to embrace a faith that seeks to bring light than one that seeks to avoid darkness.

 

A Woefully Inadequate Reading List (please feel free to add):

 

Duncan Heaster, The Real Devil: A Biblical Exploration: http://www.realdevil.info/2-3.htm

Michael Hardin, The Satan : https://preachingpeace.org/the-satan

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006)

Saved From Hell

Nathan (my four-year-old son) is obsessed with snakes at the moment, so whenever we go to the library, at least two of his six books for the week are field guides to snakes. Bedtime routine lately consists of a story, followed by paging through a snake book and discussing one or two at some length. The other night, one of the pages showed a cross-section (from the top) of a snake, to illustrate its anatomy. “That’s the heart”, I pointed out. Nathan was silent for a few seconds, then asked: “Where is Jesus?”

 

I sometimes worry about having Nathan in a Christian school. I don’t always like the theology they teach. I am certainly not a proponent of the type of Christianity that advocates that God requires you to “accept Jesus into your heart” or risk an unpleasantly warm eternity. I don’t believe in Hell. Not in the eternal punishment sense anyway. Certainly the entire line of thinking is incompatible with 1st Century Jewish understandings of ‘eternal life’, the ones which Jesus and those he taught would almost certainly have held. Also, the belief that God gives you a choice between loving Him and everlasting suffering is completely at odds with any sort of loving or just God. In other words, the doctrine of Heaven for the righteous and Hell for the unrepentant directly contradicts core Christian assumptions about the nature of God.

 

First, the concept of Heaven as a reward for the righteous is not a belief that existed at all among Jewish communities of the 1st Century. If they believed in any afterlife at all, the Jews of Jesus’ time (those who followed the theology of the Pharisees) would have held (crudely speaking) that after God’s Messiah had cleansed the temple and vanquished those who oppressed the Jewish people, God would initiate the Resurrection, where everyone would be raised from the dead, and God would restore Israel and make his dwelling among His people in a renewed Earth. There is, in the beliefs of Jesus’ time, no notion that God’s eternal dwelling would be in some alternative dimension. When Jesus talks about “the Kingdom of God”, it is safe to assume, he is not referring to an extended party in the sky. His vision is very much more down-to-earth, so to speak. The Law of God’s Kingdom that Jesus preaches paints a picture of how society will function in a Kingdom ruled by God, right here on Earth. And that Law is perfectly encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 through 7). More about that later.

 

Second, the doctrine of Heaven and Hell preached in most churches actively precludes a just and loving God. Christians try to reconcile the brutality of this doctrine of Hell with the notion of a loving God by insisting that it needs to exist in order to satisfy God’s perfect sense of justice. It is a flimsy argument. It bases itself on the notion that perfect justice must be retributive, against which I have argued on many occasions. I have heard many a preacher defend the concept of Hell by arguing: wouldn’t you want to know that people would get what was coming to them? Wrong must be repaid, they insist. Only, how is burning for eternity (just think about what that would be like, for a moment) in any way fair compensation for any wrongdoing committed in the minute span of one human life? That simply cannot be construed as just. The alternative is that the ‘sinner’ “accepts Jesus into her heart” and even if she is the most vile human being in her lifetime, she walks away scot-free. Instead, a completely innocent Jesus suffers in her place. That cannot be considered just either. Culpability cannot be transferred. An innocent third party taking the punishment for an offender is by no stretch of the imagination justice. Simply put, the concept of Hell is not compatible with Christian theology.

 

All “Hell” is useful for is terrifying people into compliance. “Perfect love”, claims John in 1 John 4:18, “drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment”. If God’s intention is for us to practice love, and I need to point out that Jesus teaches that all of the Law and the Prophets can be summed up in the command to love God and to love one another, then fear and punishment have no place in the equation. If the only reason we serve God is because His house seems more appealing than the alternative, then we have no love in us at all. Similarly, if we serve the church or our community or our family because we fear them in some way, then love is diminished. Hell, as the very embodiment of fear and punishment, then, is directly in opposition to love, and therefore to God.

 

So when Jesus taught, “repent, because the Kingdom of God is near”, I am sure that he did not mean that we were destined to fry unless we said the sinner’s prayer, gave intellectual assent to a human creed that encapsulates some ancient church father’s flawed theology, or ‘invited Jesus into our hearts’. In all likelihood, he meant that if we wanted to function properly in a post-Resurrection world which has God reigning as king here on Earth, among Her people, then we would need to adopt a Kingdom ethic. It is not a threat. I believe that Jesus is simply pointing out that you will not be happy in an egalitarian community if your ego dictates your actions and determines your contentment. When Jesus talks about being “born again”, I do not think he means putting your hand up in church in a moment of environmentally-induced euphoria, to be “saved”. I think he simply means passing through the Jewish Resurrection into a new kind of Eden here on Earth. Notice how he talks about this in the “born again” passage (John 3). Speaking to Nicodemus, he says:

 

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

 

Note that the primary thing keeping people away from the “Light” of God’s kingdom is not God. It is themselves. There is no punishment alluded to here at all. If there is a Hell at all, it is not because God’s wrath demands satisfaction; it is because we are afraid of what we look like in a community that lives in love. Our fear, our ego, our religion, keep us in a state of self-loathing, a kind of hell from which Jesus aims to rescue us. Jesus is saving us from ourselves, not from God’s anger. And for those who believe verse 18 contradicts what I am saying, note that the passage does not speak to who is doing the condemning. Also, when Jesus talks about “believing in him”, as is evident in the Sermon on the Mount, he is referring to an action, not an intellectual activity. From Matthew 7, the conclusion of the sermon on the mount (my emphasis):

 

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

 

Please note that again there is no punishment implied: it is a choice between wisdom or foolishness, and the resultant consequences of that choice. This issue of putting Jesus’ words into practice is not a question of moral worthiness, but of practicality. Believing Jesus’ words means following his teachings, not because we will be punished if we do not, but because his way is wise and therefore conducive to good living.

 

So what does ‘putting his words into practice’ mean? It is not adherence to a holiness code to earn God’s favour. It is living wisely. And he defines that in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, I believe if we want a proper insight into Jesus’ theology, we need to pay serious attention to this sermon. And what does this sermon do? It breaks our egos. It empties us of all our religious pretentions. It reminds us that we are not the centre of the universe. It makes the Kingdom about everyone- about proper relationship –not about our individual merits. Love our enemies?! Bless them?! Righteousness that surpasses the hypocrisy and holiness codes of the Pharisees and demands that we love everyone? It offends us. It exposes us. And then it points us to a better way. The first line of the sermon sums it up beautifully: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. To paraphrase, if you want to possess the God-life, recognise that you are not very good at being spiritual. It is only then that we can begin to relate in a healthy way to others and to God. Religion makes people proud and arrogant. It divides people by making them feel superior or inferior to others, by blinding them to their common humanity. The Sermon on the Mount dismantles religion, with all of its holiness codes, with all of its egocentricity, with all of its “thou shalt nots”, with all of its divisiveness, and poses alternatives: what does God’s intended vision of life look like? Why not try that instead? See the difference it will make.

 

So as Nathan asked where Jesus was, and even as I laughed, I worried for him. I thought about all the horrible theology I would have to undo; about how he is being taught to believe that he needs to be good to earn God’s favour; about how he will feel pressurised to “accept Jesus into his heart”, along with all of the rubbish that goes with that – a warped perspective of justice, feelings of inadequacy, terror because a very thin and nebulous line stands between eternal bliss and unimaginable agony. I felt anxious that in all of the religion, he might miss the real beauty of Jesus’ life, his teachings, his death and his resurrection.

 

And then I had my own revelation. Maybe I don’t need to worry. After all, we all go through this stage on our spiritual journeys. We all start by associating spirituality with our own personal holiness. We associate our worth with our moral choices. We make it about ourselves. Many – perhaps most – of us never move beyond that, which is sad. But like everyone else, Nathan will walk that path. Nothing I can do will protect him from that. Whether he is in a Christian school or not, horrible theology is part of growing up. But maybe, with the right role-modelling, he will come to see that love for God and fear of Her wrath cannot easily cohabit the same theology. And I pray that the Sermon on the Mount will break him too, that it will empty him of religion and ego, and empower him to pick up the cross of Jesus – the way of love that the world cannot understand, and which it despises – and show him how to live a Kingdom life that surpasses obsessions with holiness codes, that rejects fear, and which fosters a genuine desire to lose oneself in the community of the Kingdom. I pray that as he genuinely engages with Jesus’ teachings, and not simply with the twisted version of them presented by the church, that Nathan will allow love to deliver him from a hell of his own making.