Monthly Archives: September 2012

Politics & the Mission of Israel

I’m working on a paper on Paul’s political vision and am thinking a bit about the identity and mission of Israel that shaped Paul’s conception of the identity and mission of the church.

Israel’s call to be a “holy people” was a thoroughly political commission.  Their social and economic practices were to be radically different from those of the nations.  Their leaders were ensure the sort of justice that reflected their worship of the God who bends low to regard the lowly (Ps. 138:6), the God who hears Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam. 1), the God who settles the barren woman in a home as a happy mother of many children (Ps. 113:9), the God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, who loves the stranger by giving him food and clothing (Deut. 10:18).

God Is On Our Side!

The instances are not few of nations, tribes, and political parties claiming a divine endorsement.

Those who assume the righteousness of their cause and rally their supporters using biblical military imagery ought to keep in mind at least this one reality about the divine warrior tradition from the Old Testament.

It is presumptuous for anyone to assume that they do their fighting or politicking in God’s name.

One of the leaders of Israel—God’s chosen people!—learned this lesson in a divine warfare passage:

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Josh. 5:13-15).

Humanity, including God’s own people, must take pains to search out and adjust to God’s agenda and God’s way of working.  The presumption that God obviously endorses our agenda, as the history of Israel demonstrates, brings disastrous consequences.

The Demonic in the Mundane, Pt. 3

I began this series by observing that many Christians wonder why there is so much demonic activity in other parts of the world and so little here in the U.S. and in the West.

At least one answer is that there may be more than we think.  We just miss it because we’re on the lookout for the fantastical and spectacular.  Biblical writers discern demonic dynamics at work behind the perverted human behaviors that we typically regard as “normal” or unremarkable—jealousy, anger, bitterness, divisiveness, and the refusal to forgive.

Another fascinating text that makes this connection is the narrative of the rise of David and the downfall of Saul beginning in 1 Samuel 18.

It happened as they were coming, when David returned from killing the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy and with musical instruments. The women sang as they played, and said, “Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.” Then Saul became very angry, for this saying displeased him; and he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, but to me they have ascribed thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?” Saul looked at David with suspicion from that day on (1 Sam. 18:6-9).

After his dramatic triumph over Goliath, David is praised and exalted above Saul.  Hearing this, “Saul became very angry,” the same expression used of Cain in response to God’s preference for Abel (Gen. 4:5).  It points to an intense jealousy driven by a feeling of having been slighted.

Saul now sees David as a threat and begins to regard him with suspicion.  His inflamed jealousy and his impulses for self-protection and self-preservation drive him to suspect David of plotting to supplant him as king.

What follows is quite striking.  In some mysterious way, Saul’s deep anger and jealousy opens him up to spiritual evil.

Now it came about on the next day that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved in the midst of the house, while David was playing the harp with his hand, as usual; and a spear was in Saul’s hand. Saul hurled the spear for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David escaped from his presence twice. Now Saul was afraid of David, for the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul (1 Sam. 18:10-12).

Saul’s paranoia has driven him to murderous plotting and an actual attempted murder—and it won’t be his last!

As the story plays out, Saul gradually loses his mind.  His paranoia and obsession with eliminating David drive him to turn on his son, Jonathan, and to plot and scheme endlessly.

Now, there is so much to say about this whole episode within the narrative of 1-2 Samuel.  My point is simply that Saul’s festering jealousy, his growing anger, his commitment to self-preservation at all costs, and his suspicion that grew into self-destructive paranoia opened up Saul to influence from spiritual evil.

Consider how many church conflicts begin with one person being jealous of the attention given to another.  How often do church staffs fracture because the drive for self-preservation and self-protection becomes contagious?

Turf battles in churches, power-struggles in work environments, and so many other social dynamics provoke reactions of jealousy and the cultivation of resentment, and wounded pride.

When anger isn’t dealt with, it settles in the heart and produces all sorts of socially destructive dynamics—manipulation, character assassination, destructive competition, evil scheming, gossip, etc.

We might say, “well, that’s just normal stuff.  That’s not anything that involves spiritual forces of evil or the demonic.”

Scripture portrays such situations otherwise.

More to come on how New Testament passages confirm this, along with some practical suggestions for combating spiritual evil.

Theology & Social Embodiment

At the Galatians conference in July, John Barclay gave a wonderful paper on the integral connection between doctrine and social practice.  He argued that in Paul’s view, justification by faith is not merely a notion to be affirmed or confessed.

It must be socially embodied by communities of Jesus-followers that do not reckon each others’ worth by cultural standards of competition, such as ethnicity, income level, or social class.

If justification by faith isn’t socially embodied by communities that welcome one another gladly and serve each other in cruciform love, the Christ-gift (Barclay’s term) simply ceases to have existential reality.

Along the same line, Bruce Longenecker captures so well how the triumph of God in Christ is integrally connected to the existence and flourishing of such communities.

To go back to the stipulations given through the mediator Moses, to return to the influence of the weak and beggarly ‘elements’, is to turn away from the intention of the one, sovereign, universal God, who is creating a catholic people in Christ.  Accordingly, in Paul’s thought, God’s ‘oneness’—that is, God’s sovereignty, supremacy over competing deities, and worthiness as the one who alone is to be worshipped—is advertised in the social constituency of God’s people.  God’s eschatological triumph results in, consists of, and is exhibited by, the establishment of a community of catholic membership.  The formation of such a group is itself the placard, the display, and the disclosure of the power of the ultimate divinity (The Triumph of Abraham’s God, p. 57).

Barclay and Longenecker get to the heart of Paul’s theology in Galatians and present a pretty stark challenge to culturally-accommodated churches.

Whatever we confess with our lips, if we do not embody the gospel as communities of cruciform love, we cannot make any claim that the gospel actually exists.  And our failure displays the reality that God has not triumphed over the evil forces that have hijacked his world.

Apocalyptic Vision in Galatians

Lou Martyn, commenting on 1:11-12 and elucidating Paul’s “bifocal” vision in Galatians:

This certain hope, grounded in God’s invasive action in the advent of Christ, is the apocalyptic good news Paul calls “the gospel.”  But its being apocalyptic is underlined by the fact that it is not visible, demonstrable, or provable in the categories and with the means of perception native to “everyday” existence, native, that is to say, to existence determined solely by the present evil age.  The inbreak of the new creation is itself revelation, apocalypse.  The dawn of this new creation, causing the death of the old enslaving cosmos, brings about an epistemological crisis.  One who knows himself to be grasped by it cannot continue to perceive and to know in the old way.  On the contrary, he now sees bifocally; he sees, that is to say, both the evil age and the new creation simultaneously.  This bifocal, simultaneous vision is distinctly unbalanced, however, in that, just as God’s power is “much more” than the power of Sin, so God causes the apocalyptic seer to see the powers of the new creation “much more” than he sees those of the Old Age (Rom 5:12-21).  It is this bifocal vision that enables Paul to make confident statements about the future of the Galatian churches (5:10) (p. 104).

On Enduring Injustice

It can be crushingly painful to endure personal injustice, especially from people who make Christian claims.

I passed through one of these seasons some years ago and found myself—mostly during long walks—bouncing between two Scripture-based prayers.

I would pray that those who plotted evil would have it turned back on them.

But then I would remember that I wasn’t faultless and that God had been overwhelmingly merciful to me.

I would then pray that God would show mercy and somehow work to set things right in our chaotic community caught in destructive dynamics.

Harnessing and surviving the emotional upheaval that follows unjust treatment is no easy task.  There’s much more to say about all of that, but I’ll just point to Michael Pahl’s excellent post today on this very topic.

The Logic of Religious Violence

I was reading 1 Maccabees the other day and was struck again by Mattathias’ call to arms in 2:40-42.

After the report of a slaughter of fellow Jews who had refused to fight, Mattathias and his friends are despondent.

And each said to his neighbor: “If we all do as our brethren have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.” Then there united with them a company of Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel, every one who offered himself willingly for the law.

It seems to me that this turn to violence perfectly captures the logic that drives so much rhetorical and physical violence on the part of religious people, Christians and non-Christians.

The feeling is that the honor of God and the existence of God’s people (our survival!) are at stake.  Because of that—because the stakes are so high—we must put aside some of the central convictions of our faith.

Christians, however, must draw upon God’s grace to remain in the shape of the cross even when our survival appears to be at stake, or when things appear to be out of control in our culture.  Remaining in the shape of the cross (refusing to retaliate, returning evil with good, loving those who hate us, controlling ourselves to speak kindly to those with whom we disagree) embodies faith in the resurrection and trust in God’s sovereignty.

God is, after all, the just Judge who will judge righteously.  God is, after all, the one who will take vengeance and will do so with perfect justice.

Sadly, an election season turns up the rhetorical temperature in an already over-heated culture war.  Christians find themselves engaging in rhetorical violence against this or that candidate, verbally blasting this or that supporter of this or that party.

Let’s remember that cruciformity is the only way of hope and promise for those who confess loyalty to the Lord Christ.  The way of violence (rhetorical and physical) is only and always the way of death.

The Demonic in the Mundane, Pt. 2

Just because we don’t see arresting manifestations of demonic activity in the West doesn’t mean that we don’t daily encounter spiritual powers of evil.  Being culturally conditioned to look for the spectacular blinds us to Scripture’s portrayal of how anger, resentment, and jealousy make us vulnerable to demonic influence and spiritual evil.

Consider Genesis 4:1-8:

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him (NIV).

Consistent with his pattern throughout Scripture, the Lord prefers the sacrifice of the younger brother (Abel) over that of the older (Cain).  The text doesn’t say why, and there may not be a reason beyond the Lord’s way of working that subverts human expectations.

It is likely that the Lord intends for Cain and Abel to enjoy the Lord’s blessing along with one another in the face of this unexpected arrangement.

Cain, however, is angry and despondent.  This is a precarious situation because his growing jealousy makes him vulnerable to Sin.

The Lord speaks to Cain and offers him encouragement and a warning.  The way of goodness is to enjoy blessing along with Abel.  If he goes down this road, he will find blessing.

But if Cain nurtures his resentment and allows his jealousy to grow, he’s in a very dangerous situation.  The cosmic power of Sin—an active agent of destruction—is seeking to overtake Cain.  He can resist it, but spiritual evil finds its way into a person, overtaking them, through unchecked anger, growing jealousy, and the cultivation of resentment.

The result, tragically, is the first murder.

Paul may have this episode in mind when he writes, “do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:26-27).

You might think that angry people and relationships dominated by resentment are so common that demonic involvement seems outlandish.  Goodness, you can hardly call it a church these days without some good cliques, factions, petty jealousies, and long-standing conflicts!

But consider how irrationally we behave when we cultivate resentment.  We can’t think straight and our desires for revenge and vindication become overpowering.  We become violent and abusive.

Think about the devastating, long-lasting, and far-reaching effects of unchecked anger and jealousy.  Communities have been destroyed and reputations have been ruined.

And if you’ve ever had to resolve a complicated conflict where resentments have grown so that people are entrenched in their grievances, you just might begin to imagine that it is likely that evil spiritual powers are involved.

According to Scripture, the demonic is indeed at work in the mundane.  We are vulnerable when we cultivate anger and nurture resentment and jealousy.

Apocalyptic in Galatians

I’m preparing for a discussion of apocalyptic in Galatians this week and came across this from Bruce Longenecker’s book, The Triumph of Abraham’s God.  So well put:

[T]he driving force behind Paul’s theological presentations is the invasion of God into the world in order to subjugate forces that run contrary to God’s will and to set relationships aright.  Behind any concerns for ethics, ecclesiology, pneumatology, Christology, and the like, lies a theology that focuses on God as the cosmic overlord of creation.  Theology of this sort is fundamentally ‘theodocy’—that is, a defence of God’s reputation as the one in control of this world, despite any appearances to the contrary.  Pauline theodicy describes how God’s sovereignty remains intact despite threats from opposing forces.  It focuses on the divine reclamation and rectification of the cosmos, something inaugurated in Christ, driven on by the Spirit and completed eventually when God becomes ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15.28).  At heart, then, Paul’s gospel is not simply about soul-saving, involving ethical or doctrinal teaching.  Such features are contained within a larger theological programme, one that concerns the warfare between God and the forces that are stacked up in hostility to God’s beneficent reign over the world.  This warfare is carried out not just in the future when hostility to God is completely eradicated, but at every stage in the drama of reconciling the world in Christ to God (p. 8).

Prayer for the Weekend

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.