Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Scarlet Thread

I wanted to write about something that is becoming a growing conviction as I look at the way in which we commonly read the holy scriptures, especially the books in the Old Testament, and even more so the Torah. It seems that there is an overwhelming tendency to draw out universal moral principles and doctrines at the expense of the narrative. We are told that God does not change, nor does his law. The Old Testament law is then chopped up into neat categories of moral and ceremonial, the latter ending with Jesus sacrifice on the cross, the former continuing its applicability to all times and all nations. So when we come across things that seem a bit hard to swallow from our New Testament perspective, particularly those passages that make God out to be a bloodthirsty warrior who commands his people to slaughter mercilessly, we are faced with a dilemma. Do we discard the Old Testament God altogether, like the Marcionites, do we divide the story up into "ages", like the dispensationalists, or do we embrace this bloody God with relish, as in classic reformed theology?

I am not willing to take any of these views. I don't have a perfect alternative, but there appears to be a tunnel opening in some unexplored territory when we begin to read the scriptures from a narrative perspective. Let's ditch classical Greek categories for a change, and try to look with the unscientific eyes of an ancient. I am far from being an expert on the ancient mind, but I would like to share just a few observations I've picked up on.

There is something in the language of symbols and the way they are strategically placed in the text that reminds one of more primitive forms of "writing". The repetition of certain themes, which are woven throughout, points not only to convenience for the accurate preservation of oral traditions, but to a way of thinking "in pictures", rather than abstracts. Sort of a mental hieroglyphics, you might say.

One of these themes is the way "blood" and "bloodshed" is spoken of alongside "ground" and "curse". In the story of Cain, Abel's blood cries from the ground, which is then cursed again for Cain so that it will not produce at all for him. Then there is Noah's sacrifice, and God's promise to never again curse the ground because of man. It is in this context that the blood theme continues. Men can kill animals for food, but may not eat the blood. Neither animals nor men can shed the blood of other men, for God will demand an accounting. He places a curse on the shedding of man's blood, those who do so will end up with the same fate as their victims. When we come to the part of the story when Israel is to posses the land God promised to Abraham, the same symbolic language is employed. The land is cursed by the wickedness of its inhabitants and must be cleansed before the holy people can inhabit it. This was accomplished by shedding their blood and burning everything. Once it was inhabited, everything that would contaminate the holy land and the holy people had to be dealt with in similar fashion. The people were already marked as holy through circumcision, involving bloodshed. The Mosaic law provided further means of preserving purity through certain sacrifices and through certain penalties, most involving bloodshed, either animal or human. So then, murder, seen in this context, is not a crime against society, as we view it today, but a contamination of the sacred. A cleansing sacrifice is called for, the murderer's blood is shed, however, if he were not found, an ox would be killed instead, so the land would be purged. There are no false divisions here between the moral and the ceremonial. All morality was seen in the ceremonial sense of curse and blessing, clean and unclean, it was never perceived as an abstract, universal virtue.

And now, to finally wrap up this longish post, we come to the best part of the story, or rather, we come to "Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel." (Hebrews 12:24) I'll leave you to consider the implications of this statement in light of the scarlet thread of blood, sacrifice, curse and cleansing.

Monday, October 15, 2007

What Would it Look Like?

I had a conversation with my mom last night over whether Christians were ever called to take part in the politics of earthly governments. She argued that if we all pull out of the political arena, it would quickly become more corrupt than ever.

On the surface that may seem to make sense. Voices for the voiceless would be silenced, godless laws and lawmakers would have a heyday. Or would they?

I do not believe we should ignore the moral issues facing our culture, or turn our backs upon the helpless, the poor, the unborn and the oppressed of this world. But I disagree that we can do much of anything to amend the world's problems by dancing to that drum, by stooping to meddle in the power games of the politicians. Telling a politician how to rule God's way is like telling an eagle how best to catch his prey. The state lives and moves and has its being on the blood of those inferior to its strength. The constant necessity of various groups to be portrayed as a threat to our safety is the only thing that gives meaning to its existence. Peaceful resolution of conflict within the populace and between national borders would be a travesty. Yet one would think that the vast amount of carnage perpetuated in the name of "freedom" would make it obvious that something was amiss. But I digress...

I would like to again suggest an alternative approach to Christians, one that would have infinitely better results than to have a few fingers in the Washington pie. It is for each one of us to actually be the presence of Christ in our own small communities. By our love and care for one another, by our willingness to befriend the outcast, by our hospitality and care of the poor, by our acceptance of insult, by our willingness to be persecuted, even put to death, in the attempt to reconcile all to God. After all, no servant is greater than his Master. Not that we would be without representation, for we have access to a political sphere that makes the White House look like Toys 'R' Us. We have but to ask, and our Father will provide for our safety and welfare by whatever means he chooses. He may use Washington, or a hurricane, or an angel- whatever suits his fancy, for he is in control of all things. We need only to hold out the empty hands of faith, and he will give us a kingdom and all, comprehended in a crumb of the broken Bread from heaven.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Myth of the Spheres

One argument I often run into while defending an anarchist position is the blanket statement, "We need to apply the gospel to all spheres of life." Implicit in this claim is a naive acceptance of the validity of certain "spheres" which have become almost universally axiomatic.

But the "spheres" as we know them today did not always exist as such. William Cavenaugh has cleverly described the evolution of these social boundaries in this article.

He shows that the modern conceptions of religious and political, private and public had a long and bloody history in their creation. Religion became privatized and the Church became the arena in which salvation referred to matters of the eternal soul, whereas the State became the public arena in which matters of social ethics were defended through a monopoly of lethal coercion. The conscientious Christian, then, would exercise his heavenly citizenship within his activities at church, and work to produce a more just society through participation in the activities of the State.

But there are quite a few problems with this arrangement. It implies that a just society is something that can be accomplished through fear of the sword, rather than solely through saving grace. This gives the State credit for something only Jesus can do through the power of the Holy Spirit. That is idolatry. It also prevents the Christian community from showing God's mercy to the mortally guilty, other than giving them hope for an afterlife. For instance, if a Christian sought to obey his Lord's command to love, feed and clothe an international criminal, it would be considered an act of treason by the State. Furthermore, any social reform could only be accomplished by playing to the autonomous rules of the secular playing field.

So to read Romans 13, for example, with these social "spheres" in mind, is to read it anachronistically. We need to recapture the political and public reality that the Church alone is the fullness of him who fills all in all. We are a complete alternative society.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Same Space

I think I will post another, uh, post, in answer to my anonymous antagonist. (see comments on last post below)

The Narrative:
I do not think most Christians today appreciate the political nature of the first century church. When the authors of the New Testament used the words "ekklesia", "evangelion", "Christos", they were making highly treasonous claims against the Roman Empire, and all human governments thereafter. Christians were persecuted not because they touted a certain religion. Religions were all tolerated in the Empire. It was because they preached a King other than Caesar. King Jesus and Caesar claimed the same space.

But the two kingdoms did not operate on the same wavelength. The apostles were careful to instruct the early Christians not to rebel against Rome with the sword. They were to follow Jesus' example of submission to the authorities, for it was God who put those authorities in place. Jesus said as much to Pilate during his trial. Evil was overcome by way of the cross, in humble submission to the will of God, obeying to the point of death. "Therefore God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name...."

And here is the paradox. Rome was evil, but God ordained it and allowed it dominion for a time. He used it to punish other evildoers, particularly the Jews who were oppressing the early Christians. So it worked out for their good. Then Rome fell, and another empire arose, then another, then another. At the present time, the world appears to be under the dominion of the American/Western empire. It, too, will fall when God is finished with it.

The Present Application:
The message is still clear for Christians today- submit and wait for the Lord to recompense the enemy and deliver his people from oppression. This is our duty as citizens of his everlasting kingdom.

God has his ministers of wrath- them. And his ministers of reconciliation-us. So it's them, and its us. The two priesthoods are immiscible. That is why we should not participate in their wars, their political elections or their policing systems, and that is why I am a pacifist.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Expecto Patronum!

It appears that I, too, have been bitten by the Harry Potter craze. But gee, they're just damn good stories!
But to the point. I love this spell. It means, "I expect a protector". The charm wards off the dementors by summoning a Patronus, a spirit of protection. It only works, however, with a great amount of concentration on a happy thought.
Which is a little like faith. You see, I think one of the most obvious reasons Christians choose not to be pacifists is because they are afraid. Afraid of what humans might do. How odd, though, that they also choose to place their faith in human weapons to protect them. Why fear those who have the power only to kill the body? Should we not rather fear God, who can destroy both body and soul? And should we not rather trust him, who can restore life to both body and soul? And not only this, but can he not convert the hearts of our enemies, as he did our own?
Millions of Christians have prayed this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. I wonder how many really believe it will be answered.
"O God, from all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen."
Expecto Patronum!