My assertion that, viewed biblically, salvation is contextual – that God meets us with it in our time, place, and situation of need for deliverance, release, healing, or revitalization – may seem similar to the blessing-dispenser view of God preached by the prosperity gospel evangelists, but, no, the two stand in opposition to each other. They are opposed to each other in much the same way as the honest lover and the gigolo, the legitimate investment counselor and the con artist, or the prophet who speaks unwelcome truth to the powerful and the false prophet who supports the king’s ambitions and pretenses. Jeremiah declares of such false prophets, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14 NRSV) There is the problem with the prosperity gospel’s always friendly and supportive blessing-dispenser god. Like a quack rather than a real physician, this false god treats people’s wounds lightly, with a little conscience salve and assurances of blessings to come when the bill is paid. To be healed, the patient of a true physician must confront the illness and accept treatment that may prove painful. To receive valid salvation within the context of the real need for it, a person or a people must face the full negativity of their dilemma and face also their own part in it.
Even the Hebrew slaves, who certainly had not enslaved themselves and so were not at fault, had to learn, upon being set free, to see and admit their own slave mentality in order to leave it behind. Their masters no longer provided them with meat or even water. They had to step up to thinking and living as free people. Light, pleasant healing is seldom enough for deep wounds. The problem of the former slaves was not guilt but a complex combination of shame and dependency. They had been abused and yet rendered dependent upon their abusers. Salvation meant escaping the abusers and the false security of dependency with its old habits of self-protecting and pleasing, of making peace where there was no peace.
I want to keep this post short because it is hard – not so much hard to understand as to accept. Healing can hurt. Liberation requires release from the oppressor and from the self that has been forced to adjust to being the oppressed. Receiving hope necessitates letting go of false hopes and dreams often long-held. What has been comforting must be rejected as false comfort or at least as no longer appropriate to the new, liberated situation. Guilt over having adjusted to the imposed oppression is probably neither fair nor helpful, but facing the shame and dependency is likely necessary however difficult. Unrecognized self-hatred must be faced to be left behind.
The theologian Douglas John Hall whose books serve as my springboard for this series of blog posts has written that the majority cultures in current North America, particularly in the United States and Hall’s own Canada, continue to want to see themselves as heroic even as they find themselves increasingly slipping into depression and despair. In his analogy to Greek mythology, we want to see ourselves in the image of Prometheus who boldly stole fire from the gods to become humanity’s benefactor, even as we live more and more in the image of Sisyphus who was condemned to roll his great rock up the hill again each day while knowing he would never get it to the top but would end the day feeling it slip from his grasp and then watching it roll back down the hill to await his repetition the next day of the same pointless labor.
Biblically, salvation is always responsive to the need of the time, place, and situation. The Word, the truth of God, meets us where we are and enters into our situation in solidarity with the afflicted, the oppressed, the trapped, the outcast, and the defeated. That same salvation may come also to the oppressors, abusers, slavers, and privileged who steal life from their victims, but it is even harder for them to accept it as salvation when it topples them from their falsely exalted positions and so feels like an outrage. For both oppressed and oppressor, the goal is healed humanity set right, but it may be easier to be lifted up to valid humanity than to be knocked down to it.
The biblical understanding of salvation as this-worldly, contextual, and relational raises many question and challenges for Christendom-style, triumphant Christianity. More to come.