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victim or perpetrator

April 26, 2012 1 comment

I realize that these quotes from Volf over the last few days have been life changing for you, but it needs to come to and end. But before we wrap things up, one last lengthy quotation on the need for repentance on the part of the victim.  That’s right, the victim. I know it seems beyond strange to suggest that victims have a need for repentance, but that is because we have a compulsive need to see everything in terms of all-or-nothing. And by “we,” I mean church people. Or maybe Americans, in general. Honestly, don’t most human beings suffer from this inability to see things in shades of gray?

A person is all good or all bad. A marriage failure is all the husband’s fault or all the wife’s fault. Problems in education are all the fault of the teachers, or the students, or their families, or the system. Someone’s view of God is either entirely orthodox or it is heretical. For whatever reason, we are drawn to the simplicity of seeing things in terms of either-or.

However, it doesn’t take much sustained reflection on our part to realize that life is more complicated than that. Children misbehave not only as a result of their own inherent sinfulness, but also because of the dysfunctionality of their family, or the pressures of their peer-group, or even as a means of exacting justice – no matter how skewed their ideas of that might be. What is true for children is true for adults, and organizations, and tribes, and countries. Despite our desire to see things in terms of absolutes, our better selves know that no one person or country can bear all the weight of this all-or-nothing way of thinking. We all behave badly for different reasons and in different ways.

I’m not sure how I got off track here. Let’s get back to the matter at hand, namely Volf on victims and perpetrators…

Jesus called to repentance not simply these who falsely pronounced sinful what was innocent and sinned against their victims, but the victims of oppression themselves. It will not do to divide Jesus’ listeners neatly into two groups and claim that for the oppressed repentance means new hope whereas for the oppressors it means radical change. Nothing suggests such a categorizing of people in Jesus’ ministry, though different people ought to repent of different kinds of sins. The truly revolutionary character of Jesus’ proclamation lies precisely in the connection between the hope he gives to the oppressed and the radical change he requires of them. Though some sins have been imputed to them, other sins of theirs were real; though they suffered at the sinful hands others, they also committed sins of their own. It is above all to them that he offers divine forgiveness.

The most seminal impact of enmity … consists in transforming the violent practices of the dominant into the dominant practices … envy and enmity keep the disprivileged and weak chained to the dominant order – even when they succeed in toppling it … repentance creates a haven of God’s new world in the midst of the old and so makes the transformation of the old possible.

Victims need to repent of the fact that all too often they mimic the behavior of the oppressors, let themselves be shaped in the mirror image of the enemy. They need to repent also of the desire to excuse their own reactive behavior either by claiming that they are not responsible for it or that such reactions are a necessary condition of liberation. Without repentance for these sins, the full human dignity of victims will not be restored and needed social change will not take place … If victims do not repent today they will become perpetrators tomorrow who, in their self-deceit, will seek to exculpate their misdeeds on account of their own victimization. (from Exclusion and Embrace, emphasis his).

So I’m pretty much done subjecting you to Volf…

For now.

idol factories

April 25, 2012 Leave a comment

I got Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace and his Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace at the same time. I chose to read Exclusion and Embrace first because it is older and from what I could tell it was his more pioneering work. However, if the decision was made based upon which book had the better cover, there would have been no contest.

Free of Charge not only has the distinction of being the more attractive of the two books, it is also shorter and easier reading in general. So if you are in any way tempted to dive into some Volf, this may be the place to start.

Here’s a little something to whet your appetite…

There is God. And there are images of God. And some people don’t see any difference between the two.

… They simply assume that who they believe God to be and who God truly is are one and the same. God is as large (or as small) as they make the Infinite One to be, and none of the beliefs they entertain about God could possibly be wrong.

But in fact, our images of God are rather different from God’s reality. We are finite beings, and God is infinitely greater than any thoughts we can contain about divine reality in our wondrous but tiny minds … When we forget that we unwittingly reduce God’s ways to our ways and God’s thoughts to our thoughts. Our hearts become factories of idols in which we fashion and refashion God to fit our needs and desires … Slowly and imperceptibly, the one true God begins acquiring the features of the gods of this world. For instance, our God simply gratifies our desires rather than reshaping them in accordance with the beauty of God’s own character. Our God then kills enemies rather than dying on their behalf as God did in Jesus Christ.

on rage and forgiveness

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Yesterday, I gave fair warning of a steady stream of Volf-isms coming your way, and I intend to deliver on that promise. I would put up a picture of the book, but the design is so awful that you are likely to dismiss it on sight. The quote comes from Exclusion and Embrace and as you might guess, it is about rage and forgiveness.

For the followers of the crucified Messiah, the main message of the imprecatory Psalms is this: rage belongs before God  … by placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice … Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion – without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.

One of the things that I’ve really appreciated about this book is its universal relevance. Whether we are talking about nations warring over centuries old ethnic and religious animosity or the fight that a husband and wife had last week, his observations hold equally true. And come on, what’s not to love about a sentence like, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.

Pure gold.

sticking it to the Man

April 23, 2012 2 comments

I recently picked up Miraslov Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. My experience of reading Volf is like taking a freezing cold shower; you don’t necessarily enjoy it, but you walk away invigorated, alert, and refreshed. And then maybe later, you admit to secretly having liked it.

Volf, a theology professor at Yale, is a native Croatian who writes truly Christian theology that addresses the complexity of contemporary political and cultural realities. What all of this mean for you, dear reader, is that you can expect to be bombarded by Volf quotes for the next few weeks.

Starting with this one. Volf never explicitly references “the Man,” but I think we all know who he is talking about.

How does the system work? Consider first what might be called the “background cacophony of evil.” It permeates institutions, communities, nations, whole epochs, and it is sustained, as Marjorie Suchocki puts it, by “a multiply nuanced and mirrored and repeated intentionality of purpose that exercises its corporate influence” (Suchocki 1995, 122). This is the low-intensity evil of the way “things work” or the way “things simply are,” the exclusionary vapors of institutional or communal cultures under which many suffer but for which no one is responsible and about which all complain but no one can target.

Happy Monday! And don’t let “the Man” get you down.

The New Conversion

April 19, 2012 Leave a comment

A few months ago, I mentioned that one of the best books I read last year was Gordon Smith’s Transforming Conversion. While the book was fairly in depth, his main idea was simple enough to grasp… we – especially those who identify in some way with evangelical Christianity in North America – should give some serious thought to what it means for a person to come to faith. The way we talk about conversion is lopsided at best, and at times can even be detrimental for a person’s spiritual development and self-understanding.

I could share various examples of what I mean, but I mainly wanted to point you to an article by Smith that recently appeared on Christianity Today’s website. It is entitled “The New Conversion,” and as you might guess it is more of the same. The benefit for you is that it is article-length versus book-length.

It [would] not be an overstatement to say that evangelicals are experiencing a “sea change”—a paradigm shift—in their understanding of conversion and redemption, a shift that includes the way in which they think about the salvation of God, the nature and mission of the church, and the character of religious experience. Although there is no one word to capture where evangelicals are going in this regard, there is a word that captures what they are leaving behind: revivalism.

Read it all HERE.

civilized vices

April 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Excerpted from “The Cross and the Cellar” by Morton T. Kelsey (as found in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter)

Let us look at some of the people who brought Jesus of Nazareth to crucifixion. They were not monsters, but ordinary men and women like you and me.

Pilate receives most of the blame for Jesus’ death, and yet Pilate didn’t want to crucify the man. Why did Pilate condemn Jesus? Because Pilate was a coward. He cared more about his comfortable position than he did about justice. He didn’t have the courage to stand for what he knew was right. It was because of this relatively small flaw in Pilate’s character that Jesus died on a cross. Whenever you and are willing to sacrifice someone else for our own benefit, whenever we don’t have the courage to stand up for what we see is right, we step into the same course that Pilate took.

And Caiaphas, was he such a monster? Far from it. He was the admired and revered religious leader of the most religious people in that ancient world. He was the High Priest. His personal habits were impeccable. He was a devout and sincerely religious man. Why did he seek to have Jesus condemned? He did it for the simple reason that he was too rigid. He thought that he had to protect God from this man, thought he had to protect the Jewish faith, and so he said: “It is good for one man to die instead of a nation being destroyed.” Caiaphas’s essential flaw was that he thought he had the whole truth. People who have fought religious wars, those who have persecuted in the name of religion, have followed in his footsteps. Those who put their creeds above mercy and kindness and love, walk there even now.

Why did Judas betray his master? He wasn’t interested in the thirty pieces of silver, at least not primarily. Judas had wanted Jesus to call upon heavenly powers, to take control of the situation and throw the Romans out of Palestine. When he failed to do this, Judas no longer wanted anything to do with him. Judas’ fault was that he couldn’t wait. When we can’t wait and want to push things through, when we think we can accomplish a noble end by human means, we are just like Judas.

Then there was the nameless carpenter who made the cross. He was a skilled workmen. He knew full well what the purpose of that cross was. If you questioned him he probably would have said: “But I am a poor man who must make a living. If other men use it for ill, is it my fault?” So say all of us who pursue jobs which add nothing to human welfare or which hurt some people. Does the work I do aid or hinder human beings? Are we cross makers for our modern world? There are many, many of them.

These were the things that crucified Jesus on Friday in Passover week A.D. 29. They were not wild viciousness or sadistic brutality or naked hate, but the civilized vices of cowardice, bigotry, impatience, timidity, falsehood, indifference – vices all of us share, the very vices which crucify human beings today.

good story, tell it again

March 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Ok, the previous two posts were more or less introductory so that I could get to what I consider to be the really interesting stuff. I’m sure you are just like me and you lie awake at night wondering “How would the Abraham stories have been received by the people as Moses was composing them?” Or maybe another way of asking it, “Why did Moses tell these stories to these people in the way that he did?”

Let’s play make believe. Pretend you are one of the Hebrews who has been freed from Egyptian captivity and now you are wandering around the Sinai Peninsula. As you are moving from place to place, Moses is writing and sharing stories of your ancestors. Among those stories, perhaps the most famous of them is Abram’s call to leave his home and follow God into a new land.

You don’t have to be the ancient equivalent of a Hebrew rocket scientist to start putting two and two together. You (and frankly all your fellow travelers) might think, “Hmmm… leave one place to follow God to another? Sounds familiar. Isn’t this exactly what we are doing right now?” Hold that thought.

Then come the promises – great nation, great blessing, great name. Let’s take them one by one.

I will make you into a great nation – Becoming a “nation” is tricky business in the Bible. It is about both having a number of people and having a land. The Hebrews may have been numerous, but they didn’t have any land that they could call their own. When we are introduced to Abraham in Genesis, he was a man without a nation. When we are introduced to not-yet-Israel in Exodus they are also nation-less. Both Abraham and Israel were on their way to becoming a nation. They were both looking for their place in the world.

I will bless you – In some ways, this is just an extension of the promise of nationhood. However, it is more than just blessing in sort of a bland generic way. When they find themselves in the land, they will have fruitful lives. Shalom (or peace… or wholeness) is what is being promised. They will have a life that radiates the goodness of being in the life giving presence of the one they know as Yahweh. Again, imagine a disenfranchised people who are discouraged and hopeless. The Abrahamic blessing is a powerful reminder that this isn’t the end of them. In fact, it is just the beginning.

I will make your name great – When I was teaching on this passage, I made the observation that this promise isn’t as much about being famous as it is about legacy. But what I didn’t get around to was discussing the importance of naming. When one “names” another in ancient cultures (and maybe to some extent today as well) it is a sign of the namer’s authority, or dominion, or ownership.

Take for example, the retelling of Adam naming animals in Genesis 2. This isn’t simply a cute scene in which he is sort of randomly passing out names. Cow, bird, iguana… The point is that through Adam’s naming, he is demonstrating dominion or rulership. Likewise, when God says that he’ll make Abram’s name “great,” that is loaded with overtones of rulership. In giving him a new name – Abraham – God is in essence saying, “You are mine. You belong to me. You have a new identity that is defined by my choosing you and naming you.”

Right about now, we (as imaginary Hebrews) are beginning to pick up on some not so subtle clues that this isn’t just a story about Abraham. Can you think of another “person” who God gave a new name? There are a few, but I’m thinking specifically about Jacob. During one episode in which Jacob and God re-enact the WWF out in the countryside, God gives him the name Israel, which means something like “wrestles or struggles with God.” Maybe not the name they would have chosen for themselves, but that’s precisely the point. They didn’t get to choose their name; God did the naming.

Once again, imagine you are “Israel,” or perhaps you are “struggling with God” out in the wilderness. As Moses is sharing these stories, they are reminded that God has named them. They belong to God. And he has made promises to Abraham, and therefore to them as well, that they will become a nation in the fullest sense. They will have a land. They will be blessed. And perhaps, most importantly they will be given a new identity by the One who names.

What God’s Chosen People are discovering as they listen to Moses retell the time-worn tales is that those stories are as much about them as they are about Abraham. It doesn’t mean that Abraham’s story isn’t true. It does mean that Moses is perhaps making a point of highlighting certain aspects of Abraham’s story to draw lines connecting Abraham’s story to theirs.

And now fast forward one-thousand years to the time shortly after the exile, and imagine how these stories might have been heard by the nation who “struggles with God” all over again. The same stories and the same promises are re-appropriated for God’s people in a new time.

Then maybe fast forward another two thousand years, and we are no longer in the realm of imagination. Our own reality is that we all too often find ourselves “struggling with God.” And like all God-wrestlers over the centuries, we too are longing for our place in the world, a desire for blessing manifested in Shalom wholeness, and a new identity given to us by the great covenant-Maker.

I think I’m about done now. There is lots that could be said about the fourth promise, “You will be a blessing … to all peoples,” but you quite simply can’t say all that there is to say.