Starting Point Matters

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I’m currently reading yet another book on Christian belief that begins where the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed do: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” That starting point is both reasonable and traditional, but not necessarily helpful or true to the development of actual faith. It starts us off with questions of being and power, the power to create the universe out of nothing. From there, God becomes the Maker of all things and the Ground of Being, without a word yet spoken of redemptive love or hope. We begin with argument rather than encouragement, with telling rather than caring.

As a people, the children of Israel first came to know Yahweh God when they were enslaved in Egypt and oppressed with hard labor, when they had no freedom or social status. God entered onto the stage of human history as a God of slaves, identifying with the lowest of the lowly, and manifested what we might call God-ness in deliverance from that state of hopelessness. Some nobodies in the world became God’s own people. The hopeless were given hope, the enslaved set free, the worthless (by society’s accounting) accorded great value in the eyes of the God who adopted them and committed to journeying with them through life and history.

Only later, when there came time and need to reflect, did the children of Israel begin to understand their Savior God as also their Creator, and quite possibly not until the time of the Jews’ exile in Babylon was Yahweh established in their faith as the Creator of heaven and earth or, as we would say today, of the universe. Even then, the great “Prophet of the Exile” (Isaiah, chapters 40-55) spoke of Yahweh God’s power and authority over all nations and even the stars of heaven (pictured poetically as an army obeying God’s commands) for the purpose of overcoming the exiles’ doubts about their God’s ability to deliver them anew from humiliation and bondage. The very creation narrative that opens our Bible comes from that setting of much needed encouragement to trust and hope during the time of Babylonian captivity. Biblically, God’s power is always the strength to save, to rescue, to redeem. It is love’s power, always.

Thus the biblical witness to God’s redemptive love parallels the human experience of love. The infant does not first know her parents as her procreators and the authorities she must obey; she knows them as the people who feed her, comfort her, hug her, and make with her the eye and touch contact that is the beginning of empathy and so of her development as a human person (not just a human being). She learns that these are the people who come when she cries out in distress. So, love’s first lesson is trust, not obedience. It is joy, not fear. Belonging, not guilt.

Later she will learn to obey these people, but not for the sake of obedience as such. They are raising a daughter (or son), not a slave. If things go well, trust and love will remain the context for obedience, and responsible freedom will be its goal.

Christians are servants and representatives of the God who loves and rescues slaves. That this very God is also the Creator of the universe is meant to encourage the despairing and to turn societies upside down, not to set Christianity at the top of any society to rule and maintain it from the top down, with those at the bottom just left there. The church was not called to life to have power and authority over the world’s people and so to establish a system such as Christendom. What authority the churches rightly have is only that of self-giving, redemptive love. We Christians are called to Christ and sent out into the world to be people who respond to cries of distress and care about the ones societies consider worthless except as cheap labor. We are to confront all people with God’s passion for justice and compassion for the hurt, not with our authority and power as people with some sort of divine right.

Starting point matters when we talk about God. The political start with power and the philosophical with being. We need rather to start with God’s pain and anger at the injustices done to people and with God’s response to the cries of distress, which is self-committing and self-giving redemptive love. People need to be encountered by God-ness as being with, not just being.

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