December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 4)

Part Four of a series of guest posts from our Autumn Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:

Eschatological, Vicarious Counter-Violence

You may have gathered by now that I am not a pacifist. That should not mean that I don’t respect pacifists — I deeply respect many pacifists who have really thought through their stance scripturally, theologically, ethically, and socially. What I think is unfortunate are those who check a box called “pacifist” or “soldier/fighter” as if it were just a “position” to hold. The best kinds of pacifists are not passive, but active. They are non-violent aggressors. The best kinds of soldiers or fighters are ones that you will never see fighting or harming. Theologians are not list-makers or list-checkers, but missional agents in the world.

I would suggest that the cross marked the end of violence in so far as the cancerous power of sin in the world has found its antidote in the life-giving death of Jesus. The world can see the Church (at her best) and her groom, Christ, and some people will awake from the coma of power-hunger and hatred induced by sin, shocked by the smell-salts of Christ’s cross — the true image of God’s reality that can de-stabilize any so-called permanent worldview (just ask the former slave trader John Newton).

But, while we have the hope and model of the cross to carry out into the world, and with great effect, people are still dying and hurting. If violence still has a justifiable place in this time-between-the-times, for good of any kind, it must be understood properly. The model I would propose is an “Eschatological, Vicarious, Counter-Violence.”

  • First, to say it is “eschatological” means that it is “fit” for this special time between the Christ event and the return of Christ. It is a temporary measure that recognizes that our first efforts need to be non-violent negotiation and passive resistance. However, we may still need to act defensively, and as a last resort.
  • Second, it is “vicarious” in that it should be “counter-violence” instigated only for the protection of the other – to love and help the weak, vulnerable, or undeserved. It can never be for personal pride, tribal “honor,” national “reputation,” or revenge/retaliation.
  • Finally, to call it “counter-violence” is to be reminded that it is not the first blow. It is only for the sake of protection and preservation of the weak. It counters the violence already in place.

All of this should be understood within the conception that the world should be a less violent place than it was before the cross, precisely because the power of sin and death and evil was ruined at the death of the innocent man Jesus. The masquerade of evil was unveiled and the people of God invigorated to take back this world for God and his shalom.

When the world does not seem less violent, and the Church even participates in violence, it is a sad sign that she has forgotten the past, forsaken the cross-way, and given up on her present mission. When she does stand strong in the world, she will be a “city on a hill” that is lit so brightly by the radiance of the cross of Christ that it will blind many murderers, gangsters, weapons smugglers, street thieves, and battlefield enthusiasts and set into swift motion the vision of the new kingdom where swords become cultivators; guns become social networks;  tanks, hospitals; and bombs, bridges.

I would like to conclude with two examples. The first is from someone who does not articulate a faith-based position, but has his head in the right place. His name is Eric Greitens and he is the author of the book The Heart and the Fist. You see, Eric, even from a young age, took an interest in public welfare and studied ethics and public policy as an undergraduate student at Duke. Later, he was selected as a Rhodes and Truman Scholar so he could earn his M.A. and Ph.D. from Oxford with an interest in international humanitarianism. For years he worked as an aid worker in Rwanda, Cambodia, Mexico, India, Croatia, and Bolivia. He was deeply committed to world peace. On one of his trips in the Balkans, he was confronted by a local who encouraged him to help stop the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. What good are food rations if people are being shot in the streets? Eric Greitens decided to do something. He joined the Navy Seals. This might seem extreme, but he felt that sometimes you must, as a last resort, involve both the heart and the fist.

The second example is my hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer lived during the terrors of Nazi leadership in the early part of the 20th century. He recognized, much earlier than many other Christians in Germany, that Hitler would destroy the country before he would save it. Bonhoeffer spent many months and years, as a pastoral leader and theologian, challenging the Reich itself, mobilizing church leaders, and writing and speaking publicly against the wretched discrimination against Jews. Bonhoeffer was not a violent man (passionate, but not violent). Yet, there came a point where he felt that words were not getting far enough to stem the tide of Hitler’s murderous flood. Bonhoeffer knew he had to join with conspirators to put an end to Hitler’s power, for the saving of many lives. It is important to know that Bonhoeffer did not feel his participation in an assassination plot to be morally justifiable, but he did find it to be necessary. He wrote this:

The meaning of free responsibility rests on a God who demands the free witness of faith of responsible action and who promises forgiveness and comfort to him who becomes a sinner in the process (LPP, 6)

Elsewhere he wrote this

If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered (LPP, 14).

This is, in a nutshell, eschatological, vicarious, counter-violence. It must be for the brethren, in defense of the “other,” rather than for oneself, and an act that seeks to end violence, not perpetuate counter-response. Ultimately, it must be “eschatological,” as it seeks a vision of God’s future kingdom where Christ is not like the Hitler-like conquerors, but we lift up the image of the lamb who was slain. With the holy men and women of Revelation, we seek to dip our robes, not in the blood of our enemies, but in the blood of this innocent, other-loving Lamb. Counter-violence is not about fighting fire with fire, but rather about stopping fire from spreading and burning everything down, and extinguishing the flame if it proves to be hopelessly uncontrollable.

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January 11, 2011

“From sin and death he saves us, and lightens every load….”

The message of the ancient Christmas carol “Lo, How a Rose ‘Eer Blooming” rang out this morning in SPU chapel. No, we aren’t in Christmas withdrawal here on campus.  Rather, at the beginning of winter quarter we are privileged to enter together into reading Matthew’s gospel and in so doing, to consider Jesus, this Rose of whom “men of old have sung.”

I am struck by Dave Nienhuis’ chapel reflection drawn from the third chapter of Matthew:  Jesus’ first public act is to identify with humanity’s brokenness, sinfulness, and with the “least of these” as he stepped forward to be baptized by John, a baptism of repentance for sinners.   When questioned by John, Jesus’ explanation of this puzzling action (Jesus wasn’t a sinner!)  is that His baptism by John will “fulfill all righteousness.” (3:15)

So what does this kind of righteousness look like?  One answer lies in the next passage,  Jesus’ wilderness temptation.  By considering how Jesus was tempted, we may conversely understand the nature of his righteousness.  Henri Nouwen, in In the Name of Jesus:  Reflections on Christian Leadership outlines Jesus’ temptations:

  • Temptation to be relevant. “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (4:3) For someone fasting, nothing is more relevant than bread.  Likewise we can all too easily feed off of a perceived relevance we think we can offer.  But as Nouwen suggests, “The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there.”  p. 22
  • Temptation to be spectacular. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” (4: 6)  The stardom and individual heroism of our competitive society easily shapes our thinking, deceiving with the idea that we are to be self-made, strong individuals who spectacularly can do it all on our own.  “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.  Therefore, true ministry must be mutual….it is servant leadership in which the leader is a vulnerable servant….” p. 44-45
  • Temptation to be powerful. “I will give you all the kingdoms of this world in their splendor….” (4: 9)  Nouwen describes this as the temptation to replace love with power, as it offers an easy substitute.  “…the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat.  Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.  Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.”  p. 60

Lord – thank you that you lead us not into temptation, but save us from sin and death.  May we seek your kingdom and your righteousness.

Celeste Cranston, Director of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education

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December 16, 2010

Grad Student Project on Biblical Literacy

I was glad to recently meet with two SPU School of Theology graduate students, Sophia Agtarap and Aaron Willett, who are doing a practicum on biblical literacy.  Check out the fruit of some of their labor – very interesting!

Reverend Celeste M. Cranston, Director of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education

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November 30, 2010

God’s Pattern of Redemption

Check out this reflection on the Genesis 37 & 38 Lectio text from SPU Assistant Professor of Theology, Mike Langford, entitled, "God's Pattern of Redemption."

Special thanks to Professor Langford for his willingness to share these reflections from his recent communion homily.

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November 10, 2010


I remember well when my children were younger and at the questioning phase.  It seemed they were more interested in asking the question than in my answer.  “Mommy, what’s God look like?”  “how does fire work?”  “why is Grandpa old?” or “where did the sky come from?”   - the endless barrage of inquiries often didn’t slow for a response.  Nonetheless, most of the time I dutifully attempted an answer, assuming this was my job as parent.  But in hindsight I wish I had more often just listened and mused with them about the wonder of God’s world and the impossibilities of knowing.

As I read scripture, I’m spending more time these days asking questions of the text than looking for answers.  And I’m coming to believe that this process may be one of the most important steps in learning to read God’s word.  Perhaps as God’s children we come to know him more completely as we live in the unknowns, dwell in the mysteries.  But for most of us adults, this goes against the grain. We want an answer and we want it now!

From this  week’s Lectio scripture (Gen 25-36) I ponder:

  • Why the repeating theme among the patriarchs (Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebekah, Jacob/Rachel) of infertility in their beloved wives? (Gen 16:1, 18: 10-11, 25:21, 29: 31)
  • What kind of craziness occurs when Jacob takes Laban’s spotted, speckled, and streaked livestock and mates them in front of fresh-cut tree branches peeled to make white stripes on them, and then as a result the livestock bear young that are spotted, speckled, and streaked?  (Gen 30: 32-43)
  • What is the significance of Rachel’s theft of her father’s household Gods as she and Jacob’s clan were leaving?  (31:19)  And what are the overtones in the text when Rachel hides them by sitting upon them and then lying to her father by saying it is her period? (31:35)
  • Does Jacob wrestle with God or with a man? (Gen 32:22-32)  What does he say about the experience? (32:30)  What does the text say?  (32: 24-25)  Why don’t these two seem to match?
  • What are we to make of the gruesome story of Shechem’s rape of Dinah and Jacob’s son’s deceitful response regarding circumcision that leads to the manslaughter of an entire unsuspecting city?  (Gen 34)
  • Why the extensive genealogy of Esau, father of the Edomites, between the story of Isaac’s death and the account of Joseph and his dreams? (Gen 36)

As I ponder, I am drawn closer to the incomprehensible God of scripture: the one who revealed himself in a burning bush, who came in the form of a helpless baby born to a virgin, who proclaimed that the poor are blessed.  The upside-down kingdom of God is manifest in the midst of many questions.

“We tend to value answers more highly than questions, as the goal worth achieving, as the finish line.  Midrash, however, equates questions with intimacy.  Midrash values the question, and the sacred language that gives rise to it, as ground for meeting with God.” (The Burning Word:  A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash, Judith M. Kunst, p. 32-33)

May we experience the holy meeting ground with God as we ask, seek and knock, and then as His children may we wait patiently in hope and faith and trust.

Celeste M. Cranston, Director of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education

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