Faith Thinking Aloud

Danger: God’s Plan

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[6th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

This post requires a careful distinction. We stand at a fork in the road where both ways forward are marked with the same sign: “Trust in God’s Plan.” The choices, however, lead to very different destinations. One leads toward hope, courage, responsibility, and freedom. The other leads toward resignation, purposelessness, shallow thinking, servitude and perhaps festering resentment.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11-14 NRSV)

That passage, a favorite of many people seeking encouragement, comes from a vision beyond the impending doom of destruction and exile. Evil times are coming because the people and their rulers would not listen to the word of their God but chose instead to hide themselves in the false security of official religion. They fortified themselves with certitude that Jerusalem could never fall to an enemy, the king descended from the great king David could never be toppled from his throne, and Yahweh’s own Temple would forever guarantee security and prosperity – regardless of what Yahweh God’s own prophet tried to tell them. They had removed from their religion all commitment to faithfulness, justice, and compassion. All that remained was toxic belief that the way things were was the way things were meant to be and would remain forevermore because they were, supposedly, divinely ordained.

Looking at the passage from Jeremiah quoted above, however, we can see that God has “plans” for the people, for their turning and seeking God wholeheartedly, their restoration to being Yahweh God’s covenant people, and their future well-being as God’s faithful people, IF ONLY they will listen and seek wholeheartedly. It does NOT say God has an all-inclusive plan automatically following a script written in advance. That distinction brings us to the fork in the road.

The notion that everything happens according to a great divine plan is unbiblical and unhelpful. It comforts the rich and powerful while narcotizing the poor, cheated, and desperate. “Are you rich? That’s God’s plan for you. So, enjoy! Eat, drink, and be merry!” “Are you poor? That’s God’s plan for you. Accept it, and serve your superiors without complaint!” No! Such oppressive lies are not biblical at all!

Jesus was not a fool. When he taught his followers to pray that God’s will would indeed be done on earth, he was not telling them to pray for the inevitable. There was and still is a struggle going on. The world’s ways of power, prestige, and privilege war against God’s will and do great harm. God’s desire is not simply to establish a perfect world but to win the hearts and minds of humans and of humanity as a whole so that we will accept our responsibility as the creature to whom care of the earth was entrusted. God wants willing love and willingly wrought justice, not mindless obedience or resignation to fate.

As a Presbyterian whose theological ancestors fell prey to a doctrine of predestination that was degraded into fatalism, I have long felt compelled to speak against all forms of determinism. No, everything is not predetermined, and much happens that is not in accordance with God’s will. Let me put simply. It was not God’s will that the child’s mother or father got cancer, suffered, and died. It was not God’s will that the five-year-old girl was kidnapped. It was not God’s will that Hitler and his Nazis set out to kill all the Jews. It was not God’s will that the robber barons of America’s Gilded Age grew filthy rich. It was not God’s will that Japan should bomb Pearl Harbor or that we should bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor that we should firebomb Dresden. It is not God’s will that parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated should then see their children get measles. Mental illness is not God’s will; neither is depression or addiction or suicide. Nor is it God’s will that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. We are the ones who vote, choose not to vote, or are blocked from voting by political maneuvers designed to steal an election. All who hold power stand under God’s judgment; none has carte blanche to do as he or she pleases, and we cannot rightly imagine that Trump or any other president may act unjustly or maliciously in accord with God’s plan and so with God’s approval. No!

But God does still have plans for us and for this created world. The poor are not called to resign themselves to inferiority and deprivation. The rich are not entitled to declare their wealth and comfort to be God’s blessings granted to them because God is either rewarding them for something or favoring them above others for some reason. The Bible is not fatalistic. Indeed, it is the very opposite of fatalistic, proclaiming release for the captives, God’s love for the poor and the sick, and God’s opposition to power structures that keep the rich increasing their wealth and the poor sinking further into their poverty. A person cannot amass wealth through cunning greed and then call that wealth God’s blessing.

Yes, God has plans for us but NOT some grand plan that reduces us to mere chess pawns or mindless slaves like ants under the sway of their queen. We are not puppets. We make choices, bear responsibility, and need the changes that come from truly seeking God’s will and way.

Fatalism is an enemy of faith and hope. Resignation to injustices and sufferings is not submission to God’s will. So-called destiny does not justify or excuse brutality, slaughter, or theft by illegal or legal means. It was never God’s will that Europeans should sweep across this continent, destroying its native peoples. Manifest Destiny was a lie.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.


I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . . Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD . . . .

The Slave God

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[5th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

It started with the exodus, God’s entrance into the political history of earth. This strange God, YHWH or YHVH (representing the four Hebrew consonants of the name of Israel’s God, commonly pronounced as Yahweh or Yahveh when pronounced at all, perhaps with the accent on the second syllable although that is debated, and mispronounced as Jehovah) entered earth’s political theater as the god of slaves. As such, Yahweh rated no respect or even consideration from the pharaoh of Egypt, the ruler over a great civilization who was himself regarded as a son of the high gods. He, the pharaoh, represented the divine in human form, the presence of the gods on earth, the agent of divine will for the stability and prosperity of his realm. So, when Moses and Aaron appear before the pharaoh to present the demands of this slave god, Yahweh, the divine human ruler replies with scorn. After all, a god of slaves was, in his eyes, a slave god. So, Yahweh takes upon himself the shame of his lowly people.

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'” But Pharaoh said, “Who is Yahweh, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-2 NRSV, with my emendation replacing the pious substitute name, the LORD in all capital letters, with the personal name Yahweh)

Egyptian history does not record the exodus of Hebrew slaves. The biblical view is that the Creator of the world (we today would say the universe) chose to become, in obscurity, identified as the God of slaves. From the outset of the work of redemption, this God to whom the Bible bears witness has self-committed to solidarity with the lowly and to turning the world upside down – that is, the world’s social, political, and economic structures and hierarchies — not by force and power, but by powerful compassion, life-changing justice, and faithful love.

Jesus of Nazareth contradicts humanity’s notions of leadership and greatness. He calls any and all who would follow him to take a very different way.

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NRSV)

The upheaval that comes from God is not a power struggle, with one tyrant replacing another, but a self-emptying that seeks justice not dominion, healing not destruction, and true peace rather than enforced obedience and servitude. A Christianity that seeks to dominate a society is not of God and is not faithful to Jesus whom it calls, in lip service, the Christ.

The Great Abuse of the Bible

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[4th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

The greatest and most consistent abuse of the Bible comes from making it the unwilling servant of established authority and power. Religion has served, for as long as humans have practiced religion, falsely to sanctify the systems in place, thereby helping to justify the injustices of the rich and mighty and to keep the mass of the people from rebelling. “This system comes from the gods” has been the message, and often the next part has declared, “You have been put into your proper place in this sacred system and must remain in your place or stand in defiance, not only of your rulers, but of your gods!”

The Bible, however, is neither a manual for religion nor even a book about religion. Indeed, many Christian theologians, outside the circle of the authoritarian ones, have spoken in negative terms of religion, contrasting it with faith and the life of discipleship. Religion tends to suppress thought, control any passions for justice or for change in societies, regulate behavior to the norms that please the authorities (although the powerful may not feel compelled by religion to follow those norms themselves), and train the oppressed or suffering to accept their lot in life as the will of the gods.

The God of the Bible comes into human life and history as the disrupter of systems of power and authority, the advocate and savior of the poor and powerless, the friend of the stranger or outsider, the bringer of change-making justice, and the imparter of hope for the currently hopeless. No human institution, authority, or tradition is sacred to this God and, indeed, is acceptable only if it upholds justice and serves the people with humility.

The prophets of Israel and Judah spoke this God’s word to crush the norms and practices of the official religion whenever it had been corrupted into the sacred agent of injustice. Hear how the prophet Amos describes the authorities, including the religious authorities, in Israel in the 8th Century B.C.E.

They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.
(Amos 5:10-13 NRSV)

We are living in such an evil time when the distressed are intimidated into silence because so many people have been whipped up into a frenzy by the lies of politicians, radio or TV propagandists, and preachers playing to fear, bigotry, and resentment. People who speak out for justice and compassion receive death threats, and the vulnerable are assaulted in public.

In this evil time, Christianity and, specifically, the Bible are twisted and corrupted into support for the fear, the bigotry, and the resentment toward those classed as outsiders or intellectual elitists. Here, from the same chapter, is God’s word about such religion.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 NRSV)

More to come about the Bible’s God as the disrupter of corrupt and oppressive norms and unjust systems.

King by the Grace of God

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[3rd in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

What does such a title mean, “king by the grace of God”? Let me offer an imaginary but biblically faithful self-reflective prayer from someone so chosen to lead God’s covenant people in biblical times.

Lord God, you have chosen me and called me to lead your people and to rule over your land. I do not deserve such consideration from you, and I feel too lacking in strength, wisdom, and courage for such responsibility, but if you will be with me, then I will trust in your wisdom and strength. Please guide me in caring for your people, protecting them from their enemies, and providing justice for all, especially the weak and vulnerable such as the foreigner who lives among us, the widow, and the orphan, for I know that your compassion reaches out to them especially. Grant me the faithfulness and courage to do what is right in your eyes, at whatever cost to me myself. Make me a blessing to your people, a champion of the poor, and a fair judge over all. Never leave me to my own ego and desires, but lead me along the paths of righteousness and justice so your people will praise you for calling me to rule over them.

To be a leader by the grace of God is to be chosen for self-sacrificial service to the people. Such service, not the leader’s authority, is the principal issue. Tyrants sacrifice others for the supposedly greater good – the young men (and now also young women) to their wars of choice, women in distress to their desire for power over all women, people classed as minorities to the leaders’ own lust for wealth and need for support from the wealthy and from the resentful who fear being replaced by those minorities. The leader by the grace of God must prioritize justice above popularity and political advantage. The one so chosen does not thereby gain prestige so much as responsibility, and biblically, the leader’s fidelity and success will always be measured by the condition of the poor and disadvantaged, not the increasing prosperity of the already rich and powerful.

During the “golden age” of the northern kingdom, Israel, under King Jeroboam II, the rich were getting much richer and the wealth measures of the kingdom were certainly rising (or would have been if such measures as Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product had been in use). Yet, the prophet Amos declares the nation bankrupt in the eyes of God because the poor are being cheated and their small parcels of land stolen from them (legally, of course).

When Judah’s king Jehoiakim has his palace freshly paneled in fine cedar from Lebanon, the prophet Jeremiah has this to say about his majesty’s opulence:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,” and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion. Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the LORD. But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah: They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” or “Alas, sister!” They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, lord!” or “Alas, his majesty!” With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried – dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 22:13-19 NRSV)

The poor and disadvantaged are God’s measure of the faithfulness of the leader. What would such a prophet as Jeremiah say in our time to the United States of America and its leadership? The foreigner (immigrant or migrant worker), the widow, and the orphan stand as evidence for or against those in power. The cheated offer the testimony to which God listens. The leader who fails to hear their cries and provide justice for them deserves only to be buried with the full pomp and ceremony accorded to a dead donkey.

What being a leader “by the grace of God” decidedly does NOT mean is being due honor or loyalty no matter what. No one has divine authority to be cruel, ruthless, self-serving, or greedy. No one. No leader is protected from criticism by some divine right. Always the called or chosen are subject to stricter judgment than the people in general. More is expected from those to whom more has been given. Besides, those who seize or steal power by their own cunning or treachery are not anything “by the grace of God,” except still alive and so able, perhaps, to find in themselves some remorse and to repent.

The Everlasting Poor

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[2nd in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

How convenient that the New Testament gospels tell us Jesus said, “The poor are with you always”! By a perverse misuse of that brief sentence, the financially comfortable (not to mention the truly rich) can excuse themselves from concern over the large number of poor and desperately poor people in our nation and our world. Reading slightly further in the Gospel of Mark, we find, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (Mark 14:7 NRSV) There’s the perfectly convenient combination of assurance that there will always be poor people (as though it were right and proper that there should be) with a reminder to give them charity at our leisure, right? No, dead wrong!

The brief quotation, “For you always have the poor with you,” has been taken out of context to produce a falsehood radically at odds with the overall message of the Bible and, especially, with Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God and with his ministry. Context matters. Context always matters.

Below is the context within the passage in Matthew’s version. The tellings of the story in Mark and John are much the same except for identifying differently who it is that objects to the alleged waste of the expensive ointment (in Mark it is a vague “some who were there” and in John none other than Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would become the traitor).

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.”                              (Matthew 26:6-9 NRSV)

I have chosen to use Matthew’s account to point out that the objection does not have to come from non-disciples or a bad guy.

Clearly within its context, Jesus’ remark about the poor does not mean there should always or must always be poor people. It does not justify any system that by design keeps some people poor for the benefit of others. It does not say it is okay with him that some people should be poor. It certainly does not suggest that poor people have a place in society ordained by God, a place where they belong (in poverty and servitude), a place they have no right to leave. Nothing could run more contrary to the message of the Bible, from Exodus to Revelation!

What is the message in context? If I want to help someone, give that help at my own expense. The woman acted at her own expense in devotion to Jesus. In effect, disciples, mind your own business in such a personal matter! She has not instituted a program throughout the land for lavishing expensive stuff upon the rich while ignoring the poor. No, she has given a one-time gift for a very special reason to someone she regards as a very special person.

Two very popular but extremely wrong and dangerous beliefs are fed by the misuse of Jesus’ comment about the poor. One is the belief that conditions within society are as they should be, that the status quo is right, proper, and likely ordained by God, and that nothing should therefore be done to change the social, political, and economic systems that keep many people in poverty. The second is that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Jesus rejected both beliefs in his own society, and as his followers, we need to reject them in our own. People are not poor because they deserve to be poor. Neither are the financially successful rich because they deserve to be rich or because God has rewarded them with wealth.

The New Testament gospels provide us with many teaching of Jesus that bring hope to the poor and warning to the rich – not because poverty is some weird sort of blessing but because the coming reign of God means conditions and systems on earth will be changed. The first will be last, and the last first. The hungry will be satisfied, and the rich sent away empty. The lowly will be raised up, and the high and mighty cast down. It is not the will of God that some (indeed, many) should endure poverty so that some (relatively few) may live in luxury.

Thy will be done on earth! That is a prayer for change.

A Battle of Two Drunks

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[1st in a series of posts on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

One night decades ago I looked out my study window to see two very drunken men swinging wildly at each other, neither coming even close to landing a punch but both staggering after each roundhouse swing and nearly falling to the pavement. I find in that memory an analogy for the present conflict over the Bible.

The rise of scientific method and its impressive successes at making sense of our world set off a furor that unleashed the backlash of biblical fundamentalism. The more scientists suggested alternatives to Medieval assumptions and verities, the more adamantly fundamentalists hunkered down on supposedly absolute truths lifted uncritically from the Bible in ways that were not faithful to the Bible itself. As fundamentalism fought to justify itself, it became increasingly authoritarian and cruel. That combination of absolutism in its truths and cruelty in its unyielding judgments upon people caused a double backlash from the other side: (1) the increasing absurdity of fundamentalism’s insistence upon “facts” which were not facts but literalistic misreadings of the Bible set up fundamentalism as an easily discredited straw man some modernists attacked as though discrediting Christianity as a whole, and (2) the cruel judgments upon people in which the Bible was used to bludgeon the “sinners” drove from the churches people who were at least learning tolerance if not full-blown respect and compassion.

Yes, the paragraph above offers a very rough sketch of the series of backlashes by which we have been buffeted into our present situation with regard to the Bible, the former “Good Book” which is now alternately weaponized and demonized into either a collection of absolutized truisms (with scarcely any message left except divine authority not to be questioned) or a compilation of silly superstitions and petty prejudices. Ironically, modern critical (meaning analytical, not unfavorable) study has opened the Bible for us in ways that can enable us to understand it better than ever and to hear its truth for leading us to God and each other, to healing, reconciliation, freedom, wholeness, and life lived with hope not only for ourselves but for our endangered earth with all its people and its non-human creatures as well. Sadly, the opportunity to hear the biblical witnesses more clearly has been largely ignored by the Bible’s opponents and rejected vehemently as satanic by its fundamentalist defenders. So, now we have biblical ignorance on both sides of the battle, one side erecting absurd facts which must be accepted “on faith” and the other side knocking them down with scientific facts which are irrelevant to the actual meanings of the biblical witnesses the two sides are disputing. Hence I am reminded of the two drunken men swinging wildly at each other in the night.

So it is that people who favor science and people who favor faith continue to battle over Adam and Eve, Noah and the Great Flood, miracles, and harsh regulations in the Holiness Code within the book of Leviticus as well as some of the opinions and foibles of the apostle Paul and his successors. Meanwhile, the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, of the Great Flood, and of the Tower of Babel (to name some examples) continue to offer profound insights into our human condition in our broken relationship with God, our often denied and violated relatedness to each other, and our anxiety about ourselves, but who is listening?

More to come. I’m especially concerned about current abuses of the Bible in the service of power.

Going Forward (final post in this series)

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When misconceived, faith hardens into rigid formulations held to be eternal and immutable truths. Then Christians live “by the book,” but without the Spirit who brings to life the book’s witness to the redemptive truth of God. Biblically, faith is a living relational matter of growing trust inspired and renewed by hope. Truly, faith and hope sustain each other back and forth, and both are living, relational matters. Our trust is not in having the right answers or the perfect commandments but in the living God who has committed to being our God, God with us. So, faith and certainty are opposites, not synonyms. Doubt can draw us closer to Christ and strengthen our faith more than certainty can. Doubt questions God’s promises and struggles with the difficulties of continuing to trust; certainty (or, as I like to say, certitude) takes possession of truths as principles and holds them as a shield against all questions, especially the believer’s own. But I need to question both the content of my beliefs and the integrity of my own faith. The prophet Jeremiah tries valiantly but in vain to break through his people’s religious certitude so they can learn to trust God and seek God’s ways, loving justice and mercy rather than their own security and self-assurance.

Trust needs a source and a living mainstay, and hope needs felt reasons to continue hoping for what is not yet seen or attained and cannot be verified empirically. Both faith and hope need a teacher who is also a guide, and it certainly helps to have companions along the way.

All my life I have studied the Bible, reading it both devotionally and critically. It is familiar territory for me but ever new, often correcting or expanding what I had thought I understood. But the book is not itself the truth of God I can hold in my hand, for God’s truth is always and forever God’s, not mine or the church’s to possess or master. For this reason, our Presbyterian (PCUSA) ordination vow that speaks of our relation to the Bible contains a crucial phrase without which it would become false and idolatrous:

Do you accept the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal, and God’s word to you?

Actually, there are two crucial phrases in the question. The first is, “by the Holy Spirit.” Without the Spirit, the Bible is easily weaponized to foment quarrels within and among the churches, to suppress the vulnerable and victimized, and to “lay down the law” not only in a church but in a society or nation. Whenever the Bible is used as a weapon against the vulnerable, it has been snatched away from the Spirit of God and has no truth in it, except its denied truth which seeks to rise up to correct those so misusing it do evil in its name.

The second phrase without which the question’s call to be guided, led, and corrected by the Bible would be falsified is, “witness to Jesus Christ.” He is for us the truth of God, the Word made flesh. Some Christians are quick to claim they “have Jesus.” No, not if “have” implies possession. We cannot possess any other person and certainly not that person. He is always “Thou” confronting my “I,” as Martin Buber insists. Faith in him is always relational, and so it is my trust in another I cannot control and to whom I am accountable. If I grab a Bible verse, perhaps a commandment from Leviticus or an admonition from a New Testament epistle, to use as a weapon against someone I wish to condemn, repress, or exclude, I am misrepresenting Jesus Christ and tearing the Bible away from the Spirit of God.

Christendom (imperial Christianity) demanded that the Bible and the doctrines of the church support its authorities and powers. So the faith was made imperious, and for that reason the people it long suppressed now speak out against Christianity and sometimes call for its demise. I agree that it is high time for imperious Christianity to pass away, for Christendom in all its forms (including its unofficial but culturally powerful establishment in the United States, the “Christian nation”) to be cast off so the followers of Jesus Christ can respond to his call to follow him on the way of redemptive love, the way of the cross.

As I look again, I see that this ordination vow about the Bible has a third phrase that matters greatly, “in the church universal.” I cannot go forward alone. We need the whole church, the people who trust and hope in Jesus Christ, to find our way forward. Yes, that church will be smaller than we have thought, as cultural Christians depart and our children are no longer automatically and often carelessly initiated into the identity of Christian. Beyond Christendom, following the way will become costly to Jesus’ disciples because being Christian will no longer grant power, prestige, privilege or even acceptance; it will not be the norm. It was never meant to be the norm. Neither was it ever to hold the power to dictate norms to societies. So, the individualized and almost privatized Christianity popular among Americans will not provide what we need if we are to be more than vaguely “spiritual,” whatever that word means for people who want convenience and good feelings about themselves. As the word “universal” suggests, we need people of other cultures, experiences, and histories to help us find our way together.

The Bible is not always pleasant reading, and I’m not talking about its bloody and brutal stories of warfare in the ancient world, but about its continuing challenges to my way of thinking and living. I do know that if I find that Bible affirms all my opinions, practices, and prejudices, I’m doing something wrong in the way I read it. If what I get from the Bible is a whole matched set of authoritative declarations about the way everybody ought to live and think, I have made of the Bible an authoritative witness, without the Spirit of God, to my ego and will to dominance.

Humility must rise above our desire for authority. Compassion must outstrip our wish for correctness. Wonder at the grace of God must overcome our pretenses to being in the know about God and other people. Service must outrun the churches’ thirst for success and prosperity. For love does not conquer all; it conquers us, and then we can go forward without power but with the quiet strength that comes from faith and hope.

Truths We Need to Rediscover, three: Humility

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How can humility be a truth? Is it not closer to being a falsehood, the pretense to being less than one is, so as to appear unimpressed by one’s own superiority? When I was a teenager, my parents and I were watching a Miss America pageant, and for the section in which finalists gave short extemporaneous speeches, the overall theme that year was personal qualities. The contestant selected to speak first looked over the list of qualities and wisely chose humility as her topic. As soon as she made her choice, I remarked to my parents that she would win at least that section of the competition. If I remember correctly, she won the title of Miss America, “the Queen of femininity,” “your ideal,” as Bert Parks sang while she took her victory walk. We admire in the great (or merely famous for a moment) the appealing virtue of understating their superiority and seeming unimpressed with themselves.

The word humble itself, however, is related in its origins to humus, earth or ground, telling of that which is “low, lowly, small, slight, mean, insignificant, base.” (Oxford English Dictionary). Like the word modest, humble can identify a lowly condition, rank, or estate rather than the virtue of non-arrogance. With tongue in cheek, we may say it is no virtue for the humble to be humble. From my childhood, I recall the cartoon character Yogi Bear blurting out, “I have a lot to be humble about!” then looking nonplussed as he tried to figure out the meaning of his words.

We admire humility when distinction shines through it, but we insist upon humility from the lowly, especially in the presence of their superiors. Shows of pride from the poor annoy people who regard themselves as the poor’s superiors, just as assertiveness from women arouses hostility, not only from men, but from other women.

So, what am I talking about when I say that humility is a truth Christians and Christian churches need to rediscover? These days, as Christendom continues to disappear from Europe and the cultural establishment of Christianity wanes in the United States, we find ourselves, like Yogi Bear, with a lot to be humble about. Along with our loss of prestige and the questioning of our assumptions of privilege for our religion, come revelations of greed, corruption, and sexual predation. So, at one level, Christian humility would be merely acceptance of our real standing in society as our churches close up and we realize we are becoming a minority in a society increasingly secularized and religiously diverse.

Acceptance of our reality would be a good thing but not good enough. Such acceptance would be good for us because we Christians would then stop acting as though our religion should be in charge of the society, stop supporting politicians who promise to force the nation to accept our authority and our rules, and stop demonizing and trying to suppress other religions and non-religious ways of life. Mere acceptance, however, would not go far enough because it would give us nothing positive to inspire and enable ministry and service, nothing to share with a world in need of redemptive hope.

“Blessed are you poor,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. God’s reducing the great and powerful while elevating the poor and lowly is a dominant biblical theme throughout both testaments. The Magnificat attributed to Jesus’ mother echoes Hannah’s prayer in I Samuel 2:1-10:

He [God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53 NRSV)

Humility may be society’s falsehood, a refinement for the noble but a demand upon the lowly, but it can be for us a relational truth of our shared humanity and our call from Jesus to follow him in his way. As long as we Christians and our churches confront people with our presumed authority (ecclesiastical, doctrinal, biblical, or moral) and our power (political or economic), we cannot unite with Jesus in his way of the servant. We Christians are not called to be in charge. Now that we are, increasingly, in fact not in charge, maybe we can find our way back to the humility that accepts our own humanity and respects the humanity of others.

This kind of humility shows in respect for other people. It is not timid about confronting injustices done to others. It is not submissive to tyranny. It does not retreat from the world’s needs for redemptive love. But this humility does put the needs of others before the desires of self, and it does not seek to conquer. Only when Christianity was made imperial did it become a conquering religion rather than a serving, ministering faith.

The churches are called into being because God loves the world, and their calling is to serve, not to prosper. The faithful concern of a church is not what is good for that church in terms of its own growth and prosperity as an organization but what is good, on Christ’s terms, for the community and the world. Humility as a relational truth for human beings is the antagonist of arrogance and a sense of entitlement to superiority, honor, and privilege. Humility leads us away from power and glory.

For the individual Christian, this truth of humility means giving prominence to Christ’s call to service rather than to religious self-gratification. It means respecting the image of God in the other person, even when that person does not respect it in herself or himself. It does not mean giving people whatever they want; respect may well require that we do not give in to people’s wishes or demands. Humility is not self-hate or self-denigration. It does not make us toadies.

Humility is for us a truth to take to ourselves, not for us to demand from others in submission to us. The churches ought not be telling the already suppressed to be submissive to those suppressing them. Wives and girlfriends should not be told to take their beatings and try to be better, more submissive Christian women. Black people should not be told to be patient with white supremacy and humble in accepting what they are “given” by white-dominated society. Workers should not be told to be grateful for whatever management and ownership choose to give them in return for their time and labor. It is not the already humbled who need to humble themselves.

The relational truth of humility separates service from charitable donating, ministry with people from authoritarian control over them, worship from showmanship, witness to the grace of God from bragging about how awful one once was and how wonderful that one is now (by the grace of God, of course). It distinguishes sharing hope from telling people what they had better believe or else, standing with people in distress from looming above them, being honest with self and others from imagining and so projecting self-superiority, devotion to God from sanctimony, and compassion from contempt. We will not find it easy, as churches or Christians, to accept for ourselves the form of a servant and take the way of our Servant Christ, but such is the way we must go, not only for Christianity to survive, but for it to be authentic.

He [Jesus] called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 18:2-4 NRSV)

Truths We Need to Rediscover, two: Solidarity

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“Birds of a feather flock together,” people say scornfully. “A man is known by the company he keeps,” scorn echoes.

And as he [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
(Matthew 9:10-11 NRSV)

Those who seek to be holy risk developing a fear of contamination, just as those who enjoy high status in a society refrain from improperly friendly association with people beneath their social station lest they be toppled by class opinion from their elevated standing. Jesus obviously harbors no such fear. He neither avoids people regarded as sinful nor turns away in disgust from people suffering debasement.

Once, when he [Jesus] was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him.
(Luke 5:12-13 NRSV)

Jesus clearly does not fear social or religious impropriety, either. In his society, men did not associate with women outside their families, not even proper, upstanding women, let alone those of bad reputation. For a teacher of the Torah of Israel to allow himself to be touched in public by a woman was scandalous; he should not even be teaching women or allowing them to speak when he is teaching men. During my second pastorate, I was told by a woman who recently had begun attending our worship services and adult forums that her previous church did not allow women to teach men or, if they did attend adult classes that included men, to ask questions. In the company of men, a wife was to keep silent about her questions of faith, and when she and her husband returned home to ask him to instruct her. Yes, such were the rules of her former church even in the late 20th Century and early 21st.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him [Jesus] saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”
(Luke 7:39 NRSV)

True, the story’s Pharisee lacks even rudimentary understanding of what a prophet is sent by God to do. The great prophets of Israel and Judah were not sent to predict the future, let alone to keep themselves holy by standing above and apart from the sinful people. Rather, they were sent to represent the pathos – the anger, grief, compassion, or longing – of God for the people and, at the same time and in the same body, to represent the perhaps unexpressed or even unrecognized need of the people for God. In that true sense, Jesus came as a prophet and, his followers believe, more than a prophet.

Christian theologians, teachers, and preachers have long realized and insisted that Jesus came, taught, lived, suffered, and died FOR US. That prepositional phrase, for us, became standard in theology and rightly so. It has been maintained in the Western church’s Latin: pro nobis. Jesus was sent by God “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed). It is crucial to Christian faith and thought that we believe the Christ came for us and that he suffered, died, and was resurrected for us – to restore our true relationship with God and our rightful relatedness with each other and all creation.

But I am contending today that “for us” by itself is not enough of the truth. Through our skill at corrupting truth, “for us” can be made aloof and condescending, the benevolence of charity (which once upon a time meant love but no longer) and philanthropy. It can become the way of punitive authority: “I’m only doing it (to you) for you, for your own good.”

With the help of thinkers such as Abraham Heschel and Jürgen Moltmann, we have begun to realize that Jesus the Christ of God stands “with us” in our human condition with all its humiliations, corruptions, griefs, disappointments, and crying needs. He stands “with us” also in our joys, hopes, affections, and dreams. He is one of us and one with us, before his critics and before God. He is, so to speak, the bird of our feather and our many different feathers by which we distinguish among ourselves and spurn each other.

During the centuries of Christendom and throughout the waning Christian cultural establishment in the United States (despite its evangelical surges), we Christians have been much more willing to be “for” people outside our churches (or hidden in secrecy within them) than to be “with” them – to stand with them and be identified with them. We have been tempted to keep ourselves clean while reaching down to them with aid for which, like the ancient benefactors, we have expected their gratitude to us as their superiors. True, we have said often, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but that very declaration of our common human vulnerabilities and foibles confirms our sense of distance from the people who do go that way. It is as though we are praying as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), “We thank you, God, that (by your grace) we are not as they are!”

Jesus does not look at the sinners and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He walks with them. No, he doesn’t do all the things they do, but he associates himself with them and so gets sullied with their dirt and smeared with their shame. He doesn’t tell them to clean up their acts and make themselves presentable before God. He enters into solidarity with them, and on the cross he experiences their sense of abandonment by God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I believe that rethinking and re-learning Christian faith will require us to see ourselves differently in relation to our society’s people and the world’s people. Established Christianity makes non-believers outsiders. Belligerent Christianity and Christian partisanship make outsiders who refuse to accept subordinate status into enemies. To follow our Christ faithfully, we are going to have to turn our backs on Christian privilege and societal power, we are going to have to stand with people we have viewed as outsiders. It will not be enough to do bits of benevolent good “for” them; we will need, in Douglas John Hall’s terms, to immerse ourselves as Christ’s church in the world. We need to turn away from theologies that call upon us to leave the world behind and continue on as though we alone could be Christ’s redeemed without all the unbelievers and sinners left in this world. No, we must refuse to see ourselves that way, just as Moses refuses, after the golden calf idolatry, to leave the people of Israel behind in the wilderness and go on by himself with God to become the inheritor of the promised land (Exodus 32:9-14). It was the children of Israel God chose to love and not just Moses. It is the world God loves and not just the Christians. Those called out from the world are then sent by God back into the world to stand with and for it, to care and to serve. We shall need to care less about our own purity or even the church’s purity and much more about God’s love for the world and its people.

We must, surely, work out continuously the specifics of our immersion in our society and in the world as individual believers and as congregations of the church of Jesus Christ. The world itself is not our guide, neither its values nor its self-measured successes or failures, but God’s redemptive love for the world must be our guide all along the way.

Cultural establishment has hindered and sometimes corrupted our mission and service. The churches have enjoyed privilege, prestige, and power our Christ did not. Automatic, presumed Christianity has made being Christian a norm rather than a calling to mission and service, and the churches have become ends in themselves, tempted to imagine that their own prosperity and increase are the measures of their fidelity. The day of automatically self-propagating Christianity is passing, and for the traditional Protestant churches has passed already. One generation of Christians will no longer follow another in step to the old tune as though the grand march would never end. Being Christian can no longer be presumed but will require committed response and acceptance of responsibility to follow and unite with Jesus the Christ in his representation of God’s redemptive love in the world and, also, in his standing before God with the world in all its messiness and self-contradictory humanity. We shall continue to be charged by Christ to serve God’s redemptive love for this world, but we’ll no longer be in charge.

Next: humility.

Starting to Wrap Up

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I’m ready to begin wrapping up this series, “Re-learning Christian Faith.” I think I have roughed out the changes in the situation of Christianity in America enough to suggest ways in which we, people still holding to and being held by the faith, need to be changed in our thinking, our self-perceptions, our attitudes toward this world and its people, and our ways of seeking to be united with Jesus the Christ in his representing God in, to, and for this world. I do not take a negative view of the changes I believe we are now called to make. We are not accommodating a bad situation by compromising our faith and lessening our hopes. Rather, I believe, the waning of Christendom and decline of the traditional Protestant churches opens a door for those who remain and more who will come – an opportunity to find anew the course for faith and life upon which Jesus set his followers before the Roman emperors transformed Christianity into an imperial and often imperious religion of power and glory. It is not my intention or desire to offer programs, methods, or any step-by-step procedure for being transformed. My concern is with the nature of the changes I believe need to be made in us and not only as individuals but as churches, too.

I am not looking for church growth programs or strategies. I hold neither hope nor desire for a rebirth of the popular cultural Christianity of the 1950’s and early 60’s when people, almost automatically, were born into Christian identity, too often without much deep thought or vital challenge to their prejudices and ways of life. That time has passed, and we need to leave it behind. But even worse than returning to some form of automatic Christianity would be replacing it with a belligerent Christianity of identity politics and culture that, falsely in the name of Christ, would champion the inflamed bigotries of our present political situation. It is high time to take the way of the Servant and walk humbly with our God. It is high time to come to a humbling yet strengthening knowledge of ourselves as sent with the Servant, in his way, to represent God in the world as he, the Servant Christ, makes God known to us.

What we need is a change of heart, understanding “heart” in the ancient Hebraic, biblical way as it represents, not sentiment, but desire, will, intelligence for choosing, and commitment. My remaining posts in this series will ask about the nature of this change of heart and what kind of people it would make us, not merely for our own sake or the church’s, but for the sake of this world God loves, this world into which and for which Christ calls us to walk with him.